Malin Fabbri shows how to care for and wash your cyanotypes printed on fabric.
A cyanotype printed on paper rarely need to be washed. It usually rests safely on a wall, in a frame. The life of a cyanotype printed by a fabric artist is quite different. It may be a pillow cover placed on a sofa beside a child eating chocolate ice cream, it may be a quilt used by the dog, or it may even live on a t-shirt, where just about anything could happen to it. There are many ways for a cyanotype printed on fabric to get dirty, dusty or grimy. So, how do we wash it?
Washing a cyanotype on fabric should not be done in any soap or detergent containing phosphates, bleach, or sodium. It would be pointless to list brands to use, or specific powders, since new ones come on the market all the time, the list would quickly be outdated. So, to make things easy, just do two things:
- Check the label to make sure the soap does not contain any phosphates, bleach or sodium
- Test wash a small piece of fabric before you clean the entire pillow cover, quilt or t-shirt
Dry cleaning may also work, but make sure you test a small piece of the fabric first.
Ironing should be quite safe too.
But, bear in mind that even if you use a very mild hand soap, not containing any phosphates, bleach or sodium, and even if you wash the fabric gently by hand, ANY washing will shorten a cyanotype’s lifespan.
To illustrate the effects of different types of washing powders and soaps, I took four pieces of 100% cotton fabric. I coated the fabric using the classic cyanotype recipe described in Blueprint to Cyanotypes and let the pieces dry overnight. The next day the fabric was dry and I made four photograms, using the same glass objects, exposing them for exactly 15 minutes under the same light source, my trusted old light box, and then, when they were fully exposed, I rinsed them all for exactly 5 minutes each. I hung them all next to each other on the line to dry. So, the conditions for each of the prints were exactly the same.
The first piece was kept completely unwashed and unharmed as a benchmark and indicator as to how much the chemicals affected the prints. The second piece was carefully washed in a mild hand washing liquid, containing no phosphates or bleach. The third piece was washed in washing powder containing bleach and phosphates. The fourth piece was washed in liquid washing soap containing phosphates.
The second piece, washed by hand washing liquid, came out of its first wash only slightly bleached. However, after 10 gentle washes in mild hand washing liquid, the difference was quite noticeable. The third and the fourth piece, washed in powder containing phosphates and phosphates and bleach, both came out bleached yellow, after only one single wash.
- The first unwashed photogram is still brilliant blue and white.
- The second photogram was quite bleached after 10 washes in mild hand liquid soap
- The third and fourth photogram ended up bleached by the phosphate wash
- A bleached cyanotype can still be toned!
As a final note, not wasting an opportunity to experiment, I fished the fourth print back out of the waste bin and toned it in tea – with good result. Although, bleaching fabric or cloth using this method is very "unscientific", with unpredictable results. Should you happen to bleach a cyanotype by mistake, it doesn’t mean that all is lost. Take the opportunity to tone it in tea, tannin or any other toning formula, and you will have a completely new piece of art.
A lot more about cyanotypes can be learnt in the book Blueprint to cyanotypes.
Blueprint to cyanotypes – Exploring a historical alternative photographic process
by Malin Fabbri and Gary Fabbri
A well illustrated step-by-step guide to cyanotypes.
A lot more information on the process, chemicals, coating, exposure, printing, making negatives, washing and troubleshooting is available in this book.
Strongly recommended for beginners