Crochet and Cyanotypes

Tiny Angels  H. McQueen Cyanotype on Paper 2016

I love blue and white together, which is why I work so much with indigo in my fabric dyeing. One of my other favorite blue and white things to work with is the cyanotype process, a photographic printing process. Lately, I realized a long held desire to combine crochet with cyanotypes. I’ve been sharing the results on Instagram and they will be displayed in a group show curated by Chris at everyone’s favorite quarterly art/spoken word/film/music slam at Le Cirque des Feuilles Sales presented by Meat for Tea on September 10 in Easthampton, MA.

This obsession started when I took a class in 2008 called “The Chemistry of Art Objects”. I came across the topic of cyanotypes when searching for something to do with the color blue and chemistry for my final project. (It was almost Mayan Blue, which would have taken me in a whole other direction.) I had returned that year to making art via Botanical Illustration, and had been casually crocheting for a couple of years. The historical aspects of all three things, cyanotypes, botanical illustration, and crochet interest me. There is no direct connection between them, that I’ve found.  I have just been thinking about all of these things as I work on these crochet cyanotypes.

First, I should explain how I make a cyanotype. The classic cyanotype process begins with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, each in granular form (which are bright yellow and bright orange respectively). Each is mixed to form a solution with water, according to formulaic proportions. Equal parts of each solution are mixed together to make a light sensitive solution. This bright yellow green solution is applied to the substrate, usually paper, sometimes cloth. These chemicals are available from art supply stores, photography, and fabric dyeing suppliers. Pretreated papers and cloth are also available, sometimes called “sun prints”.  The solutions and the treated paper are light sensitive, so they must be coated in subdued light (complete darkness is not necessary). The paper (or cloth) is often allowed to dry before printing, but not always, and must be stored out of direct light. To make a print, objects or negatives are arranged on the paper to make the desired image. Finally, the last ingredient, UV light, is used to expose the print. Typical exposure time is between 5 and 20 minutes. The most abundant free source is of course, the sun. It is possible to use artificial lights that emit UV rays, such as those that are used in developing photo emulsion screens for screen printing. After exposure, the print is washed in copious amounts of water, for at least five minutes to remove any of the solution that has not undergone the chemical transition to Prussian blue.

I’m no chemist, but I’ll explain how it works as I understand it. Cyanotypes rely on the sensitivity of those iron salts, Ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, to UV light to create Prussian blue, the deep blue in the image. Prussian blue is unique in that it contains iron in two different states of oxidation, ferric and ferrous.  The deep blue color is the result of the complete absorption of red light by the pigment. The interaction of the UV light leads to the release of carbon dioxide and an electron from the ferric ammonium citrate which then reacts with the cyanide ion from the potassium ferricyanide in the solution. This then reacts with the remaining Ferric ammonium citrate to form insoluble Prussian blue, ferric ferrocyanide, within the fibers of the substrate, whether it’s paper or cloth. Because it is insoluable, it does not wash out of the paper when rinsed. The areas that remain white are not exposed as the UV light is blocked by the objects or negative. No reaction occurs and the iron salts are rinsed out of the paper or cloth.

Prussian blue as a pigment is a story on its own. The first modern synthetic pigment as we know them, it was discovered in 1704, but didn’t become a palette mainstay until the early 19th century. We have John Mercer to thank for so many processes we take for granted in modern industrial textile production, including the development of Prussian Blue as an effective dyestuff. (Not to be confused with Johnny Mercer, the prolific American songwriter, to whom we also have much to give thanks for.)

