Late last year I was commissioned by a friend to make cyanotypes of an antique lace christening gown. I was very honoured to be asked to do this. It isn't something I had done before but it was an exciting prospect. The gown is over 90 years old and my friend's mother was christened in it, it consists of two layers an under petticoat and a top layer of a more lacy fabric.
As cyanotypes are made at life size I could only just fit the garment onto my largest sheet of paper 56 x 76 cm. Rinsing had to be done in the shower as it is way bigger than my largest tray. I used my UV light for the exposure and made a couple of small experimental pieces to gauge exposure time, which was 15 minutes for optimal results. I didn't have a large enough piece of glass but realised that the fabric was best left loose rather than being pressed flat which looked more artificial and crumpled.
My first attempt at the full size undergarment was quite a moving experience. As I started to rinse the chemicals away and the blue started to appear I was taken aback by how three dimensional it looked. Part of the lace hem wasn't flat on the paper and the curl gave it a sense of movement.
I made a separate cyanotype print of the top layer which has quite a lot of gathers in the fabric and it took a couple of attempts to arrange the fabric in the most pleasing way. Once again the three dimensional effect was quite breathtaking.
Finally I started to experiment with combining both layers in one image. My first experiment using both layers in one exposure didn't work.The fabric was too thick in some places and the thinner parts over exposed with a longer exposure. I changed plan and made another shorter exposure of both layers together and rinsed as usual. Once dry I coated the main central section of the dress print, which was still white, with fresh chemicals and exposed again with just the top garment in place. It took a couple of attempts to get the best result but it was worth the effort!
The finished piece has now gone to it's new home and I can finally reveal the end result in the short slideshow below. I hope you agree that it is a very beautiful image and a perfect way to preserve the memory of a very special garment and a good way for it to be on display when the original christening gown has been stored in a drawer, out of sight for may years.
If you are interested in commissioning something similar then please do contact me to discuss your requirements. It's a lovely way to preserve memories from a special day such as weddings, christenings or just a special item of clothing that you love but no longer wear.
My new collection of original cyanotype prints is launching on Saturday 20th February 2021. The project started out as a way to keep busy and making work through the winter, using vintage lace to create new images. Like a butterfly that metamorphoses throughout the different stages of it's life cycle the project has changed and grown and the ideas have been flowing.
Each tiny piece of lace has intrigued my imagination, guessing as to its origin and making up stories about who may have used or worn it and how it has been cut up, frayed and changed over time. It started me thinking on a completely different track about butterflies and how their wings become ragged as they grow older and are buffeted by the wind and pecked at by the birds. They remain beautiful despite the damage and the vintage lace retains its beauty too.
The lace has been transformed from it's original purpose into images that capture the beauty of the lace patterns and incorporate some of the frayed and torn edges. Memories of a previous life have disappeared but hints remain like a ghostly presence waiting to be remembered once again.
The new collection is divided into three different themes:
This project has certainly sparked my imagination and lead to a new found love of vintage lace. I've been adding pieces to my collection and see this as a more long term project with further developments to come in the future. Using the historic cyanotype process I have found myself reverting back to the original Prussian blue and white images of the traditional technique which captures every tiny detail of the delicate patterns in such a clean and precise manner. I hope that you will be inspired by my new collection of work and if you would like to be the first to hear when the work is available to view and purchase please do sign up for my newsletter which will provide early access to my subscribers and a discount code to use on orders over £50. The prize draw to win the print below has been made and the winner is Sharon Milliner. Entries are now closed but you can still sign up to receive my newsletters.
I mentioned to a friend that I was going to make cyanotypes with lace for a change and a few days later she arrived at the house with a bag containing some antique lace handkerchiefs, a brides veil and a baby's christening gown. She asked me to make some cyanotype prints of the items. What an exciting prospect!
