Tuesday, 22 July 2014

What's on my mind? Emeralds!

OK, most girls love a pretty piece of jewellery, but why are emeralds on my mind?

It started with the Fibrecircle ongoing journal challenge, Birthstones. Emerald is, of course, the birthstone for May. When we first started working on the birthstones theme this year, I found it really hard going. It isn't hard to find out information about birthstones and what people think is important about them, but I found it hard to see how that kind of information was going to inform my future artworks. Then I realised the pretty obvious thing - that nothing makes its way into what I make unless I have an emotional connection with it. Emotional links often come through stories, which I guess is another way of saying through people.

So I decided to follow what interested me about each birthstone. My interests include ancient history and archaeology. So it was a pretty small leap to start looking at the cultures who have valued each birthstone in a big way. For each birthstone, I've practised my skills by drawing my own images of cultural artefacts (you can see some of these drawings over on the Fibrecircle blog) and I've sought out stories and historical sources about people using that birthstone.

I started out thinking emerald would be the same. What culture loved emeralds? The Romans. Check out Roman artefacts, draw a picture. So far, so good.
I found my story too. Pliny the Elder, in a tone of disapproval, described Lollia Paulina, consort and third wife of the emperor Caligula of ill-repute, as, "covered with emerald and pearls interlaced and shining over her head, hair, ears, neck and fingers, the sum total amounting to the value of 40,000,000 sesterces." That's about 33,000 times the annual pay of a Roman soldier. She must have been a sight to behold! I hope she made the most of it, because she had been forced to divorce her husband to marry Caligula and then, not much later, was divorced by Caligula for failing to produce a child. She was later exiled and forced to commit suicide by his sister.

That's when it all got a bit derailed. I read about the Mons Smaragdus, the Emerald Mountain, from which all the Roman emeralds are believed to have come. Some say it's the earliest known emerald (or strictly speaking, beryl) mine, operating since 1500BCE. It's more likely that this is mixing up emeralds with amazonite, and the Mons Smaragdus was really just from some time after 400BCE. In either case, where was this fabulous mountain? Well, it was in Egypt.

That set me scratching my head. I didn't learn about this in school or university, when  studied Ancient History and I didn't remember learning about it when I studied Egyptology.  Egyptology is mostly studying Pharaonic Egypt, not Graeco-Roman Egypt. Or maybe I did and I stored it away as an interesting byway of history (which it is!). Either way, an ancient Egyptian emerald mine sounded intriguing, especially as it turned out to be located at Wadi Gamal and Wadi Sikait (Jabal Sukayt) in the eastern desert, near the Red Sea. If you take the trouble to look on Google Maps, you'll see what an isolated and unfriendly environment it is.

It turns out we know quite a lot about this area from several sources. The first is a French explorer named Frederic Cailliaud (1787-1869), who was sent out to rediscover the emerald mines by the Ottoman ruler in 1816. I found Cailliaud an interesting man, because he not only travelled widely in Egypt and the Sudan, describing what he saw, but he was interested in everything, the plants, the animals, the culture, the history, the geology. His Voyage a l'oasis de Thebes and dans les deserts situes a l'orient et l'occident de la Thebes (Travels to the oasis of Thebes and the deserts east and west of Thebes) described the mines as, "perhaps a thousand excavations" with long underground causeways, wide passageways and even stairs. He also found a village of about 500 houses, basically intact, with "stone grinding mills still waiting for grain", fragments of vases “of beautiful form” made of both bisque and glass, ancient wells with brackish water …an entire town “hitherto unknown to all voyagers, which had not been inhabited, perhaps, for 2,000 years and almost entirely standing".

