Scott Bodenner on recycled synthetic canvas

Scott Bodenner is a gifted textile designer, polymath, and friend. He trained as a hand weaver, with a degree from RISD and early on-the-job experience with a German textile mill. He has a unique perspective on industrial mill capabilities and limitations, to which he brings a deeply held concern for recycling. One of his favorite books is Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change .

I am lucky to have had the chance to work with Scott to produce a custom bolt of synthetic artist’s canvas using recycled polymer. I recently sat down with Scott to talk about that project and ask the questions that a painter might have for a textile savant.

A test swatch of custom recycled synthetic artist canvas
A test swatch of custom recycled synthetic artist canvas

The realm of endurance textiles

Randall Stoltzfus: When an artist selects a canvas they are concerned with permanence. You have experience working on fabrics that need to be durable, right?

Scott Bodenner: Totally. In the realm of endurance textiles, my biggest client is an outdoor company. Those fibers and how they are woven have to withstand three years of constant California or Las Vegas sunshine. And also chlorine-soaked bathing suits. But still have a hand and optic that looks luxurious and beautiful. I have the luck of entering that field at a time when it was relatively unexplored and got to surprise it with some truly beautiful and residential-seeming fabrics.

I also make things for offices which have to be able to wear for a long time. And Americans right now are disproportionately concerned with abrasion testing. They want testing that is, even to someone who cares about long life, preposterous.

RS: What level of testing is preposterous?

SB: Testing uses this thing called double-rubs which should imitate something like butt-sits. And traditionally, heavy duty testing is like 30,000 double-rubs before a thread breaks.

RS: Wow!

SB: Yeah. It’s a lot, right?

But now companies want 100,000, 200,000, or 300,000 double rubs. Which means basically all you get is a smoothish or not very varied, but totally strong synthetic ground. It really limits what you can do. Also, even if the fabric is in perfect shape in terms of thread breakage, it is going to get dirty and disgusting after 300,000 double rubs. That is actually a weird mismatch.

Recycling for polyester is tricky

RS: I’d be happy knowing I was getting just 30,000 double rubs worth of durability in an artist canvas. But you were able to specify a recycled material and still get that durability! How was that possible?

SB: Recycling for polyester in textiles is tricky. Because what we want is stuff that is a Coke bottle on its way to the landfill, right? That’s what we want it to be made out of. That’s hard because you don’t just get a Coke bottle. You get whatever else you get. You get some paper and some glue and and a cigarette butt or whatever. You get these problem things which get mostly removed but not totally.

And so when those things get into the machinery and become fibers they actually make a weaker fiber. Because of this, while your fabric is all recycled polyester, it is not all post-consumer recycled polyester.

And your fabric comes from this great mill that was one of the first to have any recycled polyester available. Initially it was all recycled post-industrial waste. It may or may not have been out of the waste stream, but it was pretty pure.

And then they secretly started adding 7% post-consumer recycled material and not telling anyone, to encourage that industry to grow. So now actually it’s pretty good. I think yours is 50% post-industrial and 50% post-consumer. Potentially nearly all out of the waste stream.

Cautionary scary tales of decay

RS: It is so cool that you were able to help make that change happen in your industry. We need similar changes in the way art materials are sold. It’s so conservative! We are still teaching artists to use cotton duck and linen canvas. And to use rabbit skin glue as a size, ancient ideas about how to make a painting.

SB: But that are tested by time.

RS: Yes. But attitudes about what is the proper material and what is actually made available in the art store don’t mesh with that. Some things that are written down and taught have been disproven. They have been time-tested and we actually know that they will fail relatively quickly. And yet we teach it this way for generations.

And we don’t see anything like those 30,000 double rub tests for artist’s canvas. Testing, when it is done, is done by museums and there’s a disconnect from that point back to where people are learning how to use the materials.

SB: And I suppose in the world of art there are some famous examples where it doesn’t work out. Where Pollock is using house paint and it is totally failing. So there are cautionary scary tales of decay.

Conservation of discolored cotton canvas in Jackson Pollock's Number 1A
Before (left) and after(right) photos from MoMA’s conservation of Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A showing work to reduce discoloration of raw cotton canvas.

RS: Right. And the attitude that results is the opposite of being able think about using recycled, environmentally conscious materials.

SB: Oh, interesting.

Bad cotton is very bad

RS: I think most artists want to be conscientious and think in a proactive way about their materials. But we often end up acting in a very conservative way and not using recycled materials and doing things that are not great for the environment. So this recycled aspect of our canvas project is very exciting.

