Posts in Working In Series
Breakdown Printing
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It may be cold and grey outside but it is artfully grey inside! I’ve spent this week breakdown printing using squeezy bottles and wooden printing blocks. All in one single colour - grey. The humble squeezy bottle is such a useful tool. I have collected a range over the years with different size nozzles so I’ve been able to play with scale when using them to draw grids on my screen. And by varying the strength of the dye I have been able to play with value. I’m slowly building a palette of printed fabrics to use together.

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This is the first time I have used wooden print blocks with breakdown printing. I’ve tried a couple of things. Using them to stamp thickened dye onto the screen is quick and easy but it doesn’t get much dye on the screen so I’m only getting 1 or 2 good prints per screen. This would be OK in the summer when you can dry screens really quickly but much slower in the winter. The other way I have used them is to embedded them into a layer of thickened dye. Sometimes on their own. And sometimes combined with a grid on the screen. This shows much more promise.

I love this stage in developing a new series of work. Playing with new ideas. Auditioning fabrics. Stitching samples. Figuring out what is missing and going back to the bench to print more fabric. Figuring out if I need to include fabrics made using other surface design techniques. Who cares if it is cold and grey outside!

And whilst I wait for screens to dry I have been adding workshop dates to my calendar. There are only 3 places left on my Breakdown Your Palette workshops in 2019 so I have just added 2 workshops in 2020. How crazy is it to be planning that far ahead! The sessions are on 18th to 22nd May 2020 and 22nd to 26th June 2020. Details can be found here.

I’ve also added new dates for my 1 day a month Introduction to Surface Design course and over the next couple of weeks will be announcing some new 5 day workshops and, very excitingly, workshops with some wonderful guest tutors. Life is good. Now back to my bench!

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Just itchin'
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I have an itch. I can feel it growing inside of me, gaining momentum. It’s at the edge of my consciousness now whatever I’m doing. It needs scratching!

Yep, all the ideas about a new series of works on the printing and publishing industry that have been brewing in my head for weeks have started to come together. This is how I work. I don’t use sketchbooks when developing new ideas but I do like to have something pinned to my design wall or sat on my desk that is always there, in the corner of my eye, as I work on other things.

I started thinking about printing and how it has, as an industry, changed and continues to change when I printed some fabrics using simple grid based breakdown screens in July. I made a small quilt called Process Colour for my stand at Festival of Quilts expecting it to be a one-off. But I don’t think it’s going to be. Actually I know it isn’t going to be. I liked how the simplicity of a grid become complex it broke down. I liked printing in only black. I cut some thin strips of the printed fabrics. There is no text but they somehow remind me of newsprint. And so my mind has continued to churn ideas around.

I thought about introducing text on top of some of the fabrics using old wooden print blocks. I wasn’t sure how but I’ve had the blocks sat next to my computer for a while now and they have been the catalyst that has caused an ‘idea’ explosion in my head. I need to get the ideas out. I need to play. I need to print!

7 days of bliss
 Assessing fabrics against Vestiges, a tiny Ruins piece, in the top right hand corner.

Assessing fabrics against Vestiges, a tiny Ruins piece, in the top right hand corner.

Maybe I am just easily pleased but the last 7 days have been wonderful! I set my teaching ‘stuff’ aside and have immersed myself completely in printing (and dyeing) fabrics for the next pieces in my Ruins series. I also took the opportunity to include a couple of lazy mornings and have ‘allowed’ myself to finish early in the evenings. Frankly I have been working long days in recent months to get the teaching / studio launched and needed a little holiday.

I also needed to get back to making art and this has been the kick start I needed. Lots of September sunshine helped dry breakdown screens quickly and meant that I could soda soak and dry fabrics easily. A couple of pieces still need to batch overnight, and I have a small mountain of fabric to rinse, but I am a very happy artist today. I have printed / dyed about 20 square metres of fabric. I may need to tweek the colour balance slightly but I have the basis for the Ruins pieces that I will be creating for my solo exhibition at next years Festival of Quilts.

Although breakdown printing is the back bone of the Ruins series I have always included other surface design techniques. My work can be quite incestuous - I take photos of breakdown screens and breakdown printed fabrics and use them to create thermofax screens which then get used to print more Ruins fabrics. Love it!

I need to get back to teaching ‘stuff’ and a building project next week but I’ll be leaving all my new fabrics pinned up on my design wall to inspire me!

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Back to work Leah!
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My focus for the last 5 months has been on teaching - developing workshops, refitting my studio and, finally and wonderfully, greeting my first groups of students. But I was an artist before I was a teacher and now I need to get back to making art.

Fortunately for me I have a great big carrot - a solo exhibition at next years Festival of Quilts. Installation will be on the 31st July. Which is 314 days away. Only 314 days away. Oh heck.

The exhibition will be titled Deconstructed and will be a continuation of my obsession with breakdown printing (also known as deconstructed printing) and industrial heritage. When I put together the proposal about a year ago I knew exactly what I wanted to do with one half of the exhibition - new pieces in my Ruins series that will reference the cotton industry once so important to Manchester (where I live). But I was, and still am, a bit more fuzzy about the other half. I haven't has much time since then to work on my ideas. That needs to change.

