Saturday, 20 April 2013

Dyeing to Quilt - How it all began and my first quilt

Dyeing to Quilt – How it all began

My first career was as a musician. I had trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and then moved to Paris to study for a further year. One way or another, I got stuck there, and one year turned into ten. I then moved to Germany, having been persuaded by a very famous German flautist that there was a lack of good flute teachers there.  (There certainly was a demand for being taught by a famous name – an ‘unknown’ wasn’t quite so popular, but I did manage to get a post, earn a living and learn German into the bargain!)

One of my treats on my annual holiday home, was to stop off in London and spend a delightful afternoon browsing in one of the really big book shops. I can’t remember what book I was looking for on this occasion, but the book that caught my eye was ‘Dyeing to Quilt’ by Joyce Mori and Cynthia Myerberg. I loved the colours and was absolutely fascinated.  But I was neither a dyer nor a quilter, so there seemed little point in buying it. It went back on the shelf. The next year and a different book store, and suddenly I found myself with the same book in my hands. I remember distinctly looking at a colour gradation showing eight values of the same colour - a delicious blue ... and something in my soul stirred. I was sorely tempted, but, I persuaded myself, the book, and therefore the dyes used, were American and would not be available in the UK. ‘Dyeing to Quilt’ was again returned to its shelf.

Move on another year, another book shop and there again, staring me in the face, was the same book. This time I decided fate really wanted me to have this book, and I returned home with ‘Dyeing to Quilt’ in my bag. My fears over supply were of course unfounded – Procian MX dyes are readily available in the UK (where I had now returned to live). 

One kitchen swathed in protective black bin liners and I was on my way. I started by dyeing two colour runs. I was thrilled and enchanted by the jewel like colour of each 8” square steeping in its dye filled plastic beaker. I was disappointed and perplexed by the greyed apology of a colour that each square possessed once rinsed. The jeweled effect had certainly departed down the plug hole with the spent dye.

With the help of my book, I diagnosed the problem as a lack of urea. My step-father, a retired chemist and inveterate collector of maybe-could-be-possibly-in-the-future-be-useful stuff appeared with half a sack of urea that he had 'rescued' from a disbanded lab years previously. It had been sitting in the garage for years, had gone solid and had (don’t ask me why) got quite a lot of bits of straw in it – but it worked. My next dyeing attempt left me with a washing line full of little squares moving in incremental steps from blue to green. Over the weekend, red to yellow followed and even some experimental browns and bronzes.

Wonderful! I now possessed a collection of colours squares of cloth that delighted me – but what was I going to do with them. The obvious answer was to sew them together. I bought a basic sewing machine. Since I had squares, squares seemed like a good place to start. Much as I love colour and fabric, I am not a fan of traditional patchwork and didn’t want to follow a traditional pattern. I decided that I would chop up and reassemble the squares, making each one different. I had no plan. I just improvised each square, making it up as I did it. It became obvious to me, that each one being different was just going to look muddled, so I decided on a few patterned squares amongst solid colour – rather like bathroom tiles.  I didn’t have quite enough to make it as large as I wanted and at that stage did not have the skill to re-dye matching colours. So I bought some red and yellow fabric, put a broad band of yellow around my squares, then made a border of all the meaning bits a pieces, adding in a sort of log cabin way (although I didn’t know it then) strips of red and a final yellow to complete.

You will notice that there is no quilting. I didn’t know how to quilt, so fixed the layers together with buttons. It is quite simple, but I love this quilt. It has been used as a throw, warming my knees on cold evenings and gracing the back of the sofa the rest of the time. My cat is very fond of it too. It really need a clean, but sadly, such was my lack of experience then, that I didn’t prewash my bought fabric and I am frightened that the colours will run in my washing machine and shrink. Has anyone any experience of dry cleaning quilts and if it avoids such catastrophes? The dry-cleaners here will not guarantee.


  1. Isn´t it rather unusual to start with dying and then start sewing? Most people I know sew, piece and quilt and then start to dye. Thank you for showing your dyed experiences here. Have you ever added vinegar to your fabric? As far as I know you can fix the color with it.

  2. Yes, I'm sure it is unusual - I've not heard of anyone else falling into quilting because they need to use the material they had dyed - or dyeing just for the love of colour, with no aim in mind. But I'm very glad I did. Think what I would have missed! No, I've never added vinegar to fabric - good to learn something new.
    Hilary Florence