Cloth Is Her Canvas:
When textile artist Elin Noble puts dye and fabric together, remarkable things happen
Originally published in The New Bedford Standard-Times on November 23, 2007
New Bedford textile artist Elin Noble has always been an explorer, constantly searching to find out how and why. The overlapping colors and intricate shapes in her hand-dyed fabrics reflect years of experimenting and research into the art and science of color theory and dyeing techniques. This inherent curiosity is spiced with a keen aesthetic sense and a child-like enjoyment of tactile experience. Dyeing cloth, like her other favorite activities of cooking and gardening, allows the artist to relish the sensation of feeling her “fingers in goo.”
Ms. Noble’s ongoing appreciation for new impressions reflects the peripatetic lifestyle of her youth. Her father’s position in the Army meant the family moved every few years to various points around the world, from Germany to New York City to Okinawa to California to Washington state. Ms. Noble’s creative spirit was fostered by her mother, who encouraged her to savor the unique sights and sounds of each new location. Her mother was an accomplished seamstress who made the family of five’s wardrobes and household furnishings by hand. With loving parents and regularly changing environments to explore, it was, the artist recalls fondly, a “charmed childhood.”
When Ms. Noble was 16, her father retired from the military and the family moved to Seattle. Her main interests in high school were science and sports; she was a serious gymnast and studied classical ballet. But her artistic side was budding too; she started a small business sewing and selling stuffed animals, then worked in a fabric store and taught sewing classes. At first, her college studies at the University of Washington centered on biology, chemistry and physics. Then, in a plan to “get my humanities credits out of the way,” she signed up for three art courses one summer, in design, drawing and art history. “The three classes were magical,” she says. “They made me ponder things in a different way.” She was most excited by the similarities between her favorite aspect of biology class, examining and drawing cells under the microscope, and the experience of observing and rendering still-life forms in her art classes.
She began taking courses in the university’s interior design program, which included classes in architecture and engineering, “what goes into buildings, interior and exterior.” She also took courses in color theory, paper-making and book-binding. Finally her studies focused on textile history, textile science, and dyeing techniques, and she earned her degree in textile design. She also spent a semester in Italy, studying Roman and Etruscan art.
Ms. Noble moved to New Bedford after graduation, where she worked as a cook and repaired sails before turning to teaching. She first taught paper-making at the Fuller Museum of Art (now the Fuller Craft Museum) in Brockton, then courses in dyeing at Snow Farm in Williamsburg and the Women’s Studio Workshop in Roslendale, NY. As Ms. Noble’s technical expertise developed, her artistic expression began to blossom, and for this growth she credits the guidance of two people in particular. Her friend Barbara Goldberg, a professor of textiles at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, introduced her to shibori, a dyeing method of folding, twisting or clamping fabric, as well as to indigo dye. Ms. Noble found that the process of dyeing with indigo awakened her inner scientist. “It’s like playing with a chemistry set,” she says, noting that indigo undergoes an oxidation process as it colors the cloth, turning from mustard yellow to green before finally reaching its characteristic dark blue.
Ms. Noble also benefited from the expertise of Don Weiner of PRO Chemical and Dye in Somerset, where she purchased her dyes and supplies. Mr. Weiner, a chemist, advised her as she experimented with various mixtures and colorations. Later he hired her as the company’s lab manager, so that she could answer questions and problem-solve for his customers.
In 1998 Ms. Noble published her comprehensive book “Dyes and Paints,” which won the 1999 Independent Publishers Book Award for the Best How-To Book. In addition to documenting dye-mixing procedures and demonstrating the fold/clamp/immerse method that is the basis for Ms. Noble’s personal working process, the book illustrates such diverse patterning techniques as hand-painting, monoprinting, stamping, stenciling and marbling.
Today Ms. Noble divides her time between teaching courses and workshops nation-wide; creating and exhibiting her own work; and marketing fabric and threads that she hand-dyes for quilters, embroiderers and home-sewers. Her New Bedford studio is set up with an expansive work table, a deep sink, a washing machine and dryer, and long rows of clotheslines. Lined up along the wall are tall bolts of white fabric – silks, cottons, linens – ready to be unfurled and awakened with color. A large box holds the stacks of folded cloth that she calls her “teachers”: lengths of dyed fabric that aren’t finished pieces on their own but that offer possibilities for shape or color combinations for future projects.
One of Ms. Noble’s favorite dyeing processes is the shibori technique called itajime, which involves folding cloth into various accordion-like configurations, placing wooden blocks against the folds and holding them in place with spring clamps, immersing the cloth in a dye bath, rinsing it out, and pinning it to the clothesline to dry. The wooden forms are moved and reclamped, then the cloth is dipped into a new color. The blocks prevent the dye from reaching the cloth, so each time they are moved and the cloth is redyed, new shapes emerge. Ms. Noble repeats this process as many as 30 times on the length of fabric, until she is satisfied with the pattern she has achieved. Sometimes the cloth itself is the finished work; other times, the artist embellishes the piece with decorative stitching or quilting.
Her choice of hue for each project is often intuitive and depends on the mood she’s in or what a particular piece of fabric seems to need next. Some colorations are basic studies in tonal contrast, like the black stripes overlaid with beige strips in a recent piece that’s hanging over her work table. Others are quiet and introspective, like a dark blue piece undulating with waves of lavender and turquoise that is pinned to the wall. And some are glowing and warm, like another new piece on the studio wall, with yellow crosses floating over a burgundy field. Often Ms. Noble’s work reflects her interest in shadows and their effect on architectural spaces, perhaps a link to her college studies in interior design. “Shadows play on walls, ceilings, floors, and dance all around a room,” the artist says. “They always defy gravity.”
Another new series is a grouping of nine small images, each a single black circular shape on a white cloth background, made with the marbling technique of squeezing paint onto water and laying fabric against the wet design floating on the surface. The title of one of these pieces, “A Grain of Sand,” could be a description of the series as a whole, referring to the line in William Blake’s poem, “To see a world in a grain of sand.”
Each picture from this series captured one dollop of the black liquid as it was dispersing across the water’s surface, giving the appearance of a newly formed planet just brought into existence by a Big Bang. “These lines, dots, concentrations of ink, expansion and contraction of energy, are stories about macrocosms, microcosms and perception,” the artist says.
After more than 25 years as a fiber artist, Ms. Noble is still questioning and experimenting, still pushing the boundaries of what fabric and dye can say together. The untested possibilities of the process are what continue to intrigue her. “The fabric has a life of its own,” she says. “You have to let it be what it’s going to be.”