Over the next few weeks I will printing a whole bunch of 'ruins' fabrics. I'm hoping that this will ease me back into artist mode. 314 days and counting! oh heck!

Fully stretched
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With the Stockport exhibition opening on 26th May it has been full on production at Studio Leah this last couple of weeks. I have been finishing a collection of 10 panels, each 40cm x 100cm, and each referencing a specific coal pit from the Lancashire and Manchester coalfields. These are part of my Traces series inspired by industries and industrial structures that no longer exist; that have been wiped clean from our landscape. Each piece is finished by stretching over a deep canvas. To help achieve crisp corners I did not use any wadding. Instead I fused two layers of cotton together which gave me a good firm surface to stitch on and a fabric that did not skew and distort as I stretched it over canvas. A few people have asked how I do the stretching so here we go.

I use stretched canvases rather than stretcher bars as the canvas manufacturer has done all the hard work by stretching the canvas onto the frame. All I'm doing is wrapping my piece around it - I am not really 'stretching' the work. Looking at the above photos from top left to bottom right:

  • I prepare the canvas by adding double sided sticky tape to all four sides of the canvas and to all four edges on the back of the canvas. If I were stretching over a standard (narrow) canvas I wouldn't bother with tape on the sides.
  • I position the canvas on the back of my piece and mark around it with a pencil. I then trim my piece such that there is enough left to wrap around the edge of the canvas - in this case my canvases were 1.5 inches deep so I trimmed to give 2.5 inches all around. I also trim away part of the corner section to reduce the amount of 'bulk' at the corners. I leave about 3/8th inch of the corner - look at the photo to see. This leaves me with a 'flap' on each side.
  • I spray the front of the canvas with a little 505 basting spray and re-position on the back of my piece. The spray is just there to prevent the canvas slipping. With one long edge facing me I remove the paper strip from the double sided tape on the side of the canvas and start lifting my flap up onto it. I start from the centre and work to towards the corners. You don't need to pull hard, just enough that the piece is a snug fit to the side of the canvas. 
  • I then remove the paper strip on the back of the canvas and flip my flap over and down working from the centre out towards the corners. Again you don't need a lot of force. Once in place I finish by adding some staples. You don't need many as the tape does most of the work. I repeat this process on the other long edge.
  • This is the most important part and probably the hardest to describe! I tend to get on my knees so that the short end of the canvas is at my eye height. I remove paper strips from both the side and the back of the canvas. I turn the excess fabric (that 3/8th inch) from the side wall of the long side of the canvas around onto the side wall of the short side and stick it to the tape. As you turn this edge it naturally turns the edge of the short edge flap under. I then lift the short edge flap up and over the edge of the canvas tucking in the excess from the top of the side flap as I go. I pull the flap tight and fix in place with a couple of staples. I repeat at the other corner. I then go along the short edge lifting and sticking down the rest of the flap. I do the same for the other short edge.
  • Because fabric can fray, and because I am a neat freak I finish my canvas by adding a linen effect self adhesive tape over the fabric edges on the back of the canvas. I then sign the back of the canvas and add a business card.

I love the finished effect, particularly how the stitched lines fold around the edges. And using deep canvases meant that I could stitch the name of each piece onto the side edge. I can't wait to see all 10 hung together!

Now you see it, now you don't!
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In my last post I shared the breakdown printing technique I use to put colour and texture onto my cloth. This series of work is inspired by industrial structures that once littered our landscape but now rarely exist outside of memories and museums. Their impact on the landscape has faded; has been built over. So for my cloth, having put down a layer of colour, I now strip most of that colour back off. Here is how.

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Using a steam iron I crumple and crease my fabric. I am trying to create an uneven surface that acts as a resist to the discharge solution. I use Formosol dissolved in warm water and apply with a 'dry' brush. I don't want to flood the cloth. I leave the cloth to dry overnight then use a steam iron to activate the Formosol and remove colour. This bit is rather noxious. Ideally you should use a gas mask but I find ironing near an open door with a stiff breeze is effective. I use the iron as a tool, selectively applying heat so that I get different levels of discharge. The 'black' dye I used to print the cloth is actually a blend of a blue-black dye and a dark brown dye. When I discharge the colour strips away to leave a yellowish brown that rather looks like a nicotine stain. 

Once I'm happy with the level of discharge I wash my fabrics at 60C and they are ready to use. Or not. Sometimes I over-do the discharge process and end up with a piece of fabric that is too pale. Sometimes the colour discharges to more of a red brown. In both cases I resist the temptation to throw them in the bin. Instead I add another layer of breakdown printing and another layer of discharge. 

Now you see it ...
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Some people get nervous about sharing their process / techniques. I don't. Mostly because I use methods that do not give exact, reproducible results. Every screen I pull is different. Although years of experience do direct my work it is the serendipitous nature of breakdown printing that makes each piece of fabric unique. 

