Saturday, 28 April 2012

Elephant No. 209: Silk Fusion

A couple of months ago, one of the women in my fibre arts guild showed us a beautiful little bag made with a process called silk fusion. I had never heard of this before, but Jean assured me that it was easy.

From the tutorials I saw online, silk fusion appears to be very similar to wet felting with wool. The main difference lies in the need for a glue-like binding agent, since silk fibres don't bind to one another the way wool fibres do. The result is a sort of non-woven fabric like interfacing, albeit much prettier.

Fibre artists rarely use the resulting fabric as an art piece in and of itself. Instead, they usually seem to take the piece of silk fusion and cut it up to use in larger two-dimensional works, or form it into shapes such as boxes and pouches.

Silk fusion vessel by Suzanne Carmichael.

The process is quite straightforward, and there are a couple of good tutorials online. I used a tutorial by Sue Bleiweiss, although I had to adapt it to available materials.

Right off the bat, I didn't have the proper kind of silk. The process calls for fluffy soy or tussah silk fibres, which look like this:

Raw silk in the Suzhou No 1 Silk Mill in Suzhou, China.

I had this:

This type of silk is known as a "silk hankie"—and is essentially a stack of thin filamented silk, compressed into a square. When presented with this at one of the city's best fibre stores, I politely said that I didn't really want a silk handkerchief; I wanted a hank of raw silk. I patiently explained what I was trying to do, and received an equally patient description of how these silk hankies are used to produce silk fusion. I'm sure I must have still looked vaguely confused, because I was then assured that, if I pulled it apart, it would look just like raw silk.

Well, it sort of does. A little. Maybe if I'd carded it or something. One thing I found quite interesting is how far it stretched without actually separating from itself. I think I could have pulled this around my entire house if I'd had a mind to. Given that each hankie (and there are at least 20 of them in this thin stack) consists of one cocoon, there would be about a mile of filament in each. And silk fibre is pretty unbreakable.

This is what one silk hankie looks like when pulled apart (then pulled apart again and again):

This would work for the base, but now I had to find something to use for the elephant design. Normally it should be something as fluffy as the white silk above, but that would mean dyeing things, and I hate dyeing. Also, I couldn't dye and dry a bunch of colours in a single day, as well as make a piece of silk fusion. So I bought this:

Truth be told, I probably bought it because it was pretty, rather than practical. (It's a good thing I don't like shoe-shopping.) The person at the fibre shop said it might work, but that it wouldn't be something I could easily card to make it fluffy. I was beginning to worry about how well this little venture into silk fusion was going to go.

The other two things I needed were something called "textile medium" and some fine tulle. Certain I had tulle somewhere in the house, I concentrated on trying to find textile medium. I finally found something at a craft store with the words "textile medium" on the label, but it appeared to be a substance you use to make acrylic paint work as a fabric paint, so I had no idea if it was going to work for silk fusion.

So, to recap, the supplies I needed were:

Silk fibres—yes, but with reservations
Textile medium—yes, but with reservations
Liquid dish soap—yes

I started by following the tutorial instructions and laying out a layer of white silk fibres in a horizontal direction. Dealing with the white silk fibres was by far the most annoying part of this activity. Because the silk is essential the same as a spiderweb, it sticks to everything: itself, the tulle, and especially my slightly dry hands. I actually had to moisturize my hands twice to keep it from driving me completely crazy.

Worse still is when it sticks to itself, because the finest filament has a tendency to latch onto another fine filament, and pull it out of place. This wasn't a big deal when I was laying out white on white, but it was definitely a big deal when I was laying out colour at various stages.

The photograph below shows my first layer. I added a piece of green foam underneath so that I could get a feel for how thick a bed of silk I had. My feeling was that it should be thick enough that there was more white than green when I looked down.

I decided that it was too plain and, not knowing how opaque the silk would be with this thickness of white, I threw on a few random silk fibres. The idea was to make the background less blank. I discovered, however, that silk is not like wool. It is actually quite translucent, so the final piece ended up being a bit more "riotous" than I had expected.

