Afraid to Dye? Jane Dunnewold Makes it Fun & Easy

I'm a California girl who has lived for several years in New England and I am now spending more and more time in Colorado. Each region has its own distinct visual appeal and the artistic possibilities of life in the Rockies definitely intrigue me. The mountains, aspen trees, wildflowers, cacti, and overall rugged scenery open up a whole new palette of colors and range of textures for art quilt inspiration.

The sunny, arid climate also presents more opportunities for surface design techniques like dyeing, discharging, and sun printing that are best done outdoors, and I can't wait to get going. One of the first things I plan to do is crack open Jane Dunnewold's new book, Art Cloth: A Guide to Surface Design for Fabrics, and play.

Although I'm fairly experienced at surface design techniques like screen printing and dyeing, Jane is an expert, and I was thrilled to find new discoveries in her latest book. At the same time, I couldn't help thinking that dye, print, and foiling wannabe artists would benefit tremendously from Jane's sage advice and down-to-earth manner. This comes as no surprise, given the success of her previous books, including Complex Cloth, her Quilting Arts Workshop video Screen Printing Sampler, and her vast teaching experience.

Still, I know many people find the various dyeing processes especially daunting, so I engaged Jane in a little convo to help you see how easy and fun it is to dye when you have the right information and an expert to guide you.

Q. I think a lot of people must look at your finished art cloth and feel somewhat intimidated by its complexity. How do you think the book will help the less experienced people who want to create art cloth?

A. A book needs to be inspiring to be worth buying. If the work pictured in the book is dull or uninteresting, what does that say about the techniques? Of course I have had lots of experience, but I am self-taught and anything I can do, a reader can do. Making beautiful cloth is actually just a series of choices, and because the choices are all laid out clearly for the reader in this book, anyone can decide to begin, and find joy and excitement very early in the process.

We all know the value of practicing. It's how we get good at anything we want to learn to do. Printing fabric isn't any different. You get better as you go along, and when you have a guide to help you begin and then to help you troubleshoot, you have a much better shot at flattening out the learning curve and finding successes more easily!

Q. Why is the layering process the best place to start?

A. It might look complicated but it is actually very logical. If you begin by reading the book and seeing how all the pieces (processes) fit together, then you can head off poor or weird choices that are frustrating. For instance, it's always a good idea to dye first and then add other printing later. If fabric is dyed after the printing is already finished, the soda ash in the dye can strip color or the surface of foil or leaf. The layered surface is a rich, beautiful surface-much riper with potential than any application used by itself. So it's worth trying, but also worth it to be familiar with the logical order–so you'll get the results you deserve!

Q. You stress safety precautions when working with these processes. Are the precautions onerous?

A. I decided a few years ago not to teach practices that were really dangerous because most people don't work in a studio that would adequately protect them from the most dangerous chemicals surface designers use (like lye, for example). Just because you can use a product doesn't mean you should. Life is more precious than any artwork technique, and I always emphasize this in my classes. So what I teach and write about is very easy to manage from a safety standpoint. All you have to do is follow the simple guidelines I suggest.

Q. You always recommend using a design wall. What do you see from across the room that you don't see looking down at your table?

A. When you are looking down at your table you are physically too close to "see" your work in progress. You can't get the BIG picture, so it's easy to miss gaps in your printed surface, imbalances or color combinations that could stand a little correcting. Hanging work up and standing back from it allows you to detach from your process and also the physical piece. If you walk away and then come back to look again, you'll have fresh eyes. That's when little bits that need correcting usually jump out. It regularly amazes me that a student will hang up work, get back from it, and have a sudden flash of realization about what's not working, or what a piece needs. But it happens all the time, so I humbly accept the reality of this. It's as true for my work as it is for that of any novice.

Q. A lot of people I know say their eyes glaze over when they see those fractions and formulas in the dye recipes. Do you have to be good at math to enjoy dyeing? 

A. That's hilarious because I am the simplest person around. I hate to measure and weigh and I am actually BAD at it. My brain is brilliant for some things, but goes blank when it comes to memorizing recipes and measurements. We all have to compensate for our weaknesses and I've done it two ways, both of which make it easy for any beginner.

First, my recipes are tried and true through experience with hundreds of workshops, and I write down the recipes that work. I am ethically opposed to what some teachers do: leaving out a step or a measurement so that a student can't ever duplicate the workshop recipes exactly. It might be the elephant in the room, but it happens!

Second, I keep it VERY simple. There are ways to get started that don't involve much measuring at all. If someone works with my recipes and then wants to become more technically engaged with the process, it's easy to go to other resources or back to my book to the more advanced layering ideas, to add to the toolbox (and the knowledge base).

Q. Now that we have the novices intrigued, what can the experienced dyer glean from this book?

A. You can know a lot about dyeing, but the brand new approach to dyeing a color wheel is worth reading and trying, if you are advanced. There are some time-tested recipes for dyeing cotton out in the world, but I see lots of people struggling with silk, and the sections on that topic will be helpful even to advanced dyers. And certainly the layering ideas and combinations are stimulating even for those with experience. I have a mix of students in every class I teach, and the advanced students always go away with new ideas about how to use the processes with which they were familiar, and even those with which they've become bored or thought were passé.

Q. It seems that with dyeing there is a fine line between being familiar with design principles and fabric/dye interactions and just playing and seeing what develops. How do you do that?

A. I do both. Play is a valuable component of making and in my mind making is Everything. But a certain frustration level rises when result after result is less than stellar. Then it's time to limit variables and try a few approaches that are consistent. As T.S. Eliot wrote:It's always about the dance. Playing, and then limiting variables back and forth. It's a sort of dance, but more satisfying than either other choice: being in rote mode all the time, or flying only by the seat of your pants.

Q. A lot of your surface design/mark-making tools are very simple. What tool could you not live without?

A. That's like trying to choose which child to keep or which kitten to adopt–that's why I have nine cats. I love them all…but you'd have to pry the silkscreen out of my hands to get me to give it up.

Q. There are so many ways you can manipulate the fabric and the design. How do you know when to stop?

A. Frankly, you have to go too far several times. For two reasons:

First, so that you can actually figure out where your baseline is…which is when you begin to develop an idea of your own aesthetic.

Second, a problem begins when work is allowed to become too precious too early! If you aren't willing to make a few mistakes along the way you'll never take your work as far as it has the potential to go. Unfortunately, we live in a world where we aren't encouraged to fail. But sometimes failing is the best lesson. Every artist fails some of the time — even Picasso failed and reworked his paintings. It's just part of the creative process.

Q. You say that you have had about 1,000 students and dedicate the book to your favorite ones. What have your students taught you?

A. Humility. And my dedication was to ALL my favorite students…hopefully implying that each student is my favorite student. To paraphrase Stephen Stills, I love the one I'm with.

That's kind of how I feel about my various hometowns–and all the different surface design techniques in Art Cloth. I highly recommend it.

Other topics you may enjoy:


Fabric Painting & Dyeing, Quilting Daily Blog

5 thoughts on “Afraid to Dye? Jane Dunnewold Makes it Fun & Easy

  1. I have to say that the most fun I've had at Quilting Arts so far–and I've had a lot of fun–is the parfait ice fabric dyeing party the QA team organized for everyone in our Sudbury office. Not only was it exciting to watch the ice-dyed fabrics