ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Still Dyeing After All These Years

A lot of dyeing took place in my house this past week! During that time I also took a meander down memory lane, thinking about how much I still love dyeing fabric, even after at least 12 years. There is always something new to discover. I remember local dyer, Hilary Perrott, who sold her fabrics through her company, "Fabricadabric". I met Hilary when I was a member of the Out of the Box Fibre Artists group here in Ottawa. She volunteered to do a program about dyeing one evening. She brought books and samples, and inspired me a great deal. At the same time, I had started to see hand-dyed fabrics for sale in various places and had begun to collect them. By the way, this is a piece of Hilary's hand-dyed fabric. We all have our own style, and hers was to pour the dye in bands of colour.

After Hilary's talk I went home and ordered the following book and a bunch of dyes from G&S Dyes in Toronto. Yes, the book was fairly simple, and I tried many of the recipes, but I don't use this method anymore. While I never witnessed Hilary's dyeing methods or saw her recipes, she was very generous in sharing her source for the cotton I still use, and information about a variety of things, like buying soda ash from a swimming pool store. She moved to the west coast shortly after that talk at Out of the Box, and after a while we lost touch.

I confess that I found dyeing confusing at first. I never knew if I was doing things "right". But the marvelous thing about fabric dyeing is that there is no "right" way. Not unless you have to reproduce colour exactly again and again. As long as you add your soda ash you will get dyed fabric. Everything else you might do will change you results just a wee bit. "Dyeing to Quilt" was another book that I remember trying recipes from. As I recall, the method does not use urea, whereas the process I adopted over time makes use of urea.

Somewhere around my first or second year of dyeing, I found myself in a couple of classes in the Textiles program at St. Lawrence College in Brockville. We had a day of dyeing in two of these classes. I remember walking in wearing my hand-dyed T-shirts (in those days nothing white was safe near me!). The instructor, Bethany Garner, mixed the dyes for us and shared a few recipes. 

I also spent a fair amount of time with Ann Johnston's book, but found it confusing because she works with dye concentrates.  That means she mixes up very concentrated concoctions of dyes and then waters them down as necessary. I always preferred to mix exactly what I wanted when I wanted it, but I do love her free-form methods.

In 2003 I went to Quilting by the Lake to take a class on thread dyeing with Elin Noble. The most important information I took away from that class was the knowledge that thread and fabric must be washed in a temperature of at least 140 degrees fahenheit, in order to be colour fast. The rest of the class was trying her thread-dyeing techniques. Elin is a scientist, who worked at Prochemical and Dyes, for a good part of her life, so she knows the science and chemistry behind dyeing. That is why I trust and love hr book, "Dyes and Paints".

I still dye threads today. In fact a number of people are teaching thread dyeing now, including me. There was also an article in the most recent issue of Quilting Arts Magazine by Carol Soderlund and Melanie Testa. I do some things differently than Elin, just simply because we all have our own ways of working that we are comfortable with. I also have a very different colour palette than she does.

I would say that since about 2004 I have not spent much time looking at dyeing books, nor have I taken any classes. I did register for an on-line class but never followed the lessons past the first or second one. My dyeing life has been a process of developing my own methods and my own palette of colours. I'm probably far too set in my ways now to follow someone else's methods. I would say that my hand-dyes are known for the use of multiple saturated colours on one piece of fabric. I am not saying that no one else does this, but it is definitely a characteristic of what I do. It is something I developed on my own and now share in my class "Dye Another Day".  In that class I walk you through the ways I use colours.

Here's an example of one of my multi-coloured fabrics. M-R Charbonneau won this piece in a blog give-away a couple of years ago.

I am also known for my Textile Temptations packs (that include velvet, cotton, silk dupioni, silk organza and cheesecloth). I am not saying that no one else dyes these fabrics, but that I am known for selling these colour-themed packs. This is also something I share in "Dye Another Day" (by the way, that class is running at Textile Traditions of Almonte on November 1).

I've certainly dyed my share of green fabrics. My work has often been very monochromatic over the last number of years. I do a wide variety of colours for sale, but a lot of what I've dyed for me has been in greens.

One of the things that interests me is moving into making art works that are strictly (or almost) about colour. I've also been studying colour for a very long time, reading just about every book I can get my hands on. Taking a colour class this past summer, with painter Al van Mil, at the Haliburton School of the Arts has inspired my desire to do something new. I want to dye a palette of tints (OK, yes, I've dyed a lot of tints over the years!), tones and shades of a variety of colours, as well as neutrals. I want to make colour sing.

So my first task was to come up with a neutral black. Everything you will see in the rest of this post is the very same theory you would encounter if you were learning how to paint (which, by the way, is great training for dyeing). When it comes to dyes, black dyes tend to have an undertone of blue or green, or some other colour. Based on Ann Johnston's advice of mixing navy and orange, I decided to add orange to my blue-black to tone down the blue. The opposite of blue is orange, so a bit of orange should neutralize that blue. It is a matter of finding out the right amount of orange. It took a few tries to get what I thought was a neutral black, and then I tested it by dyeing a gradation. It is in the lighter values where you will see the undertones show up if they are there. Funny thing is that I found the paler values looked a bit purple while I was washing them out, but now that they are dried and ironed, they seem quite neutral. The real test will come when I try adding black to various colours to get shades of those colours, and grey to get tones.

Then I took complementary (opposite) colours and mixed them in varying amounts to get progressively earthier and earthier. I now have a lovely range of neutrals. We are looking at simultaneous contrast right here. The most saturated step in each colour sings against the earthier and darker versions of that colour. This is the full palette I've dyed so far.

These photos just show half of the pile a bit closer up.


Sitting here looking at these stacks of colour make me feel very rich indeed :-) It takes me right back to the day I bought a stack of hand-dyed fabrics for the first time. 

 I still have the tints, tones and shades to dye, but that will have to wait until my schedule clears again. Who knows if my interest in doing colour works will persist until the palette I want to dye is finished (it could go on a very long time if I keep adding colours), or whether I am enjoying dyeing more than actually making something with the hand-dyed palette. Time will tell!


  1. Your fabrics are stunning! I enjoy the pieces I bought from you for the sheer pleasure of possessing them, like one might feel about a beautiful porcelain bowl. Can't wait to see your new art quilts with the black and greys.

    1. Thank you Suzanna. I can't wait to see my new work either ... not sure when it will get made :-))

  2. REALLY great post Elaine! I LOVE the greys you got.hat is a glorious runn. Well done.

  3. The Joyce Mori book was the first dyeing book I bought--at a quilt guild sale for about $2. It was a great start for learning to dye. I love how you did your complementary colors, and your neutrals are fantastic. When you dye your own fabrics, you aren't afraid to use them because you can always make more, what could be better than that?

    1. Joyce Mori's book is a great place to start Laura. Exactly, why not use them ... one can always make more, even though they might not be exactly the same. In fact they might be better!

  4. Good morning Elaine, what a lovely post to start the day with. I have been dyeing for years, and I'm still learning the process. I like that also. So I never get bored. Thank you for sharing.


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