Selecting fabric to create art

I started doing batiks over twenty-five years ago. Back then I used cotton and muslin as they were inexpensive, accepted basic dyes well and I could experiment without feeling I had to keep every piece I created.

As I progressed in the craft I started to experiment with Procion dyes which are a powdered, fiber-reactive dye. This transition led me to start batiking on rayon. I found that the color was brighter on rayon and the fabric itself was more flexible than the cotton and muslin I had been using. With rayon it was easier to draw the design onto the fabric and to adjust the dye color. It also absorbs wax better as part of its flexibility. When I found some silk that I liked to work with, it overrode using rayon.

Now I prefer silk as my go-to fabric of choice. It takes wax and dye well and holds colors beautifully. The colors are so much more vibrant on silk than on other fabrics. I learned, however, that it has to be heavy in weight. When I say that, understand that silk comes in many thicknesses other than what we commonly think of as “silky”. All silk is measured in thicknesses known as momme–pronounced mummy. (I sometimes wonder if that term is a throwback to when batiks were used in Ancient Egypt to wrap mummies.)

Silk with a thickness of at least 12 momme or thicker are the workhorses in my stable. They are much stronger than silks used in scarves. I had tried thin pieces of silk such as the thickness found in handkerchiefs, but found that with the details that I had to draw, the fabric was squirrelly. It moved too much and my designs would get distorted. So now I tend to stick with the nice and sturdy silks.

silk samples

Some of the many different kinds of silk available

That being said, I have a whole stack of different pieces of fabric. I try to match the pieces to the project I am working on. If the usual silk doesn’t work, then I buy new material. I let the project talk to me about its needs.

I do like to experiment with different materials often as it helps to keep me more creative. At the moment I am working on paintings using store dyed black cotton. The cotton will be waxed over the areas that will remain black and I will use diluted bleach to removed the color before I re-dye the areas that I want to change. One of my fellow batik artists calls it “deviant discharge batik”. I can’t wait to see how it goes.

When I do buy my silk commercially, I tend to shop with the Dharma Trading Company or Thai Silks as they both have great stock. But I always suggest that batik artists keep their eyes open for creative fabric finds. About ten years ago I went to a yard sale in Naples (I’m such a junkie for yard sales) and purchased a wonderful bolt of upholstery grade white silk. When I worked on it, the fabric was stiff enough that it did not move. I ended up creating over 15 paintings from it, all of good size. That was a great find.

When I visit Indonesia and Myanmar next month, I will be on the lookout for more beautiful silks to add to my stable of fabrics.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,