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Vintage Advice brings articles from the distant past for current consideration as we apply our design work to current performance projects.

Silk Painting for Beginners was first published in December 1997 and authored by Kathleen Gossman while she was a member of Northern Boundary Section.  Enjoy!

Silk Painting for Beginners

by Kathleen Gossman

    The costume designs for a recent production of Lysistrata for East Carolina University grew out of the illustrations for a children's book on ancient Greece. The softly blended pastel illustrations caught something that, as designer, I wished to replicate. It struck me that I might achieve that effect by painting two colors onto silk for a washed ombre effect, permitting me to achieve a duality of color within a single garment. The rest of the production team supported the idea and the shop manager, Lisa deVita, and I began to plan how to actually do what had been relatively easy to render on paper.
     Based on the look of the designs, I elected to order white silk shantung and white silk habotai from Exotic Silks in California to do all the costumes. The simple, geometric shapes permitted the essential seams to be sewn, leaving flat shapes with the edges serged or hemmed. Each garment was left at the stage that would permit it to be stretched as flat as possible onto a paint frame for dyeing. Due to size and shape limitations, sometimes we were unable to pin the garments out flat; they had to be a double layer to fit the frame. This did not prove to be a problem: the thinness of the silk permitted the dyes to penetrate both layers equally.
     Ordering the dyes was the next step in this process. Because the East Carolina University Art department teaches fabric modification techniques, the local bookstore stocked a small amount of different brands of silk paint and dye. I bought a sample of each as well as a fixative for experimentation. Then we placed an order with Dharma Trading Company for Tinfix dyes. Due to problems beyond our control, we ended up ordering colors from a printed list over the phone with a color- blind employee. Fortunately, he asked one of their staff dyer/painters to listen in and make helpful suggestions. Because we were ordering multiple shades of the colors, I wasn't worried about exact matches to the renderings-- I expected to have to blend to achieve the final colors. The order arrived within four days and most of the dyes were nearly perfect for my needs. It was time to start the actual process.
     In my reading on the subject, the process had sounded fairly simple. To my surprise, it was. I was doing this in early April, a beautiful time of year in North Carolina, so I was able to set up a work space out-of-doors. The paint frame was propped up against the wall of the building, I had a small table at hand to hold a basin of clean water and the bowls of dye and brushes and a clothesline was strung between two apple trees in bloom! The process is messy, the way I approached it, and I could not have been as free working in a clean space like the average costume shop. The paint frame in a scene shop might work, but transporting the wet, newly dyed articles to a drying line could pose problems.
     The appropriate dye was mixed with chemical water (a solution of distilled water and "stuff' the dye supplier will sell you). I also used plain distilled water and could not see a difference in the final results. Using the chemical water would be the safer way to approach the process without more experimentation. The garment was pinned to theframe with stainless steel push pins down both sides and across the top. The silk was then wetted down with clean water and thoroughly soaked. This helped the bleeding process to blend the two colors. I used a good 3" paint brush and freely dipped it in each dye color as I worked. This too helped with the blending. I worked quickly and loosely, painting the color on from top to bottom. Once the front was done, I turned the frame over and went over the back layer to be certain everything was completely covered. The largest pieces took no more than 15 to 20 minutes to do. Once the color was on to my satisfaction, an assistant and I unpinned the garment and hung it on the clothesline to dry. This procedure is messy because the garment is all wet dye. It took two people to control it. We used clean clothespins to clip it on. I also found that I needed to clip clothespins to the bottom to add enough weight to keep it hanging straight. The breeze had a tendency to wrap it up around itself-­ creating ombre patterns I had not intended. The dyed fabric took about 30 minutes to dry. The next step was steaming to set the dye permanently.
     Steaming turned out to be the trickiest part of the process for us. Our first attempt produced a chiton with major water marks, which required a replacement chiton. I strongly suggest experimenting with something other than an actual garment! We did not own, nor could we purchase a commercial steamer for this production, so we turned our steam-jacket dye vat into the steamer. Lisa purchased the largest barbecue grill that Weber makes which sat down in the vat. The water marks were the result of this grill being too close to the water. The boiling water splashed up and got the fabric wet. We solved this by placing the grill on a 12" length of ventilation pipe which had a diameter of about 8". This placed the fabric bundle far enough from splashes to prevent further water marks.
     The silk, once it was dry, was placed on a large piece of washed muslin with a 4" allowance on all sides. The silk and muslin were then rolled up loosely and folded into a relatively small package which was secured with rubber bands. The steamer was filled with about 4" of water. A large piece of tinfoil was placed over the muslin packet and then that was covered by an old bath towel to catch drips and prevent the silk/muslin from being splashed when the cover was raised. The silk/muslin was left to steam for 30 minutes. Experience has suggested that slightly longer (up to an hour) might be better for more intense dyes. Our dyes were fairly diluted. Once the steaming session was over, the packet was removed and carefully unwrapped. The folding and steaming also set in a wrinkle pattern which we needed to eliminate. We tested the colorfastness by washing the dyed and steamed garment in the washer. This not only removed the wrinkles, it proved the colorfastness and made all the costumes for the show machine washable.
     In the literature that I read, there was discussion about the colors blooming once they were steam set. Although we did not find this to be true in our process, a later experiment suggested why. We had so much fun with this experiment, and so many people were interested in trying their hand at it, that we volunteered to set up a station for children during a Departmental open house. We had over 30 children ages 5 to 15 in just under three hours paint on silk with the dyes directly from the bottle. The next day we steam-set their pieces and found that these concentrated colors were enhanced by the steaming. We also learned from their work about the use of salt to create interesting effects on the dye. While the salt created starburst patterns in the dye, it also created water marks when steam-set due to the salt's ability to draw moisture. There was nothing we could do to prevent this result.
     While this process may sound complicated or scary (my first reaction to it was that I could never learn to do it, certainly not under deadline for a show), we all learned just how easy it really is to successfully dye silk. The colors were extremely easy to control. The steaming process became very mechanical once the correct amount of water and distance from the grill were established. And there was an astonishing level of interest and amount of fun in the entire process. The best proof is that the children's work station stayed up in the shop for almost an entire extra week while we all played with the dyes and resists. This period of experimentation produced some gorgeous results, especially from students who did not feel they were particularly artistic. I strongly encourage everyone to invest a little of their time and imagination in exploring this process. I believe that anyone can do it successfully, it is economically feasible and the results produced will provide unique fabric designs which will enhance your production.