Sept/Oct 1999 Nonfiction

Dyeing, Cutting, Stretching:
The Metamorphosis of a Bed Sheet

by Barbara Lefcowitz


Because its smells like sour milk and an amoeba-shaped green rash covers much of its surface, the sheet I just retrieved from a remote corner of a closet can serve no longer as bed linen. I could toss it in the trash, but how unimaginative! Surely I can find a way to transform it rather than consign it to wherever hell awaits contaminated bed linens.

As with any other object, only three possible features are open to change: color, size, and shape. I can restrict myself to only one, say, color, and dye it neon-pink, try to pass if off as a neo-expressionist painting. 0r, combining color with both size and shape, I can tear it into strips to signal a road emergency when tied around my carís aerial. I could cut it with a scissors into small hearts or flowerets, eventually to be sewn onto a childís costume. Or stretch it so it can span the distance between two trees: voila! a hammock, even if threadbare and green-rashed. The possibilities are, if not endless, at least abundant, though of course I cannot make it talk, sing, dance, make love, orbit the sun, migrate with the geese come October.



Like shaping clay into pottery, twisting fibers into thread, preserving food, smelting copper or iron, or carving bone and wood, dyeing is so ancient an art that nobody will ever know the name of the first person to express curiosity when a scarlet residue accidentally transferred to her hands from some lichens, or who noticed how crushed pomegranate rind imprinted her drab tunic with jazzy red-orange designs. Or the first person to realize that the leaves of the indigo and woad plants could transform a white cloth to a particularly intense blue when the indigo was steeped in hot urine.

Elijah Bemiss, the grand vizier of American dyeing, notes in the 1815 edition of The Dyerís Companion that to transform cloth to a pearl or silvery color, you must first "take four quarts of wheat bran, put it in a bag, and fill your copper with fair water, and boil the pudding an hour and a half... let it drain, and squeeze it dry as you can; then add two ounces of allum, let it boil, and skim off the scum that will rise... add four pounds of logwood chips, and boil well till the strength is well out... [finally] add half an ounce of blue vitriol, and handle till your colour pleases."

Why dye at all? Because, as Elijah himself claims, "the materials of which cloth are made are naturally of dull and gloomy colours. Garments would consequently have had a disagreeable uniformity if this art had not been found out to remedy it and vary their shades." All I need to transform my dull and gloomy sheet are some cherries and rain, and a touch of gingko biloba so it can better retain the memory of its color.



Remember cutting out those little paper pinafores with a blunt pair of scissors, making sure not to cut away the tabs that would be folded over the paper dollsí shoulders? And cutting a fringe in a piece of paper just because you were bored? To say nothing of such secret joys as cutting away from a snapshot the face of someone who was no longer your best friend or, much later, no longer your lover or spouse?

Pondering the history of scissors, I began to think about the many objects humans have created for the purpose of splitting: Paleolithic blade tools; axes and adzes with both stone and metal blades; flaking tools of bone, wood, or ivory; metal implements such as Egyptian copper chisels; and the many varieties of knives that have evolved over the centuries, even saws, daggers, and sickles. But no where have I been able to find specific information on the genesis of the primal scissors. Can anybody out there help me?

Wasnít it Elizabeth Taylor who said, upon the death of Michael Todd, that without him she felt like a scissors with only one blade--implying that any man-less woman would be similarly disabled. Yet even with a twin-bladed scissors in hand, the prospect of transforming a bed sheet by cutting it up lacks appeal. Likewise other means of making it smaller: tearing it with my hands or teeth, plunging it into boiling water so perhaps its fibers will shrink, shredding it into micro-sheets, setting it on fire so it eventually reduces to mere threads and ashes.



We all know the obvious shapes: the circle, the square, the triangle, the oval, the rectangle, the hexagon, the octagon, etc.--all of which have symbolic implications that vary with particular cultures. If I am to reshape that sheet, I should strive for something less geometrically familiar, a series of crescents, or better still the curvilinear shapes characteristic of much Middle Eastern art, often stylized versions of such biomorphic shapes as trees, flowers, birds, animals both real and imaginary. In Turkish art, such shapes are called rumi, and appear intricately looped and chained in everything from tiles to wood carvings to carpets, even clothing.

But once I cut the sheet into a large rumi, suggestive, say, of a winged dragon, what then? I could wrap it around me and pretend to be a piece of performance art. Given my restless nature, I know I would get bored very quickly. And if anyone noticed at all, theyíd just laugh at that crazy lady all wrapped up--"Do you see her?--all wrapped up in a--filthy old bed sheet? What the hell's happening to this country?"



Royal Purple Tintex or Rit, a vat of hot water, or easier still, a washing machine set to run with the hottest water available for the longest cycle possible. Add some salt as a mordant, and voila! A purple sheet! To think that when the Phoenicians discovered they could make purple dye from a mollusk, they had first to break open the shell to extract a minuscule amount of the dye from a cyst or vein. What Alexander Theroux calls "the thin liquor of purple" was present in such small quantities that a quarter of a million mollusks had to be cracked open in order to create an ounce of dye. Ancient Greek dyers made an almost equally splendid purple from madder roots, oddly enough calling it "Turkish Red." And the first synthetic dye, developed in 1856, was also purple, specifically aniline purple or "mauvine."

