Once upon a time I had the strange idea that with all the fabrics in the world why would anyone need to dye their own? It almost seemed like cheating! Then on a complete whim, I went away for a week on a quilt retreat, it was all about dyeing and there you go. We didn’t cover cyanotypes but there’s something about the change from straw coloured liquid to vibrant blue fabric and the absolute magic of seeing your image and idea develop. I am sure I share a similar thrill to those early photographers who discovered this process, as I wash off the fluorescent green chemicals and see the image appear.
Cotton, linen, wool, silk, paper but we’re quilters, experiment! The fabric does need to absorb at least some of the solution into the surface, synthetics don’t always do this but I haven’t tried them, if you do, let me know your results.
I have used the leftovers from a shirt factory, gold coloured raw silk left over from my sister’s bridesmaid dress, the gold and blue mixed to a green colour and the texture created an interesting finish.
Wash the fabric first if you think that they may have any treatments on them at all that will stop the chemicals being absorbed.
The chemicals on the fabric react with light, any point where the light is blocked out stops the colour change happening and produces the image.
You need two chemicals which can be bought from specialist stores. Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Potassium Ferricyanide. They are mixed with water and a solution goes a long way!
Glass plates or other non-absorbent surface to arrange your work on. I am fortunate to have some heavy glass pieces that I can lay the fabric on and use to cover the materials to hold them in place while the image develops. This isn’t essential but you do need to be able to leave your fabric and design in the sunshine undisturbed, sometimes for several hours. Holding them down with a sheet of glass, something like an old clip frame is very handy especially if you happen to live in a windy place as I do.
Scales, gloves, mask, measure for the water, household paint brush, a couple of opaque containers and a light proof tub with lid. A dark place to leave the fabric while it dries.
The bits and pieces that you want to turn into a cyanotype image. These can include solid items, like metal bobbins and keys. These will block most of the light reaching the fabric and produce a crisp image, a clear plastic bobbin lets quite a lot of light through and the result is an ethereal suggestion of a bobbin.
I also use photocopied images from photographs that I have taken. I convert them to black and white which gives me a good idea of what the finished cyanotype will look like, before printing them onto acetate.
There are so many ideas to try out, I have only just scratched the surface!
Dissolve 20g of Ferric Ammonium Citrate in 100ml of water. In a separate container mix 10g of Potassium Ferricyanide with 100ml of water. Combine equal quantities of each in a different container, away from the light. (I follow the excellent information provided by the company I bought the ingredients off.)
The ingredients are not dangerous but they stain and might cause a reaction if you handle them unprotected. A mask when they are still in powder form and gloves through most of the process is common sense.
Paint the surface of your fabric with the solution, covering it well. I also dip the fabric into the liquid, this is helpful for larger pieces. Then leave them hanging up in the dark to dry properly. I use a cellar with a dim night light replacing the usual bulb. I have used fabric when it was still quite damp, (no patience!) this gives lighter, somewhat patchier shades of blue, different but I like it. Any remaining solution does degrade so either store the two solutions in separate opaque containers or make up only what you need.
A cautionary tale, the solution doesn’t show up if you walk in the drips made by fabric pegged up to dry but it does develop beautifully on a wool carpet!
While the fabric is drying, I plan out the design. It will have to be moved but it gives you some idea and once the fabric is out in the light you want to get the design onto it as soon as possible as the reaction begins straight away.
Place your dried fabric onto the non-absorbent surface and lay your design on top of it. Hold it all down with another glass sheet and move it carefully out into as much sunlight as you can find! The reaction is to UV light so even if it’s not sunny, it will work. It just might take longer to develop strongly. Check how it’s going occasionally by lifting and looking under one of the objects you’ve used. You can add items in or take some away at any point as the images develop, all will produce different effects. Experiment!
Once you are happy with the strength of the image. Take the fabric and wash it under the cold water tap until the water runs clear and you are confident that all the chemical has washed away. The liquid coming out is an incredible colour!
And you’re done*! The magic hasn’t quite finished because when you come back the next day to unpeg your now dried artwork, the colour will have developed further and will be a rich cyan blue!
*Well not quite…what will you make with your new fabric?