Hand dyed vs commercially printed.

On the quiltart list at the moment is an ongoing discussion of the kind that flares up occasionally re the merits of using hand dyed fabrics vs. commercial fabrics in contemporary quiltamking. For some it is a black and white issue; they have been persuaded by all the hype AND the number of people hand dying their own fabrics that now that they are making/want to make contemporary quilts or art quilts, that this absolutely requires hand dyed fabric. I personally would rather make quilts, and have one or two fav. dyers whose work I love – Dijanne Cevaal (Aus) and Janet Jo Smith (USA)and I buy what grabs me from their productionto use in mine.

Nancy Crow’s teaching of intuitive designing and construction in quiltmaking over the last 16 years at least, has had an enormous influence on the rise of importance of hand dyed fabric. It has also led to the freehand cut and pieced patchwork having become something of a contemporary tradition. But it is quite clear from the prattlings of some that they have entirely missed the point of Nancy’s emphasis on hand dyed fabric: this arose out of the potential to have at hand and to reproduce exactly if necessary, an infinite range of colours to use in quilting, far beyond the capacity of any one or group of manufacturers to supply to the market. For as Nancy herself emhpasises, or did last time I took a workshop from her, she is first and foremost a colourist, and her medium happens to be quiltmaking.

Only in the last week or so I read a breathless account of someone’s experience at Quilt Surface Design Symposium. This person has clearly bitten the whole hook line and sinker; that to make contemporary art quilts she has to dye or otherwise surface decorate everything she uses, and abandon using commercially printed fabrics – her husband was protesting at the need to take over the garage as a wet area, but clearly she has plans to, and concluded that now she had to really get down to dying masses of fabric to sell to pay for the plans she has. I thought this sounded a bit sick and a bit sad – but she might just as easily have caught a dose of Religion or Amway, I guess.

I think the difference is still not understood by a good portion of the students who take classes from Nancy even today, and I am pretty sure that those who learned from her and are now teaching on what they know and have developed, are not making the distinction, either. Most students (including myself) in contemporary quiltmaking workshops are first and foremost quiltmakers not colourists, a hugely specialised field. And I do agree a that large variety of finely distinguished colours, in the hand dyed fabrics that do have that depth that the commercial manufacturers can rarely produce, adds incredible richness and depth to any colour scheme. But any fabric, no matter whether plain, subtly hand dyed or printed by machine or artisan, is in essence still only a raw material. The creative artistic part comes with what the maker does with that raw material .

So, the photo above is of “Diamantina” 1996 (photographed against a black background) a very favourite quilt I am showing to illustrate that mixing commercial with hand dyed prints is possible, in my case hugely satisfying, and is a way I have been working ever since I heard of hand dyed fabrics being used in quiltmaking – and that would be Deb Lunn’s work I came across in Colorado in 1989. In 1995 I went to Quilt National and went around that and several other concurrent exhibitions with another Aus exhibitor Judy Hooworth. Our comments and observations were based around the quality of ‘sameness’ emanating from the work of many makers using ONLY hand dyed fabric: and these same comments appeared today on the quiltart list, and IMHO still apply. Judy’s work has been included a number of times in QN and is characterised by the incredible range of prints she uses as fine strips of colour in her designs. Not unlike the incredible colour blending skill of Deidre Amsden, UK, whose stunning work has been so many times inexpertly copied and is trivialised nowadays as ‘water colour quilts’ . Posted by Picasa

7 Responses to “Hand dyed vs commercially printed.”

  1. PaMdora says:

    Yes, I think this a lot, these hand-dyed fabrics proclaim to be so individualistic, but they all look the same to me! One mottled fabric looks like another mottled fabric.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Alison, thank you for your comments. I agree 100%. I am a passionate quilter and am trying to learn more about art quilts as my abilities and tastes change. But what I love most about quilting IS the wide variety of fabric now available including prints, solids, batiks, hand-dyed, whatever, and I can’t see where one type is any better than the next. It’s the finished piece of art that really counts.

  3. Felicity says:

    It’s a sheep mentality and simoly what is ‘in fashion’ in the quilt world at the moment.

  4. Diane says:

    Alison, I appreciate your articulate discussion about this. I agree with you, that the fabrics are only “materials” and it is the use of them, and not the ingredients themselves, are what make the “art.” I am always dazzled by skillful use of commercial prints. And, like you and Pam, I see the move to “all hand-dyes, all the time” as usually fairly flat looking and (in the hands of quilters less dynamic than, say, Nancy Crow) far less interesting. Good for you for speaking up.

  5. Sybil says:

    Perhaps I have not been in quilting long enough to develop my niche or style but I love the commerical fabrics and have always been able to find what I need. I also enjoy hand dyes but will admit that it would be a cold day in hell before I spend $80 per yard (the price someone quoted on the quiltart list for their wor) for a handdye unless I was going to just frame it.

  6. Claire says:

    I have used my own hand dyed fabric from my very first quilt. Out of sheer economics. I couldn’t come at the $25-$30/m for quilt shop fabrics (here in Australia).

    I agree that hand dyed fabrics can tend to have that same mottled look, which can be a bit boring.

    I certainly appreciate the amount of skill which is required to use commercial prints. I just can’t justify having so much money tied up in a stash.

  7. diva of quilts says:

    Having only a limited amount of time and money to spend on quilting, I use a mix of fabrics in my quilts (hand-dyed, batik and commercial), and think they are better and more interesting for it.

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