For many years, Cailliaud was dismissed as a fantasist who saw what he wanted to see, as many explorer types like him did. Most subsequent visitors said the mines were just open cut scratchings in the earth, apparently without actually going inside. Then, in 1951, a survey by the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority actually went into the complex of mines. The report said, "some mines are very elementary, the galleries are narrow and torturous... other mines are nearly perfect, walls...cleanly cut, shafts and levels were systematically dug, tunnels and wide and high that it is easy to walk through...steps were carved in some inclined tunnels." So it turns out that Cailliaud wasn't such a fantasist after all.

What about the intact village? Was there such a huge village near the mines? Cailliaud drew pictures of classical temples with intact facades. Surely he made those up? Well, no, it turns out he didn't. A US-Dutch team have been excavating in the area since 2000, mostly because these days, tourists can visit the site from the Red Sea towns. Where tourists go, sadly, damage follows, and so do archaeologists. It doesn't help that this area is geologically active as well.

The team reported, "Sikait, the southernmost of the three settlements and by far the most impressive, preserves at least two identifiable rock-cut temples." One of these temples includes hieroglyphs, Greek texts and a Christian cross. They mention the existence of other rock cut structures which haven’t been investigated yet. You can see modern images of the temple and the surrounding area here and here. A lot of damage has been done over the intervening years, especially to the fa├žade, but you can see the basics of Cailliaud's illustrations are still there.  The archaeological team has built temporary pillars from local stone to support the remaining structures, but they can't replace what's been taken away by visitors.

What the team found was the remains of a huge Roman-era industrial complex over several valleys. They found wells, the walls of buildings and the foundations of many more with doors, alcoves, and pantries, a settlement of several hundred structures with a beautiful temple to an unknown god.  As well as arrowheads, coins and armour, they also found jewellery and toys, indicating that whole families lived there.

It must have been a tough place to live, though. The archaeologists reported that, in summer, there were days when their thermometer simply didn't go high enough to register the afternoon temperature and even in the winter, daytime temperatures were 90 degrees F (32 degrees C) and 30 degrees F (-1 degree C) overnight. There are traces of what were probably gardens, watered by the wells, though most food was probably brought in. And not all the miners had lovely wide galleries to work in.

So we're back to people again. I'm not quite sure how this will find its way into artworks, but I feel a sense of connection with those ancient people, the ones slaving away in the mines and the ones wearing the emeralds. We know enough about those wealthier women through mummy portraits, like this one in the British Museum, the life of Lollia Paulina and in the emerald jewellery found at Pompeii, to know that their lives could be just as tough and short too.

OK, enough now! Thanks for joining me on my emerald journey.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Storming along on the intarsia

I've almost finished the coat back now and here's how it looks:

People will certainly see me coming! But I love the way the colours do different things in the cables and the panels. It's always hard to predict how variegated yarn is going to behave. In this case, I got blocks of colour, because the number of stitches in each panel is not that large. The colours would have been a lot more dispersed and blended, if I'd been knitting right across the width with the one ball.

I really like this pattern done in several different colours too, so I may knit it again that way later on. There are some other gorgeous patterns in this book though - it's hard to know where to start.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

And now we're knitting... intarsia!

I've finished my daughter's mittens and started a new knitting project.

It's going to be a jacket called Metro from the book Swing Swagger Drape by Jane Slicer-Smith. You can see images of the coat here. The yarn is a variegated wool called Murano from Bendigo Woollen Mills.

The jacket is knitted with intarsia, so each section has a different ball of yarn. You'd think this would be incredibly fiddly. In fact, most guides say to use butterflies of yarn, so you don't get tangled. That doesn't work so well with variegated yarn, because you lose yarn colour every time you join the butterflies. And anyway, I hate fiddling around joining yarn.

Instead, I use a two-basket system. I start out with all the balls of yarn in one basket, on my left, as I'm ready to start a right-side row. I pick up the first ball, knit that section and place it in the right hand basket, with the yarn at the back, which is where it wants to be anyway. I pick up the next ball from the left, twist it round the last yarn and knit the next section. It goes into the right hand basket, in front of the last ball. As you go, the balls are basically ready for their next turn. So far, so easy.

