Learning to Dye at the CTC

Dye liquors

I’ve dabbled in dyeing before, but never quite like this. As part of my MPhil in Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Textile Conservation, (CTC), I learned all about dyeing support fabric along with my fellow first year students. For those of you who are not particularly familiar with textile conservation, one fairly common technique is to carefully stitch a fragile fabric to a sturdier fabric backing. This aids in display and handling, preventing further destruction and increasing visual congruity. To make support fabric less aesthetically distracting, it is common practice to dye it a sympathetic colour, although not always identical to the original in order to maintain a level of disclosure about the performed conservation work.

Who's that goof stirring the samples in the dye bath?  Dyeing evenly involves the use of additives, careful temperature control, and constant stirring and prodding.

Who’s that goof stirring the samples in the dye bath? Dyeing evenly involves the use of additives, careful temperature control, and frequent stirring and prodding.

Achieving the proper shade is part art, science, and probably alchemy. As anyone who has done much sewing or mending has probably experienced, finding an “off the rack” colour match to anything is very rare! As with painting, colours must be mixed to order, a process that can involve several different colours.

Shades of Lanaset Bordeaux B on wool delaine samples.  A higher ratio of dye to water increases the more concentrated shades.

Shades of Lanaset Bordeaux B on wool delaine samples. A higher ratio of dye to water increases the concentration of the shade.

Our assignment was an exercise in increasing complexity. First, we were to each dye 6 wool samples in increasingly dark shades of a single dye (the CTC uses Lanaset dyes on protein fibres like wool and silk). Next was to join up with a partner to create a gradient of your two dye colours on silk and nylon. Finally, we created a triangular gradient of three colours on cotton, using a dye called Novacron. This last project was as much for the CTC as our own knowledge, as the relatively new adoption of the dye means that there is a limited library of colour recipes. At the end of the week, our samples entered the recipe book to be used for future conservation work.

Tri-colour cotton dyeing with Novacron.  Samples contain between one and three colours, and will contribute to the recipe book at the CTC for future dye projects.

Tri-colour cotton dyeing with Novacron. Samples contain between one and three colours, and will contribute to the recipe book at the CTC for future dye projects.

Like many things in conservation, dyeing requires patience, attention, knowledge, and the ability to adjust when things don’t go quite right. Conservators are probably by their nature obsessive and perfectionist, but knowing that sometimes things happen outside of your control is an important lesson to remember. The most we can do when a sample comes out blotchy is to reflect on our process, and accept that we must either try again or let it be. Life lessons, really!

After all the fun, with the room full of so many delicious colour gradients, the overwhelming feeling is one of satisfaction. Even if not everything was perfect, being able to look upon so many hues, arranged in order is an incredibly soothing experience. I look forward to learning more about dyeing for conservation, as well as applying my new skills to my own personal projects.

My and my lab partner's shade samples side-by side.  We would later take a middle shade and make a gradient from orange to red.

My and my lab partner’s shade samples side-by-side. We would later take a middle shade and make a gradient from orange to red.

I have a large scarf/shawl that is just waiting for some ombre action, and I’ll be sure to draw on what I’ve learned in these two weeks.

For more information and updates from the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Textile Conservation, check out their blog! http://textileconservation.academicblogs.co.uk/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s