Rebel that I am, why settle for such a traditional color? Instead, I will pretend the sheet is my graying hair, use Revlon Entropic Emerald or maybe a jazzy "all new" henna--a substance old as Mesopotamian stone pots, obtained from roots and leaves without benefit of chemicals. But suddenly I recall a woman named Vera who dyed her hair a rich green that resembled the rice paddies of Vietnam. Probably Vera is dead by now, her curls fused with my backyard grass, but the slightest chance of being mistaken for her convinces me to abandon my plan to exchange hair and textile dye.

The hell with dyeing. What I really wish to do is cosmeticize that sheet--alter its appearance by applying various potions, thus enjoying the illusion that I have made my sheet wrinkle-free, as sexy as if it were a young red satin sheet trimmed with black lace that had been dipped in an enfleurage of carob fruit and musk. Easy. But, alas, like all such illusions, pathetically short-lived.



How, aside from pulling it until threadbare, can I change my sheet into something larger? After all, nearly all contemporary astronomers now believe our universe is constantly expanding or inflating. And given a choice, most people would prefer to be Brobdingnags rather than Lilliputians, tall rather than short, inflated, at least vertically, as much as possible. Long before silicone breast implants, women tried to augment their breasts by using paraffin, despite the sometimes lethal effects. And who doesnít love the smell of homemade bread as it rises in the oven with the help of yeast? There is simply no way I can enlarge my sheet.

I'm stuck with changing its shape. I'll choose something rotational, a radial pattern favored by the Persians and based upon the shape of a pomegranate plant. Should it have six petals or eight? Enclosed in a circle or simply adrift? A cloud. My sheet will become a large white cloud. Stylized like the clouds in Chinese paintings. I might just toss it out the window and set it free, especially now that I detect the beginnings of a windstorm.

But I will allow myself one last try at cosmetics because our old friend Elijah Bemiss was onto something. Not only do we get bored with plain drab cloth and thus give in to the urge to dye it fuchsia or mandarin orange or indigo (the latter supposedly a specialty of Jewish dyers, for no discernible reason) in order to relieve the tedium and to assert our individuality, but we get bored with any plain drab surface, not just cloth.

At least in the old days--and cosmetics go back centuries, especially among people of the Fertile Crescent--lips and cheeks were generally painted a shade of red, nails likewise. But now the most ordinary cosmetics section of the most ordinary store features lipsticks in shades of green, with names like Key Lime, Sparkling Emerald, or Old Celtic Kelly; a spectrum of yellows; of blacks; even deathly blue. Nail polishes come in marigold, mauvine, puce, silver, chartreuse, dawn pink, dusk pink, olive, endive, aubergine, and, above all this year, hot gooseberry.

With such a salad of choices, though, how can I decide which hues would suit my sheet? And I havenít even touched on eye-paint (thought to prevent disease and repel insects in ancient Egypt, even when made of such perilous ingredients as lead sulphide, or galena, known in Mesopotamia as guhlu and in Arabia as kuhl, the distant root of the word alcohol). Nor have I noted the array of fats used for skin creams. But I am encouraged. Easily I can stretch my sheet out on the floor and divide it into subsections without any cutting or ripping. Each section could be the testing ground for another product and the final result would either be like one of those lovely paint charts found in art stores, whose squares of paint never match what comes from the tube, or the sheet could itself be a work of art, some sections burnt away from an overly corrosive nail glaze, some a bright red or black like the squares in Mondrianís "Broadway Boogie-Woogie."



Elijah Bemiss, you will never know how entranced I am by your eloquent instructions for dyeing. Just as I am about to toss that sheet, I cannot resist opening you at random and reading aloud your sage words: "Steep a pound of indigo twenty-four hours in four quarts of clear urine, and when the urine becomes very blue, run through a fine sieve into a pail; add four quarts of fresh urine... the urine will cast up a thick scum, which can be taken up with a broom and cast out of the copper vat..."

Oh, the art of dyeing, the art of dying, ars moriendi. When Plath wrote "Dying is an art like everything else" why did she leave out the "e"?



No more excuses. I am ready to toss the sheet from the open window. But how dirty it is. Not just the mildew and the ordinary stains of sleep, but ink, ancient imprints of spilled coffee and tea, semen. What will the neighbors think? I must wash, no, scour it (as our mothers used to tell us, if we wear torn or dirty underwear what might they think if we suddenly had to be transported to a hospital?).

Elijah again to the rescue: "To Scour Grease and Filth from a Cloth Made from Cotton: In a copper vat, put six pails of fermented urine in eighteen pails of water; mix them until boiling; take two pounds of pearlash, dissolve in... warm rain or river water; add resin, white hard soap and a small nub of allum the size of a hazelnut. Rince [sic] thoroughly in gum water to which two pounds of fustick, chipped fine, has been added..."

Farewell, old sheet. As I stir the vatís final solution of waters, the sheet begins a slow return to the earliest layers of its history. First it turns a pale yellow, then blue, finally revealing its ultimate essence by turning green as the leaves of a ripening cotton plant. Finally, disintegration, fiber by fiber, thread by thread.

Metamorphosis achieved, Herr Kafka.


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