Then comes the turn. Turning right side to wrong side is easy - all the yarns are on the right, and you turn the work so they aren't tangling. This is the easy turn.

Use the same technique as you knit the wrong side row, but each time, as you finish a section, put the ball over the needles and into the left hand basket. Take the next ball from the right and loop around the yarn you just used and knit onwards. At the end, put it over the knitting too, and so on until the end.

This bit makes your head hurt. Keep the last ball on your lap. Pick up the bottom of the knitting and upend it, keeping all the yarns on the left hand side. Now turn the work. You can see immediately which way you need to turn, because you can see the strands of yarn leading into the basket. You may need to put the last ball you used around the knitting, ready to start, but you get good at working out where it needs to be to start again on the right side row.

And if you do find you've turned the wrong way, you can always rotate the basket until you're untangled again. Now how easy is that?

The only hassle with this method is if you need to take the yarn off the needles and unravel for some reason (hey, it happens to us all!). Untangling intarsia knitting is a pain, anyway, because you have to untangle all those yarns twisted around each other at the joins. The trick with this is to take every second inside ball - the ones that have knitting on either side - and put them on your lap. You have to be careful to unravel whole rows and not accidentally go back in the wrong direction at a turn. Unravel section one, find the first inside ball and untwist it, unravel it and untwist again around the next yarn. Unravel the next section, take the second inside ball and untwist, unravel, untwist. It's way easier than untwisting each ball.

Most of all, never ever leave your knitting with a row partly knitted, stopped at a change of yarn. When you come back, it can be very hard to remember which way you were going and, unless the pattern gives you a clue, you can't tell without counting rows. Guess how I know this?

Happy knitting!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

And while I was knitting...

I whipped up these fingerless gloves for my daughter, at her request. As a writer, her hands get really cold but she can't wear gloves and type, so these are ideal.

She specified no pattern on the back, as this can be distracting when she writes, so I limited myself to a little twisted rib on the cuffs. It's pretty, I should use it more often.

Again, I'd forgotten how quick and easy they are to make. The yarn is Bendigo Woollen Mills Classic (yes, I do like that yarn, why do you ask?) 8ply, colour 658 Mallard.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

It's knitting season

The weather is cooling down and, for me, that means knitting season. I don't miss knitting during the summer months, but somehow, as soon as it gets chilly, long before I need a knitted jumper or jacket, I start browsing the knitting stash and pondering.

This year, the choice was easy. Late last winter, my husband begged me to make him a sleeveless jumper. He feels the heat in the same way that I feel the cold but even he sometimes needs an extra layer.

It was too late in the year to start, but the yarn was there ready to go and we'd already worked out a pattern.

It was really fast to knit - I probably could have done it last year! I forgot how long it takes to knit sleeves.

The basic structure is my tried-and-true Patons basic pattern from about forty-five years ago. The diamond and cable pattern is a variation on traditional ganseys worn by fishermen in northern England and Scotland. The yarn is Bendigo Woollen Mill's Classic in 5ply, colour 740 Lichen, knitted on 3mm and 3.75mm needles.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

And when I wasn't dyeing...

... I was making postcards.

I've made two postcards for swapping at Fibrecircle. I really enjoy making this postcard each month, because I usually begin with one of my paint rags. The paint rags are really one-of-a-kind pieces of cloth, mostly cotton, usually given multiple processes. That can mean dyeing, block printing, monotyping, screen printing, painting, resists, deconstructed screen printing, being used as a drop cloth or as a clean up rag. The result is usually very complex.

My first postcard this year was called Faerie: The Bonny Road, a reference to the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, about Thomas of Learmonth. Thomas met the Queen of Faerie and went with her to Faerie. She shows him the "broad road that lies across the lily land", the Path of Wickedness which leads to Hell; "the narrow road, thick beset with thorns and briars" called The Path  of Righteousness leading to heaven, "though after it but few enquire". The third road is "the bonny road that winds about the ferny brae", which they will take to Faerie.

