I recently undertook an experimental textiles course that covered everything from natural dyes to thermoplastic manipulation. Our final assessment required that we combine two experimental techniques into one fully fashioned wearable. I had already fallen in love with dying with madder and needed another experimental technique to compliment it. A love of Vologdan lace sparked from the previous year combined with my desire to do something outside of what we had already covered in the course led me to do some serious damage to some beautiful silk...in the best way possible.
The idea: burnt lace
When I told my experimental textiles teacher I wanted to burn patterns into fabric for my final submission of 2015, lets just say her reaction was not entirely enthusiastic - another student had an unfortunate fire incident the week before involving some dry leaves, plastic piping and a microwave. But with her hesitant blessing and some overzealous reassurances given on my behalf, I started scrounging around the studio for the key to making my pyro-come-lace dreams come true.
The idea was not completely my own. Weeks earlier I had been falling down the rabbit hole that is Pinterst and was taken by Julie Krakowski's work Coffee and Cigarettes where it appears linen has been burnt through to create the beautiful lace-like patterns shown below. I had done some research in 2014 about Vologdan lace and have been attracted all things lace and lace inspired since (cue Valentino!). I loved this idea because it did not require that I master the complex craft of lace making or have access to a textile laser cutting machine.
Technique development: skewers and irons
The only tools available to me on the first day in the studio were matches, a tea candle and some bamboo skewers. The process was slow, but it worked and the results were exhilarating.
Once the initial novelty wore off, this method proved time consuming and messy, so I borrowed a friend's cheap and cheerful soldering iron. Having done some led light window work as a teenager I was hesitant because I know how powerful soldering irons can be. But in this case cheap and cheerful worked in my favour and didn't give me too much power too soon. In short, it worked a treat. With the soldering iron I could create:
- small, neat punctures
- large holes/shapes
- edging and fringing
- tracks and linear shapes by holding the iron at different angles with varying pressure and movement
I was sold. My idea was viable. The next step was getting serious about what I was going to create. Designers and design students know what that means: Mood board time!
Brief: Urban Camouflage
I had to show two experimental techniques, so I broke my mood boards down into categories under the umbrella theme assigned: Ubran Camouflage.
(The madder root dying experimental phase lasted far longer than the burn through experimental phase. It was a fun adventure, but one that is better kept to a post for another day!)
My burning experiments with flat woven wool and wool/polyester were visually stunning, however the melted polyester edges were sharp and jagged and my wool edges were frayed and didn't hold well through the dying process. I wanted to create a wearable piece so these two fibre options were out. What was left was my old love, silk.
I love silk for many reasons, but it isn't cheap. So deliberately burning holes into a couple of metres of beautiful tussah silk from Beautiful Silks was not as free flowing to begin with as it was with my samples. And even with the soldering iron, this was a sloooooow process. But anything truly beautiful takes time, right?
I was inspired by the lace-like effect of army camouflage material and wanted to stay true to the canopy-style form the idea stems from. The best design solution I came up with was a full length dress that fastened at the neck in a mosquito net or teepee-type fashion. And (shamefully) while I call myself a textile designer, I wouldn't dare pretend I can sew, so I needed to design a dress of simple construction requiring minimal sewing.
In a lovely twist of experimental fate, I found in my experimental sampling stage that I could use the side of the soldering iron to melt or fix the edges of the fabric. This added an extra textural element and use of my burning technique and removed the need for sewing the neckline, the hem or the arm holes. I also used the iron to burn a string of large holes just under the neckline to pass a length of silk through in order to gather and tie the fabric around the neck. The only sewing I had to do was straight up and down the sides!
What I learnt
"Bad" ideas are sometimes good ideas
Burning silk as a way of enhancing its visual appeal could have easily been a very bad, very messy, very hazardous idea. The success of this method across all the materials I sampled was genuinely unexpected.
Silk is strong and resilient
I burnt holes all over it and dyed it in a boiling pot for hours and it not only survived, it remained luscious and strong. I think silk gets a bad wrap for being too delicate and therefore too extravagant for many people. This kind of thinking used to be embedded in my psyche too, but the more I learn about and work with silk I discover that this just isn't the case. I assume a lot of the silk products available to us are of dramatically differing levels of quality and as a result we experience silk across a huge spectrum from delicate and high maintenance to robust and resilient. Perhaps because I spent a relatively high amount for the silk in this project and sourced it from a known purveyor of quality fabrics that it stood up so well to the punishment I gave it.
Silk is hard to photograph well
The silk I selected for this project is low lustre (low shine) compared to many of its counterparts, yet the light reflecting off its surface, whether inside or outdoors, made capturing accurate detail of the motifs, colour and overall "look" of the piece very challenging. All the silk you see in the slideshow above IS THE SAME PIECE OF SILK, but in every picture it looks a different colour. This is frustrating when you're trying to accurately show your work (but equally as wonderful because of the magic that light has on the lustre and colour of the silk)!