I am not a sentimental person and I have no personal connection to my friend's objects but I was surprised to find myself feeling quite emotional when the first print of one of the handkerchiefs was completed. I began to think about the history of the handkerchief, Belgian linen and lace, with the words "Sovenir de Bruges" embroidered on the corner. Who might have bought it? Was it a souvenir for themselves or a gift for a loved one back at home? It's still in it's original gift box and the folds are visible in the cyanotype print. I thought about ironing them out but was afraid of damaging the handkerchief and felt that it would be removing part of it's history by doing so.
Now I have started work on the christening gown. It's so beautiful and very delicate, over 90 years old, and I am wary of exposing it to too much UV light. These will be the largest cyanotype pieces I have ever made and there are many challenges to overcome. My largest sheet of paper is 56 x 76 cm and the gown only just fits on the paper. I don't have a tray large enough to rinse paper of this size so I'm having to use the shower. The clothes airer is only just big enough for me to hang the damp prints on to dry. I love a challenge! My first attempts have been very successful and I'm very excited to show them to my friend.
This project has opened up a whole new world and my brain is now whirring with ideas and new possibilities to explore. I'll keep you posted...
I often get asked the best way to frame a cyanotype so I thought it was time to write a something down!
Original cyanotypes are created using UV light but that doesn't make them UV resistant and if they are constantly exposed to direct, bright UV light (sunlight) they will fade. I always include a note with my cyanotype prints advising my customers not to place the prints in direct sunlight for this reason. They will tolerate daylight but I definitely wouldn't hang them in a very sunny room such as a conservatory for example. It is possible that the blue of a cyanotype print can regenerate if it fades by placing the print in a dark place, such as a cupboard or drawer for example, for a few days. As long as a small amount of oxygen is present they will usually return to their original Prussian blue colour.
Cyanotypes are not recommended for rooms subject to high humidity such as kitchens and bathrooms either. The humidity can affect the paper and damage the print.
I always recommend framing cyanotypes in the traditional way with a solid frame and matted so that the print doesn't touch the glass and there is a small amount of oxygen within the frame. This helps to regenerate the print if it does fade slightly and stops the paper from being in direct contact with the glass which can cause issues if there is high humidity. There are other suitable methods such as float mounting, which is fine as long as the print doesn't come into direct contact with the glass.
Using UV resistant glass will help to prevent some fading but the glass is slightly coloured and this can affect the way the print will look behind the glass.
Storing your cyanotype
Cyanotypes kept in the right conditions can last for a hundred years or more however there are some things you need to be aware of. Cyanotype doesn't like alkaline conditions so don't store unframed cyanotypes in a cardboard box or paper file unless it is a specialist preservation box or file made using unbuffered paper or cardboard. Most paper and card is buffered, which means that calcium carbonate has been added during manufacture to make it archival. This is not good for cyanotypes! I always create my original cyanotype prints on Hahnemuhle Platinum Rag paper because it is a high quality unbuffered paper. I pack my prints in cellophane bags for shipping because I know that the cellophane will not react with the cyanotype to cause any damage during transit. Packing the prints in acid free tissue paper or compostable bags made from cornstarch can damage the prints and cause them to fade which is almost impossible to repair.
In the very worst case if a cyanotype print has faded because of being stored in an alkaline environment you can try to regenerate it by soaking it in an acid bath such as vinegar to counteract the alkalinity but this is only suggested as a last resort and isn't guaranteed to work.
I personally store my unframed prints in an old chest of drawers in loose piles. They are kept in the dark, in a dry, cool environment with plenty of oxygen which helps to keep them in perfect condition before they are framed and/or sold.
I have some of my work hung in frames on my walls at home and haven't had any issues with fading or humidity, so please don't be put off buying a cyanotype. Just make sure that they will be kept in the best conditions possible so that you will still be able to enjoy them for many years to come. After all the historic cyanotype prints created by Anna Atkins in the mid 19th century are still available in museums and galleries around the world for us to continue to enjoy today!