The cyanotype process was discovered 174 years ago in August 1842 by Englishman Sir John William Frederick Herschel (whose Illustrious Astronomer Dad, as it turns out, discovered Uranus in 1781 and was the first president of the Royal Astronomical Society). By 1831 JWF had done enough impressive stuff with math, chemistry, optics, and astronomy to be knighted himself. In 1839, he was inspired by a paper published and read by his pal William Henry Fox Talbot (whom we all have to thank for inventing the silver photography print process that ushered in the age of black and white photography). Herschel began immediate experiments with sunlight, silver salts, and plant extracts. A few years later, in the spring of 1842, he began experimenting with the addition of potassium ferricyanide, obtained from another Royal Academy of Science pal of his, Albert Smee, who had refined the process of making it. After further experimentation, he incorporated ferric ammonium citrate. On 16 August 1842, he wrote the word “cyanotype” in his notebooks for the first time. The process was so successful, that by October 1843, botanist and illustrator Anna Atkins published her first volume of British Algae made entirely of the cyanotype process. Sir Herschel and Mrs. Atkins were part of the same social set and it is known that they and their spouses hung out; Mr. Atkins was another Royal Academy of Science guy. She explained in her introduction:

…the difficulty in making accurate drawings of objects as minute as the algae and conferva has induced me to avail myself of Sir Herschel’s beautiful cyanotype process to make impressions of the plants themselves, which I have much pleasure in offering to my botanical friends.

Anna Atkins. Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms. Schaff, Larry. Viking Press, New York. 1985.
Plate from British Algae by Anna Atkins. Image source: Public Domain Review


In the 1870’s, the cyanotype process began to catch on in industry as a quick and inexpensive means of reproducing drawings, plans, and maps. By the 1890’s, the blueprint process had replaced the tracing of plans and drawings as the primary method of their reproduction. The only source of light available to make the prints was sunlight, with blueprint producers working on the rooftops of their buildings. Later, frames were designed that could be installed so that a tray with blueprint paper and the item to be duplicated could be pushed out a window and into the sunlight. By 1910, all inclusive electric machines that combined printing, washing, and drying were available. Through all of this, the chemical recipe of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide remained basically the same. After World War II, the blueprint as an industrial reprographic process was gradually replaced by the diazo print, which can be made to have a similar white on blue appearance. The diazo is made from a different chemical process, and remains in use today.

The cyanotype  printing process requires only a few basic materials (2 chemicals, water, paper, and sunlight) and does not require a darkroom. This simplicity led to widespread use of cyanotypes as a documentary tool for both official and personal use, prior to more convenient forms of traditional black and white photography. A browse of many online national archives or university collections turn up dozens, sometimes hundreds of documentary cyanotypes in their collections. The cyanotype was also an early method for capturing travel snapshots. The collection of photographic postcards in the archives of the George Eastman house has many cyanotype postcards. In the years 1900-14, postcards pre-treated with cyanotype sensitizer were commercially available.

Another commercial use for the cyanotype emerged in the late 1880’s. Edward Linley Sambourne, Cartoonist-in Chief for the British humor and satire magazine Punch, was frustrated by a limited supply of models and subjects for his drawings. He acquired a camera and began printing photographs for reference using the cyanotype and platinotype processes. Cyanotyping was easy, fast, and cheap. Before working at Punch, Sambourne was employed by the marine engineers, John Penn & Co., where he would have been exposed to the cyanotype process used for reproducing building specs.

At the time, artists were harshly criticized for working from photographs. Sambourne was unique in that he was quite open about the fact that he used photographs to assist him in his drawings. He often wrote directly to the public figures of the day and requested photographs to draw from. The practical matter was that Sambourne had weekly deadlines to meet, and anything that could help him meet those deadlines was welcome. Approximately 15,000 photographs, cyanotypes, and glass plate negatives and 1,000 drawings survive today as part of the Linley Sambourne collection. Many are hung on the walls at his home, which has been maintained as a museum in London.

Today it is enjoyed by artists and crafters looking for that ephemeral blue image, but has no other commercial applications that I know of. The contemporary use of cyanotype is a topic for another post!