SB: And I suppose I love me some cotton canvas, too. However if we want to look at the impact, bad cotton is very bad! Cotton uses a lot of water, a lot of pesticides. It’s really gnarly. Cotton growing is the reason for the Aral Sea disaster— I mean it was just cotton. The Aral Sea was surrounded by cotton.

NASA photos comparing the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right).

RS: What about linen?

SB: Linen is tricky. Linen is actually pretty good. Your polyester is better in terms of its impact, I believe.

Linen doesn’t need that much pesticide. It’s easier to grow. It needs a little less processing. It is variable, different amounts of water, different weather types over a season cause different fiber types in linen. But I think for linen canvas that doesn’t have too much impact.

But also it just requires water and growing. And that’s going to be a bigger footprint than gleaning from already existing, if tragic, petroleum industries.

The barrier to longevity

RS: When people talk about art materials, they often talk about longevity. And this concern for longevity can lead to materials that aren’t good for the environment. But if we are talking about longevity anyway, why isn’t synthetic the obvious choice?

SB: So in my world you determine what the barrier to longevity is. So for example the polyester in your canvas is going to have extreme longevity in an airport or home. But if you expose it to sunlight in Abu Dhabi or something it’s going to be in trouble, because it doesn’t handle UV exposure well. It will become incredibly brittle. Now, we are talking about desert sun exposure for three years!

RS: We’re talking about uncoated, right?

SB: Right! On the other hand, acrylic has really good sun durability without any additives. Polyester can have durability with additives that provide UV protection. But acrylic is a soft fiber and does not have good wearability, so an acrylic fabric in an airport is a terrible idea.

But all of them are better than a cotton duck.

RS: You wouldn’t choose cotton duck for an airport, or for Abu Dhabi?

SB: No, you would not. Sun will cause rotting and brittleness in all natural materials. And while they can wear well they just won’t wear as well as your polyester.

The protectiveness of duties

RS: When we talked about how much this project would cost, I was shocked that this very strong and durable synthetic was much cheaper than a comparable linen. And cheaper than even an imported synthetic. And you said this was because of tariffs. What’s up with that?

SB: So, to begin I would like to say that the state of textile mills in our country is really a disaster. And they keep closing because production happens elsewhere. And we really gave up on a lot of the protectiveness of duties.

The only place where we protected ourselves is if something is cheap and is mostly synthetic. If it’s more than 50% synthetic then the duty is really high— it’s 21%. Which makes a big difference.

So it means that the mills that have done the best in this country are ones that have polyester warps and deal with synthetics. Mills that deal with all cotton, like denim mills, that’s just not really happening anymore. There’s a couple of artisanal denim mills and I think the biggest producer of denim has like one or two looms left. And I’m not even sure that’s true.

I think a lot of industry in our country and it really breaks my heart. I think we will soon see prices rising from China and I’m hopeful that will cause a kind of renaissance of American production. I don’t think it’s just a fantasy. American mills are either doing fine or failing, so there is a possibility for doing fine.

The former Arnold Print Works is now home to Mass MoCA
The Arnold Print Works in North Adams Massachusetts produced 330 miles of cloth in 1905. Forced to close in 1942 due to low prices, the complex is now home to MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

A complex loom

RS: Could you explain a little bit about the manufacturing process for the synthetic canvas we ordered? How would we say very simply what happens in the mill?

SB: It might take several attempts to answer that! But we can say even though it’s a very simple weave structure, it’s woven on a complex loom, a jacquard loom. Which can do a big damask. Interestingly, it’s difficult for the mill to weave a simple structure on that loom. They get really stressed out about the potential for mistakes. So they’re really worried about your super simple structure. Have you noticed any mistakes?

RS: No.

SB: I bet you even like them!

RS: That’s right. Mistakes are interesting.

SB: Funny! So the way that mill works is they have a very limited number of warp colors. And one of them is natural un-dyed polyester which is white, I suppose. It actually has an additive that is purple. Natural polyester is actually kind of yellow-y. And often this yarn is used in material that is then piece-dyed.

There is not much white that gets used on its own in interiors. It gets dirty and that’s not something people are into. So you really got a more raw material, something before a level of processing.

RS: Okay, so warp- which way does that one go?

SB: Warp is the long direction. The warp is what gets wound around this sort of barrel and then passes through the length of the loom.

And then the weft is what goes side to side. Traditionally that uses a shuttle. It goes back and forth and has a little bobbin inside.

Now we don’t do that anymore because it’s too slow. Now there are these two arms with pincers on the bottom. One grabs the thread from one side, meets the other pincer in the middle and then goes back to the other side. And that allows a crazy speed! We can’t even see it anymore, they are so fast. And when they’re super fast you just kind of see the fabric sort of pooling off.