Over the last few weeks I have been printing fabrics for a series of work inspired by those industrial structures that no longer really exist - brick kilns, pit winding wheels for example. I have been printing in one colour - grey - but some of the fabrics have picked up traces of rust from some of the metal objects I use to make my screens. I start by adding a small amount of thickened dye to the back of a screen. I spread the dye using brushes, foam brushes or rollers but leave the coverage rather uneven. 

I then use my wonderful collection of 'things' to embed into the dye. I keep some screens specifically for use with metal brackets, buttons etc as over the years they have got rather rusty. 

I use different size screens but in the winter, when the screens have to dry indoors, I make sure to only use a thin layer of thickened dye and to use small screens. I would rather clean and make up more screens than pull a screen where the dye has flowed into blobs before drying. Fellow breakdown printers will know what I mean!

Once the screens are completely dry I take off the embedded objects. And yes, I wash them every time. Sometimes I print the screen as is. Other times I use torn masking tape to create wells around the screen. Using torn masking tape breaks up the edge of each print. Having pinned my white, soda soaked fabric to my print bench I print the screen using thickened paste. As I want pale, delicate marks I tend to dump out unused paste if it picks up dye from the screen and replace with fresh paste.

I aim to apply different patterns / textures across the cloth so don't have to worry about composition. Using multiple screens means that I don't get too much pattern repeat. I let the fabric become touch dry before rolling up in plastic and leaving overnight to fix the dye. The fabrics are then washed and dried ready for the next process.

Knowing when to stop.
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Earlier this month my Cloth in Common fellow artist Lisa Walton posted on Facebook that she was giving up on a piece. She wrote 'Sometimes you have to admit defeat. I’ve had an idea for a quilt in my head for months. Very different style and techniques for me. I tried and tried and tried but yesterday I gave up. It was worth a try but too far from my comfort zone'. Now Lisa is an extremely talented and experienced textile artist and, I'm guessing, had tried to work through problems with the piece before admitting defeat. But I was surprised by the percentage of people who responded with comments along the lines of 'don't give up / you can do it'. And I wondered about whether the balance of responses would be the same if Lisa worked with paint and canvas?

Is it the muddy distinction between art, craft and hobby when working with cloth and stitch that makes throwing work away an anathema to many people? I bet every quilter on the planet knows what a UFO is (and has a box full of them).

This is a discussion I've had with many friends. I found it amazingly liberating a few years ago to get rid of all the commercial fabric I knew I was never going to use, all the dust covered unfinished quilt tops and all old finished quilts, cushion covers, patchwork bags etc that I knew I was never going to show to another living soul. A lot of fabric, a few unfinished projects and a couple of finished pieces were taken by friends but the rest went in the bin. I kept and over-dyed the larger pieces of fabric to use for backing and bindings but that was it. Why - because my work has moved on. And when I work in my studio today it is always 'with intend' and never just something to fill my time.

Developing new work is not a straight path; it is trial and error and there are always casualties. Sometimes my first attempts at printing cloth are just plain ugly. They make great Facebook posts but if adding more print or discharging them doesn't recover them then they need to go. If the pieces are small they go in the bin. If not they get recycled as backings. Sometimes the samples I make don't work. Which can be frustrating if I've spent hours on them but sampling is a really important process for me. It allows me to fine tune my ideas. So no wonder that samples get thrown in the bin.

And then there are finished pieces. I like working in series because it allows me to dig deep and really develop my ideas. But the reality is that not all pieces in a series make the grade. Some pieces go wrong part way through. And some just don't have the 'wow' factor when they are finished. I have a large piece that I had been making to submit to the European Quilt Triennial that isn't working. The sample I made worked. A smaller piece I made in this new series worked. But not this one. After 50+ hours work I have admitted defeat. And used my precious studio hours on another new piece (details photographed) that is working. 

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Small Art and working in batches

Those of you that follow my blog regularly will know that I made a very definite decision several years ago to always work in series. Doing so has helped me to develop as an artist - I spend a lot of time up front working on colour and on creating a palette of cloth but once I have that palette I am free to develop my ideas as I move from one piece to the next. And for my large pieces I do tend to get one to the finishing stages before starting work on the next. Many of my pieces are three metres wide or more. I am blessed with big print benches and a big design wall but it is not really practical to try to compose two large pieces at the same time.

Some of you will also know that I have struggled to make small art .... my ideas always want to be BIG. But with two exhibitions scheduled for 2018 I knew that I needed to stop struggling and start making. Hence my 100 (week) day challenge in which I committed to spending 2 hours each week day evening working exclusively on small art. And after 70 days I can declare the challenge a success! I am now comfortable taking the ideas, colours and palettes of cloth used in my large scale pieces and working with them on a (much) smaller scale. But, just as importantly, I have really enjoyed making 'batches' of work. I am half way through stitching 18 pieces that will each be 12 x 12 inches when finished. I worked on the composition of all 18 at the same time. Each piece has to work on its own but what really excites me is seeing them layed out in a grid. The common colours and repeated use of shape is very powerful and has got me thinking about the power of repeat and how I could use it in a large scale piece. Which is a good if un unexpected bonus!