While Sir Herschel was experimenting, and Mrs. Atkins was making her beautiful prints, circumstances were stacking up on the other side of the Irish Sea to lead to the 1845 blight of the Irish potato crop and the resulting famine. By the early 1800’s, millions of Irish poor subsisted entirely on a diet of potatoes (a plant introduced from South America just a few hundred years earlier) and water. Most families had no other way to earn their living other than farming their subsistence crop. A million perished, and a million more emigrated.

One of the ways that social reformers set about to provide relief to the Irish who did not emigrate was by establishing cottage industries of crafts including lace making. Fashions of the day included a lot of handmade lace, in all the many layers of ladies’ garments. Faster and therefore less costly methods of producing lace than the traditional Continental ways were taught to Irish women and girls. Crochet, which had only emerged as a craft in the early 1800’s, became the most popular as it earned the most money. Over the years, “the crochet” became essential to local economies. Girls were trained in crochet stitches at local schools. The highly skilled were sent to Dublin to be trained as designers and teachers.

Irish Crochet Lace Collar circa 1880

Lacemakers crocheted by daylight as much as they could (which I also enjoy). At night, in the preelectric era, the light of a candle reflected in a glass of water was shared by groups of crocheters (which I have not tried). Once they had learned a motif, many could crochet it again and again by the feel of it, without really seeing it. Printed patterns did not exist and would not have helped, as most could not read and write. Every family developed its own style, and it is said Irish immigrant girls could recognize their neighbor’s lace handiwork in store windows in New York City. Irish crochet thrived as an industry until the First World War, declining as fashions changed, machine made lace evolved, and the twentieth century progressed. It is only practiced minimally in Ireland today, but enjoying a revival in the Ukraine.  Irish crochet, is of course, only one small part of the crochet story.

I so wanted to find a cyanotype of Irish lace makers to tie this all together! Instead, another image, which I have much pleasure in offering to my fiber art friends.

Evanesce H. McQueen 2016 Cyanotype on paper

My primary sources for further reading:

Atkins, Anna. Schaff, Larry J. Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms. New York, New York. Aperture. Distributed by Viking Penguin. 1985.

Browning’s Industrial Magazine. Volume V. January-December 1906. Collinwood Ohio: The Browning Press. (via Google Books).

Crawford, William. The Keepers of Light, A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes. Dobbs Ferry, New York. Morgan and Morgan. 1979.

Fabbri, Malin and Gary. “The Classic Cyanotype Process.”
The Alternative Photography website has a lot of helpful articles and details.

Gettens, Rutherford J. and George L. Stout. Painting Materials; A Short Encyclopedia. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1942.

Hewitt, Barbara. Blueprints on Fabric, Innovative uses for cyanotype. Loveland, Colorado. Interweave Press. 1995.

Oelbaum, Zeva. Blueprints, the Natural World in Cyanotype Photographs. New York, New York. Rizzoli. 2002.

Orna, Mary Virginia and Madeline P. Goodstein. Chemistry and Artist’s Colors. College of New Rochelle. 1998.

Potter, Annie Louise. A Living Mystery: The International Art & History of Crochet.A.J. Publishing International. Texas. 1990.

Roberts, Mary Ann. “Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910).” History of Photography. Volume 17, Number 2. Taylor and Francis Ltd. Summer 1993. 207-213.

Schaff, Larry J. Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot, and the invention of photography. New Haven, Connecticut. Yale University Press. 1992.

Treanor, Maire. “The Story of Clones Lace”. Piecework. Volume XX, Number 3. May/June 2012.

Ware, Mike. Cyanotype: The history, science, and art of photographic printing in Prussian blue. London. Science Museum. Bradford, England. National Musuem of Film, Photography and Television. 1999.

Ware, Mike. ” Herschel’s Cyanotype: Invention or Discovery?” History of Photography. Volume 22, Number 4. Taylor and Francis Ltd. Winter 1998. 371-379.

Ware, Mike. Preperations for Iron Based Printing.

Crochet and Cyanotypes

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