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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sylvia Riley, The Working Life Of A Textiles Artist

Sylvia Riley is a textiles artist who resides in Sydney. She was born in Switzerland, and lived in Italy but at the age of thirteen she moved to Australia. There are not many textiles artists in Australia, so to find one in your own city is a rare opportunity not to be missed. Sylvia divides her time between her family, her textiles art business, Silksational, and her masters degree at UNSW COFA. Her major work currently being produced is a combination of dyeing and painting on cotton and linen canvas. Sylvia is adept at many forms of textiles painting and was kind enough to show me through a variety of her work which includes shibori, batik, devore, felting and screen printing.

Snowgums, one of Sylvia Riley's most notable works, dye and paint on silk fabric
Whilst I was already on my path to making hand-painted pocket squares at home, Sylvia set me straight on a few points regarding this elusive art form. The first thing that Sylvia noted is that textiles art is very much affected by the choice of material you are choosing to dye and/or paint. The various weights and weaves in silk, linen, cotton or velvet mixes will greatly affect the way in which you can apply, maintain or work with fabrics. For example, the most important aspect to silk hand-painting is that the dye is always kept moist while you are working with it. When the dye dries it stops moving and is no longer able to be manipulated. It is therefore imperative that you work in either humid conditions or on cool mornings as this gives you the best chance of making sure your colours spread evenly.

Shibori, an ever increasingly popular textiles art. Similar to tie dye but different and creating a more naturally looking fabric.
Sylvia explained that one of the most important aspects of painting a painting on silk is planning your work. Because the dyes run quickly and must be applied with alacrity to prevent splotching your work, it is prudent to know what it is you are trying achieve by way of colours before you begin. Although some textiles designers keep a hair dryer next to their work to prevent running, Sylvia explains that for the best results, dye should be allowed to dry naturally to prevent the dye from being uneven.
In her own work for her masters, Sylvia has explored the realm of dye and painting on a cotton and linen canvas. Her work is combination of figurative and abstract techniques used to create a visual image which is very earthly and looks very much inspired by traditional native arts. Her work in shibori is similar, using leaves and natural flora debris to create silk satin fabrics which have earthly tones but which are bright with colour.

Tie Dying fabrics. Something which is very popular at the moment.
Apart from being a textiles artist, Sylvia is also a textiles art teacher. Whilst Sylvia teaches the various art forms of batik, hand-painting, shibori and tie-dye, it was the hand-painting I was most interested in. Here are some of the tips she gave me regarding silk painting.
1. If you are using gutta, always make sure that if you are using anything heavier than 10mm silk, you must use solvent based gutta.
2. Always apply the gutta at right angles to the silk to ensure that it penetrates to the other side.
3. Always make sure you check the gutta lines for any breaks or the dye will leak through.
4. Prepare your work thoroughly, make sure it is stretched like a drum over your frame.
5. Atmospheric conditions are important, the best times to paint is on a cool morning.
6. Depending on the thickness of your fabric, you will need to apply the dye differently, therefore, always keep a test patch of fabric next to you to familiarise yourself with the various weights of fabric. The best fabrics to paint on are the lighter weight (10mm or less) habotai and crepe satin.
7. Always use white vinegar to bring the silk back to it’s original acidic chemistry
8. When painting background solid colours, try to work the dye on two fronts to create an even colour

What Sylvia loves about textiles art is that it is full of surprises. She equates the work of hand-painting as similar to water colour paints but says that the difference is the element of surprise. She says that you never know exactly what is going to happen with the dyes or how they might move, how they might run to the shapes you create in gutta, flow along a different type of silk or how they might react to additives such as sugar and salt. The process is one which can render differing results every time you apply yourself to the same project. Even when applying products such as anti-fusant to stop the dyes from running, the process is still never the same as painting using acrylic. For these reasons, Sylvia says the art form is forever surprising her.

Whilst there are many practitioners of textiles arts in Australia, they are mostly segmented between the various art forms. There is only one industry body which represents all these forms, and that is ATASDA –the Australian Textiles And Surface Art Design Association. Textiles artists are fighting for recognition within the realm of art as many of these artists are very much removed from craft and the discipline is nearly all about thought and expression as it is about craft.

Sylvia's latest foray is into women's wear with earthy tones from local flora and fauna creating  classically unique Australian pieces for women.

Apart from selling products relating to textiles art and design, Sylvia also teaches students how to get results on fabric. Examples of works such as the one above, can be taught at Silksational. If you were going to make a foray into textiles arts, there is probably no better place in Sydney to start than Silksational.
NB: A small fact I picked up whilst talking to Sylvia and her assistance Briohny is that Australia is actually home to one of the world’s most recognised hand-weavers, Liz Williamson, who in 2007 was recognised as a ‘living treasure’ by the Object Gallery Touring Exhibition in 2007. I have a feeling this is going to be the next person I track down!

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