After these bits of colour, I laid a vertical layer of white silk fibre. It was now more or less ready for me to add the elephant.

I started with a light hand, knowing it would be virtually impossible for me to pluck errant coloured strands off the white without surgical instruments.

It was quite fiddly to place the colour in a recognizable pattern, because the coloured fibres also snagged the white, then themselves, then the white again, pulling things all over the place. I managed to poke things back into place with a metal skewer—metal, because heaven knows what a bamboo skewer would have snagged and dragged.

When I was finished with the elephant—or, to be more precise, when I had had enough—I flung a few last bits of white over the elephant. My thinking was that the fluffy silk might bond better to itself and help the more shiny processed silk stay in place. Later I realized that it doesn't matter: the textile medium is what keeps things in place.

I now had a fluffy oblong of silk measuring nearly 2.5 cm (1 inch) in height. The next step is to saturate this blanket of fibres with a mixture of water and dish soap. The whole thing should be wet all the way through, because this helps the textile medium to bond the layers together.

After the silk was dampened enough to become somewhat translucent, I soaked up some of the excess water with a rag or paper towels so that it wasn't completely sopping wet. I was a bit concerned to see dye coming away on the paper towels, but this was just a test piece, so if the colours ran it didn't really matter.

The final step in the processing part of this activity is to paint each side with a thin layer of textile medium. Turns out this stuff is the right material to use. This means that, if you want to try this and can't find something specifically labelled "textile medium"—but you do find something that allows acrylic paint to be used as fabric paint—that will work, too. In fact, I found my textile medium hiding (literally) in the aisle that carried acrylic paint, rather than with textiles, glues or acrylic medium.

Once the textile medium has been painted on, the piece needs to dry completely. To do this, you keep it sandwiched in the tulle, because the piece is very fragile at this stage and will do weird things if you try to peel away the tulle too soon. (We won't ask how I know that.)

The sandwiched piece should then be hung up somewhere. The tutorial said it needs six to twenty-four hours to dry. I decided it could have two or three, so I hung mine outside by clipping it to a plastic coat hanger. I was careful to clip the tulle rather than the silk, so as not to mark the silk. You don't need to worry about the silk falling out of the tulle when it dries.

Once it was thoroughly dry—which took 2-1/2 hours on a breezy, sunny, but 5˚C (41˚F)  day—I carefully peeled away the tulle. You can see how the dyes ran when it was hung up to dry.

The final step involves ironing the whole thing to set the medium and make it somewhat permanent.

This took me about an hour from the time I started to the time it was ready to hang outside to dry. A lot of that time, however, was spent peeling cobwebby silk from my hands, and poking snagged fibres back into place. In the end, it's really not difficult at all. The hardest part, in fact, was finding the materials.

The final piece feels a bit like handmade paper, and some of the coloured fibres in the middle of the elephant's head aren't completely glued into the surface, but I'm not unhappy with it as a first attempt. I would probably be much bolder with colour next time, and perhaps rely less on the frustrating white silk fibre, now that I know that the medium is what really  holds it together.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Earlier this month, NASA released the image of lava flood on Mars that looked decidedly like an elephant. The photograph was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The image shows a region of Mars called the Elysium Planitia, which is the planet's youngest "flood-lava province", thought to be somewhere between two and ten million years old. Scientists aren't sure if most lava flows on Mars were deposited quickly or over a period of time, although they believe it was probably over a period of years or decades, as is the case here on Earth.

Flood lavas like this elephant, however, are deposited quickly, similar to floods of water. As Arizona planetary geologist Alfred McEwen commented, "An elephant can walk away from a slowly advancing flow front. However, there is also evidence for much more rapidly flowing lava on Mars—a true flood of lava. In this instance, maybe this elephant couldn't run away fast enough."

Elephant-shaped lava flood on Mars.
Photo: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona


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