Monday, June 16, 2014

Dorothy Caldwell Extravaganza 1

My local fiber and textile art group tries to have an internationally famous teacher come in for workshops every couple of years, and this year we were fortunate to have Dorothy Caldwell with us for a week.  She taught two different workshops and gave a lecture, leaving us all in awe of her beautiful art and energized with lots of new ideas for our own work.

It's going to take me a few days to decompress and digest everything she told us, but to whet your appetite for posts to come, I'll tell you about a tiny skill she taught us, which made me so happy.

It's making string, a skill Dorothy learned from India Flint, who in turn learned it from the aboriginal women in Australia.  They would make their string from plant fibers, mostly thin strips cut from pandanus leaves.  Dorothy likes to use silk or organdy.

Cut or tear your fiber of choice into strips about a quarter-inch wide.  Hold two strips together in your left hand (if you're a rightie) with a half-inch or so clasped between your thumb and finger, and the length of the strips extending off toward your right hand.

Grab one of the strips with your right hand and twist it away from you by rolling it between thumb and forefinger.  (Thumb moves up from the tip of your forefinger to about the first knuckle, as seen in the photo.)  Let's call this the twisted strip.

Now grab the other strip -- let's call it the bottom strip -- between the second and ring fingers of your right hand and hold it taut.

Wrap the twisted strip down in front of the bottom strip so it makes a neat little roll tight up against your left thumb.  Grab it between the second and ring fingers, or let go if you're having a hard time hanging onto two strips at once.  Now this will be your bottom strip, and the formerly bottom strip will be ready to roll between thumb and forefinger.

Get into a rhythm -- twist, wrap down in front, switch your grip, twist, wrap down in front, switch your grip.  Continue till you have made a nice long string.  When you get to the end of the strip, you can hold a new strip down overlapping the old one and twist them together, either tucking the ends neatly inside your roll or letting them stick out from the string like little flags.

So each strip is separately twisted away from you, but the two strips together are wrapped/twisted toward you.  The opposition of the two twists is what holds the string together.  You could achieve the same thing by twisting a string a bazillion times with an eggbeater, then grabbing it at the midpoint and letting it twist back on itself, but this method requires no tools and can be done as you watch TV, ride in the car, listen to a lecture or wait for paint to dry.

If you wet the strips before you twist and wrap, the string will be much neater and tighter.

For a final touch, when Dorothy was in Australia she would rub some of the ocher earth into the wet strips as she made the string, so it ended up with rich colors.  Unless you love the color of mud, that approach isn't going to work in Kentucky.  But we did make beautiful two-color strings with leftovers from hand-dyed silk contributed by a workshop participant.


  1. Interesting...I must reread....thanks for posting

  2. Very nice task analysis - thorough, easy to comprehend. A big, fat gold star to you. Did you make the 2-color string? It's quite fetching. I'm thinking about making strings then using them to "outline" some of Nancy's drawings. Maybe to touch them down. Maybe to do a rubbing. Sure did enjoy meeting you in person and being with y'all. I'm still enjoying the afterglow.

  3. I made both the strings -- I too have been thinking of how to incorporate them into my work -- they make such a nice strong line. quite time-consuming but totally mindless and satisfying.

  4. Just tried your instructions, well done for explaining it so well. Thank you