As an artist who uses cloth I am very interested in how it is used in the landscape that I am trying to evoke. I take great inspiration from sails and tarpaulins that can be found everywhere here on the coast and recently I have been researching traditional ways of preserving and waterproofing them.
Nowadays, sails are made from highly technical synthetic materials that won’t shrink, rot or stretch out of shape when battered by the wind and weather. But before these fabrics were in common use, sails were made of canvas and linen – fabrics that will degenerate quickly if they are not treated with a preservative. I often use canvas and linen in my work and so it is appropriate to look at traditional ways of preserving these types of cloth.
There are several traditional ways that sailors and fishermen would preserve sails, ropes and nets. Tanning or barking is a process of boiling sailcloth in a solution of cutch, an extract of the plant Acacia Catechu that is very high in natural tannins. This process turns the sail a reddish/brown and gives protection from the elements, but the sail remains absorbent and becomes heavy in wet weather.
I find the process of ‘dressing’ sails with linseed oil, wax and ochre more intriguing. The mixture is spread on both sides of the sail and penetrates the cloth to create a barrier that protects it from the wet. Despite the fear that the linseed oil coated cloth would spontaneously combust (!), I have made some samples and hung them up in a well ventilated room to dry.
Since using chalk that I had collected, hand ground and turned into distemper in a recent piece of work, I have been keen to use other natural materials collected from the environment. I thought that I could easily replace ochre in the dressing mixture with another material and for the past couple of weeks I have been looking for a substitute on my walks along the beach. Red clay from Cley beach and sea-coal from the East Hills in Wells have proved to be worthy alternatives.
When I first made these samples I was disappointed. I thought they looked like dirty scraps of cloth with no aesthetic appeal. However, I looked at them again a couple of days ago and the drying process has greatly improved their appearance and touch and I think there could be some potential.
Now the linseed oil is less sticky and smelly, the yellow/brown oil, wax, and coarsely ground red clay turns the cloth a wonderful, translucent terracotta and similarly coarse-ground sea-coal gives texture. I’ve also mixed some of my previously ground chalk with oil and wax and the mixture gives a dense, creamy coating that gently cracks when manipulated.
These are my first experimental samples. They need a lot of refining and I should spend longer processing the clay and sea-coal and trying out different proportions of oil and wax. But I have ideas …… I’ll keep you updated!