I thought it might be interesting to share the process. I began with a not-quite-square piece of quilters' muslin. It was used as a paint rag back in 2010.

It looked a bit pale and the white was too stark, so I threw it into the wash water after a dyeing session in 2011, to add some colour.

That made it look a bit forest-like, so I filed it away with that in mind.  Then it got used as a paint rag again.

In April 2012, I grabbed it to add as a top layer on a stack of sun-painted fabrics, to hold the top layer of resists in place. I hadn't tried that sandwich method before, so it didn't occur to me that all the colour from the stack beneath would migrate into the top layer of cloth.


It was very dark and full of pigment.

I thought about screen printing over it with white Supercover, which has given me good results before. But somehow that didn't happen.

When I was looking for the basis of a postcard, it appealed to me because it had the suggestion of a forest, but the heavy pigment made it misty and vague. I imagined the road to Faerie would be not very clear to human eyes.

I cut a 7in x 5in section from the cloth, tacked it to a Timtex base and began to paint it.

I added the Timtex at this point, because I intended to add stitch, once I had shaped out the general form, but as I went along, I felt this would be too hard-edged. The painting was mostly adding dark shadows and highlights, to draw out what was already there.

This photo was partway along, when I was still shaping out what was there into a coherent landscape.

Once I had the image the way I liked it, I cut a backing fabric from another piece of cloth. I folded the edges of the front around the Timtex and folded the edges of the backing fabric in. I like to mitre the corners by folding the corners in first, ensuring the edges are at right angles, and then folding the edges into a neat mitre. I hand stitched the edges together with embroidery thread, making a delicate picot edge.
Faerie: the Bonny Road

It doesn't photograph terribly well, but it's just as I imagined it.

My second postcard was inspired by some journal work we did at Fibrecircle last year. We took turns to choose themes and one was Under the Sea. I wanted to look at unusual things under the sea, so I researched the strange creatures in the Marianas Trench and did some sketches in my journal.

On the basis of those, I wanted to create my own sea monster. I was interested in the Kraken. As a child, I was told that the sea monsters mentioned in the bible, that rise from the deep, included the Kraken. I was interested in the way ideas of the Kraken have changed. Nowadays, influenced by Hollywood, we think of the Kraken as a kind of giant squid, but originally it was a Norwegian monster that surfaced from the deep occasionally, fooling sailors into thinking it was an island. I see it as a mammoth creature with a confusing structure, so that when it comes to the surface, it's not immediately clear what it is.

I started out with a paint rag again. This piece of cloth was originally block printed with a stamp lent to me by Erica Spinks, about a decade ago. It was used as a paint rag in the intervening time. It looked a bit unfocused so, in early 2012, I started drawing black lines on it, to add pattern. It finished up looking like this:

I cut off the bottom left hand corner section, which seemed to offer possibilities for my sea monster. I painted a dark blue background because this is a creature of the depths, but you can still see traces of the original textured stamp.

I wanted my Kraken to look enough like an island to fool sailors but also to have some of the scary features of the Marianas Trench creatures; the spikes and teeth that make them look so fearsome. I'm not sure I achieved that, but I like what I did.

I cut a backing and some Timtex and trimmed the front to 6in x 4in. I layered the front, Timtex and backing and held the lot together with paperclips, which works much better than pins for these thick items.

I didn't want the edges to be too neat on this one, because the creature itself is not neat or limited too much by boundaries.  I took two textured yarns and attached them to the edges with a row of satin stitch in machine embroidery thread, and then added another round of satin stitch inside the first.
So that's it. Just a bit of fun, really!

Latest experiments

It's been a bad year for creating things so far - I'm hoping it's going to improve! Just a combination of things that have made for fewer playdays.