No fudging synthetics

RS: Something that surprised me was that the synthetic canvas is wiggly on the bias when you stretch a canvas with it. If you could tie down each thread as you are stretching, this wouldn’t be a problem, but of course you can’t, you are just using staples every so often. And so it tends to want to buckle a little on the bias when you are stretching.

Because of this, we started priming the canvas prior to stretching.

SB: Good solution!

RS: Why is a cotton duck more stable on the bias do you think? Is it a tighter weave? The poly fibers are slipperier right?

SB: It depends. The polyester in your canvas has been texturized so it’s not as slippery.

RS: True, the yarn in the canvas looks kind of hairy, up close.

SB: It’s been extruded as hairs and then chopped and then spun, to try and imitate something natural. I’m shooting from the hip here, but synthetics have a thing where they don’t stretch once they are heat set. So I think what is happening is…

RS: So, that’s the only way it can stretch, on the bias!

SB: Right. And that stretch on the bias is going to happen with cotton, too. But I bet with cotton you can just sort of pull on it and easily stretch the yarns. But with polyester you can pull but that’s it. It does the only thing it can do.

Then, I imagine with cotton if there is a little bit of buckling you can just wet it and it shrinks up.

RS: Right, you have more way more ability to fudge things.

SB: Tragically, there is no fudging synthetics!

A kinder, gentler stretching

RS: Just one more question about this business of putting fabric under tension. Some of the textiles you make are stretched when an upholsterer works with them, right?

Chairs designed by Roy McMakin upholstered in fabric woven and dyed by Bodenner Studio
Fabric under gentle tension . Roy McMakin chairs upholstered in fabric by Scott Bodenner

SB: Yes. But that’s a kinder, gentler stretching.

RS: Lower tension than artist’s canvas?

SB: And with a puffy thing as fill. And we accept seeing a little crease at the corner, we’re just used to that.

Flat lined

RS: Right. So, in all the variety of structural designs for fabrics, are there fabrics that need to be treated to stabilize them before they are stretched by an upholsterer?

SB: Yes! Mix Tape is fine for a throw pillow, but if you want to do anything else with it, you really have to put a knit backing on it.

RS: I see, so it would be lined.

SB: Yes. Glued on lined. Flat lined.

RS: Which is what you would do with a painting. Paintings often end up lined like that eventually. And for this synthetics do get used.

SB: So that’s just to stop the inevitable dry rotting of natural materials, which is kind of inevitable?

RS: Correct. Or to compensate for that decay.

SB: Whoa. Is it heat processed? It can’t be.

RS: Well, there are heat-set adhesives for conservation. But a number of specialized adhesives are available. I got to work with a little bit of that stuff doing mural conservation.

Which was fun. But I was alarmed to realize that some mis-information was mixed in with the little bit about materials I learned from my fine-art training.

In one way of looking at it, the whole artist-institution-conservator continuum accepts the inevitable failure of traditional materials. And this failure gainfully employs parts of the system. So we get a lot of inertia and we get entrenched attitudes.

SB: Although aren’t people kind of cautious because the polyester hasn’t been around that long. Though I believe that your polyester will totally work!

Mix tape is a recycled fabric designed by Scott Bodenner using recycled cassette tape along with other recycled yarns
Mix Tape is a recycled fabric designed by Scott Bodenner using recycled cassette tape along with other recycled yarns.

A positive outburst

RS: Yes, and that’s reasonable. But it seems obvious that there is a better way at a couple of different levels.

A woodworker who did some stretchers for me asked what I was using for canvas. So I explained that I am going to be stretching poly on them. And he had this whole outburst about how “finally, someone understands!”

SB: Oh, a positive outburst.

RS: Yes! If you are making artist’s stretcher frames, it’s a challenge designing for a large linen canvas. If you are using heavy linen, and using rabbit skin glue, then you are building all this failure into the finished support. With that canvas and sizing you get very strong expansion and contraction as the humidity in the air changes. And we expect the manufacturer to build a wooden structure…

SB: That doesn’t have the shape of a ships hull…

RS: Right! And we are expecting everything to stay flat on the wall. We choose these materials because they are traditional and available. But in fact, you’re setting up a system that going to fail eventually. And the woodworker ends up using lots of heavy poplar wood to try to make your piece of linen stay flat.

SB: And for you with polyester’s inherent lack of pulling, can you use other woods? Can you use kind of any wood?

RS: There are other possibilities! And that will be the next chapter of this story.

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