Patience, persistence pays off for fiber artist
By Lou Fancher
Fiber artist Melinda Tai, who works in unusual ways with botanical materials, admits that sometimes her projects veer in unexpected directions.
"I don't give up easily,'' she says. "I don't give up ever."
When Tai was 5, her parents were too poor to raise her and she was sold for $500 to another family. Raised with love but limited means, Tai says she taught herself to knit using chopsticks and twine, and dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.
"For yarn, I took the twine that bundled packages my mother brought back from the market," Tai says. "I made paper dolls on cardboard and sewed little clothes with scraps of material."
Tai married, and 25 years ago immigrated with her family to the United States in hopes of a better education for her two children -- and to escape a country in which they were a minority and subject to discrimination.
Two months after their arrival, Tai's husband abandoned the family.
"I was lucky to secure a job as a bank teller," she says now at age 60. "I was a single mother. At night, I worked as a kitchen helper in a burger place and (sold) Avon cosmetics."
Today, proud for having raised her children without government aid and boasting of their academic and career success -- both are graduates of the University of California system -- Tai works as an information analyst at Eureka, the California Career Information System. The nonprofit organization based in Pinole offers career/labor market information that is used by colleges and universities in California and in career counseling to Bay Area high school students.
All along, while learning to live in a new country and raising her children single-handedly, Tai continued to create. The subtlety of a card sent by a friend on which a rose leaf motif had been imaged intrigued Tai.
She signed up for a two-hour workshop in ecoprinting (botanical printing), then learned more from books, online and experimentation.
The modern approach to dying uses botanical materials including leaves, twigs, roots, barks, nuts, flowers and even compost that leave their natural pigment and contact impressions on fabric.
Bundled tightly, sometimes exposed to a mordant (a metallic salt, like vinegar, iron, alum that alter or enhance colors and fix the dye permanently in the fabric) and steamed in water, the materials create results that are infinite.
Tai's Obovate Designs blog (the word obovate refers to the open-at-the-base oval shape of leaves) describes her process and provides advice and information for people interested in fashioning their own ecoprinted designs.
"I usually start with an image inspired by leaves, roots, nuts or bark I collect. I love using eucalyptus leaves, bark and rose or peach leaves," she says. "I use fabric with a lot of protein fiber, mostly silk and wool. When you boil it, the heat lets the natural pigment transfer and bind permanently to the protein in the material."
Ecoprinting involves no harsh chemicals, but does result in materials that when boiled can be toxic--and extremely dangerous to people with allergies and specific sensitivities. "Just because it's ecofriendly doesn't mean it's safe," she says.
Tai creates one-of-a-kind shawls, scarves, dresses, ties and handbags, working in a 10-by-10, open-air backyard structure. The goods are available for purchase at craft fairs, through her website and online at Etsy.
Cream-colored silk bundled with kitchen compost that she buried in the ground for a month renders an elegant wrap with abstract, hazy swirls of gentle orange, brown, blue and green. A rarely-worn 2-piece linen dress wrapped with eucalyptus leaves using a rusted iron metal spoon is repurposed into a mossy green outfit accented with soft peach-toned leaf shapes and a ghostlike outline reminiscent of a reindeer or a cat.
"Sometimes, I steam for one to two hours, then cross my fingers and pray it works," Tai says. "Everything is surprising but always magical."