“If you're too open-minded, your brains will fall out.”
I'm not an early adopter. It's not my personality to grab the latest technology or technique, and by the time I'm ready to try something new I'm racing to catch up with everybody else who's been using it for years. I used to think this meant I was a weenie, too scared to take risks, too set in old ways of doing things like drawing with actual pencils and writing letters on actual paper. But I'm easier on myself now and realize I'm less "weenie" and more "suspicious-questioning observer." When I'm not absorbed in my own mire, I've got one eye on the work in front of me and one eye on what everyone else is doing.
Or has done.
So here's the thing I'm questioning in my studio practice lately: glue.
(I know. That's really boring and I'm sure if you give me 20 seconds I'll come up with another mind-blowing concern equally important to humanity. You can totally stop reading now if you want to get back to blogs about world peace and sustainable living and global warming and I'll catch up to you eventually. I'll be a little sweaty and disheveled when I arrive, but don't call me a weenie because I care about those things, too).
But, the glue.
And the fusibles.
All the sticky stuff -- temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent (or the temporary that inadvertently becomes permanent and visa versa). I'm wondering about its longevity and I'm wondering how often I re-e-e-ally need to use it. And while there's a time and place for these wondrous affixers of textiles -- allowing for accessible community art projects, say, or for proper tailoring, obviously, or doing things like this -- I am constantly looking for the work-around in my own art.
I use a number of other stabilizing and affixing techniques, many learned from years making wedding gowns, just so I can bypass the glue. Did we use fusible interfacing in the atelier? Yes. Did we use fusible webbing? No. Did we have commercial equipment to affix the high-quality, supple interfacing we did use? Yes. Did it sometimes kill the fabric? Yes. So we often chose to interline delicate materials with other, equally expensive and equally delicate materials, supporting these fabrics using old techniques.
Remember the science of chemical reactions? Acids? Off gassing? Deterioration? I know, I sometimes forget about it too, and I even went to school for this about a million years ago, but until you work with old textiles every day, it's easy to forget the effects of age -- the yellowing and disintegration caused by light, moisture, time, untreated food stains, body oil, acid and glues. Some of it doesn't even emerge for decades.
I've picked at ancient Pellon, crusty masking tape, brittle white glue, flaking bits of who-knows-what and while all of it is slightly different and the removal is met with varying levels of success, one thing remains the same: the makers all did this with the best of intentions.
Maybe they thought they were increasing longevity or enhancing the finished quality of their work. Perhaps they were following manufacturer's instructions. Maybe they were just taking a short cut to be done with this damned thing already. I can understand and have experienced all of this, too. And, of course, the glue-like products are better now.
So my suspicious questioning of glue leads to a bigger picture: here's where we need to ask questions in our studio art practice and make sure we aren't bounding towards some technique because everyone else is using it or someone is marketing it to us. Make sure the product and its subsequent use are really part of what makes a medium your medium.
I found a long-term study on the effects of light and aging from the textile department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It's a good read and looks at various products on the market. There are some answers here, but no one knows with certainty what will happen with these products in a century.
I also recommend you seek out and find a textile conservator at your local museum if you're so lucky to have one. Take him or her out to lunch. Ask a lot of questions. You'll get a straight answer about what it takes to create textile work that will still be around in 100 + years, because likely this person has seen it all and can tell you what not to do. I did just this (the lunching). I'm going to do it again, too, because I still have more questions and I happen to like the person who is the textile conservator at my local museum. I also like going out to lunch.
Now. Am I an expert? No. Am I doing everything right with the way I'm handling my work? No.
But I'm trying really hard, and I know you are too.
Fabrics live and breathe. They also die. They need to move and settle into new environments. If you suffocate a fabric in an attempt to create something that is stiff and hangs on the wall like a board, maybe you need to question why. Maybe you need to be suspicious of yourself and your choice of materials. Ask why you would chemically stiffen fabric when maybe you should be working with paper or or wood or metal.
It's just a question.
I'm all for pushing boundaries and materials -- this is where the work is most alive for me -- and I make a lot of mistakes. I've ruined things and felt really sad about it. I've also done stupid shit like grind away at rusted metal using a wire brush and a Dremmel at the kitchen counter wearing eye protection, a face mask, an apron and -- get this -- a cashmere sweater. Yes, that idiot was me. I am still picking hair-fine wires out of that sweater and spent a week pulling them out of my family's feet with tweezers. It's kind of like forgetting your sleeping bag on a multi-night Alaskan camping trip. You only do that once.
(In my defense, it was really cold in the garage, I was excited to use a power tool and the kitchen was sunny. Also that cashmere sweater came from the thrift store, but still).
So be suspicious of products and their claims for longevity. Be suspicious of yourself and your inclinations. Push and push, and strive to understand your materials, their properties, their limitations or you might end up with a mess you can't undo.
Or a really expensive rotting shark.
I'm just saying.