I have done a few things - nothing like what I wanted.

One thing I've been doing is experimenting with using resists on my newly-acquired silk painting frame. I've never tried painting on silk this way, as I love the sometimes serendipitous effects you get from less controlled ways of dyeing. But there have been times when I needed some way to control the silk, while I did various things to it.

My first attempts were just to see for myself what dye did on stretched silk. I had some concept of the likely outcomes from our Shibori and other methods, but I needed to try it myself, as a kind of base position for trying out various resists.

Here's my first scarf, in the frame:
Apologies for the angle - it's hard to photograph!

I left lots of space for the dye to wick into and used what felt like a very scant amount of dye. Even so, the pattern largely disappeared (I'm sure sager heads than mine are nodding!).
 The colours all blended together, in the way I like to exploit when dyeing out of the frame, but had hoped to avoid this way, by more judicious use of dye. I can get this effect without the bother of a frame. I see that syringes, even used gently, won't get the effect I want and I need to move to brushes. I think I'll probably also get better effects using Drimafix, so that's on the list too.

I dyed this one in stripes, which I blended across in some places, and that's been fairly effective...

... but that's mostly because I was concerned about the amount of dye and rolled another scarf onto the surface.
 This looks like nothing much in the main picture but the detail is shows these beautiful delicate patterns that I couldn't have achieved easily with my other methods.

 Then I moved on to resists. The obvious resist for this kind of dyeing is Gutta.  I had some Supergutta, a water soluble form of Gutta, and I used it to draw on a silk scarf, but that scarf is still waiting for dye to be added next time.

A while ago, I also bought a resist called Inkodye Resist. It's made from cassava root and reminds me more than anything of honey. It has the same colour and has the same habit of gluing things together and being sticky, hours after you thought you'd washed the last bit off yourself! I'd tried it before and it really doesn't like being too wet (no surprises there, it washes off in warm water, after all!).  I wondered if it would work if I used it on a frame, with a lot less dye.

I decided to use cotton, which takes dye in a very different way from silk. I used a narrow-tip bottle to draw on ivory quilters' muslin on two quarter-metre pieces and a syringe to give a thicker line on a third fat quarter. The thickness of the line wasn't significant to the outcome.

These two were drawn with the bottle.

This one was drawn with the syringe. It was much harder to maintain control with the syringe!

When the resist was dry, I added dye in different sections of the three designs, using a brush. In all cases, the resist didn't prevent the dye wicking between sections of the design.  That was disappointing, but I'd had similar results with this resist on silk out of the frame, so it wasn't surprising. It clearly isn't good for this kind of application.

I deliberately used a light coloured dye, because I had a plan B. I switched to dye thickened with DR33 and painted it in swathes across the first design, paying no attention to the lines of resist.

The application was quite thick, because I wanted to ensure good coverage, and because the thickened dye had been standing for some months and I thought the colour might not be very strong.

I painted the dye onto the second one using the lines as a guide but without trying to stay within them, but allowing the overlapping areas to blend.
I painted largely within the lines on the third one, more as a control than with any expectation of creating a fabulous piece of cloth. (Just as well!)

Here are the results.
I like this one - it worked just the way I hoped it would. Obviously, one way to use this resist is to use it to create lines and pattern, with thickened media.

I like this one too. Some areas really pop using this method of applying the colour - kind of partial colouring-in.

This isn't exactly Great Art but it shows that the resist works well to divide areas, when the medium is thickened.

So that was quite illuminating!

I had some fat quarters lying about, so I used the last of the dyes I had out to space-dye them.  It's a mix of the thickened dyes I'd used and some un-thickened dye. They're not quite this pale but again, as the thickened dye was old, there was quite a loss of intensity.

I think they're really pretty. They make me think of the skies in old paintings, so they may be the start of a Celestial Skies collection of fat quarters.

So that was a fun day's dyeing! I hope to share more of my experiments, as they happen!