Textile star explains craft from ground up

02/08/2014 12:00 AM

02/07/2014 6:49 PM

Ancient arts drew John Marshall as a teen to Tokyo, half a world away from home. In Japan, the Florin native learned traditional textile techniques perfected over centuries. He studied the secrets of making pigments and using stencils to create one-of-a-kind fabrics.

For more than 40 years, he perfected his craft. He not only colors his fabric with natural dyes he made, but sews the final garments, fitting the prints together into flowing scenes or narratives. His wearable canvases are intricately patterned silk robes and kimonos, treasured by collectors on both sides of the Pacific.

As a textile artist, Marshall returned to Sacramento with a new appreciation of his native soil. This dirt contains a rainbow of hues. Unlocking this natural palette is a skill he’s happy to share.

“I’m having so much fun,” Marshall said as he demonstrated brush strokes during a recent Sacramento workshop. “Once I get started, it’s hard to put it down.”

Marshall specializes in Katazome – Japanese “stencil dye.” It will be one of the many textile arts featured this weekend at the Sacramento Weavers and Spinners Guild annual open house at the Shepard Garden and Arts Center. Among hundreds of handmade textiles, Katazome pieces created by local artists will be part of the two-day showcase.

Similar to batik, Katazome uses stencils. Instead of wax, rice flour paste is used to stamp a pattern on fabric that is then painted or immersed in dye. The paste lines resist the dye. When washed, the rice paste dissolves, leaving clean outlines.

Several guild members participated in Marshall’s recent Sacramento workshop. A common stencil of flowers and squares of silk became a garden of delights; no two projects turned out the same. Some will be on display this weekend.

“I’ve enjoyed seeing how different everybody visualizes things,” said Stephanie Clar, a guild member. “John is just incredible. To be able to spend a couple of days with him is fantastic. It opened my eyes to all the potential of everyday things and using them in different ways.”

Like watercolors, the dyes can be painted onto the fabric. Outside the clinic, the students waved their work to speed drying.

“I’ve done a lot of different workshops, but I never did this method before,” added Deborah Derov. “You can do things with this that you can’t do with other techniques.”

To the workshop, guild member Anni Redding brought dirt gathered roadside off Highway 193 near her Sierra home in Greenwood. She used that copper-toned soil to dye her chrysanthemum pattern.

“I usually do immersion dyes,” Redding said. “Using pigments is a bit different. It’s very fast to create something finished.”

Marshall uses all natural pigments that he refines or distills himself. “You don’t need anything exotic,” he said. “I picked up this red (pigment) on the side of the road near Willits.”

Many of his favorite colors come literally from his native soil.

“I get a lot of my pigments from soil in the Central Valley,” he said. “There are lots of red clays, many shades of gray or brown. When someone is digging out a swimming pool (in Sacramento), get a bucket; you’ll find this wonderful yellow dirt.”

This ochre dust gives new meaning to Sacramento gold.

Just in case, Marshall carries a 5-gallon bucket and shovel in his car trunk. “On a cross-country trip, if you see a mudslide – stop!” he said. “There’s a lot of great dirt out there.”

Painting cloth with pigments has advantages over immersion or “juice” dying, the method used for traditional European textiles. There’s no boiling water. When added to a binder, the pigments dye on contact; there’s no long stand time for the dye to penetrate the fibers. Instead, the binder “glues” the color to the cloth. And the colors stay true.

“The color you see is exactly what you wind up with,” Marshall said.

To make an earth-based pigment, Marshall mixes soil with water to form a slurry. “Leaves and bugs float to the surface; rocks and horseshoes fall to the bottom. It’s that middle layer that you want.” After a few siftings to remove gravel and debris, the clay silt clouds the remaining water like strong red tea. One more pass through a paper coffee filter reveals the rich red powder.

“Feel your pigment,” he added, rubbing the dust between thumb and forefinger. “If it’s sandy; your fabric will feel gritty. You want it cornstarch smooth; that’s what you need for silk.”

He swirled a spoonful of pigment into a small dish of soy milk, which acts as a natural binder. Without the binder, the clay pigment won’t stick to the cloth.

“You’re painting with mud,” Marshall said. “It’s counterintuitive, but you can still retain the hand (of brush strokes) on silk. The final product is nice and soft.”

Besides more common soils, other minerals become colorful dyes in Marshall’s paintbox. Malachite offers its distinctive dark green. Mica glitters like powdered gold.

In addition to earth pigments, Marshall uses a full spectrum of plant- (and bug-) based dyes. At his home in Mendocino County, he grows his own indigo, source of soft purples and blues. Cochineal beetles provide vivid red accents.

As a teen, Marshall was inspired by a teacher and her collection of Japanese dolls. “I originally went to Tokyo (at 17) to study doll making,” said Marshall, now 59. “After five years, I realized I could never make a living making dolls, so I concentrated on textiles.”

To inspire his students, Marshall brought some of his finished robes, which sell for $900 to $12,000. Each a unique artwork, the silk garments take three months to five years to complete. (See more at www.johnmarshall.to.)

“I have thousands of stencils, all hand-carved,” he said. “I can mix and match them in infinite ways.”

Marshall adds a quirky sense of humor to his garments. For example, delicate white feathers float over a sea of lavender hydrangeas penetrated by a single wing accented by a shimmering gold halo. “That’s my fallen angel,” he said with a smile.

Marshall’s lesson in natural dyes gave his textile students new perspective.

“You can go into your own backyard and try all these things,” Clar said. “It makes me want to go home and dig.”

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