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Stripes of a Different Color

Martha Stewart Living, August 2004

In the textile family, ticking is the sturdy, humble sister, possessing none of the glamorous flamboyance or girlishness of some other fabrics. Its unpretentious qualities and easy charm and versatility are what make it so appealing. The moment you see the traditional indigo and white stripes, you feel a cozy familiarity that puts you right at home. Yet ticking acquires a new dimension when it is dyed candy colors, such as cherry red, pink, violet, and raspberry. Suddenly, this utilitarian staple, so accustomed to remaining in the background, has a look that can energize a room.

For centuries, ticking was used by peasants and royals alike for bed "ticks," the cases for pillows and mattresses. It is a tightly woven cloth, usually made of cotton or linen, that gets its strength from having more warp yarn (running lengthwise) than weft (crosswise). This durability was necessary to keep the bedding's stuffing intact over years of wear. In fact, ticking was so much a part of everyday life that it was an essential element in a young woman's dowry. Sometimes the design and colors of the stripes were so predictable, they could be used to identify a bride's home region in nineteenth-century Europe.

In the late twentieth century, the cloth emerged from beneath the coverlets to decorate chairs, sofas, windows, and tables. Even fashion designers found it stylish: Claire McCardell was among the first to use ticking for her casual, sporty separates that defined the all-American look of the 1940s.

Today, you can find a wide selection of ticking for about $15 a yard at most fabric stores. The stripes can be thick or thin, green or brown or red or blue#8212;not just the indigo we're so acquainted with. At flea markets you'll pay just a few dollars for vintage ticking remnants, which often have a desirable antiqued patina. And after you run any sort of ticking through a dye bath, the colors of the stripes will take on an entirely new personality.

Sure, you can use yards and yards of the fabric to reupholster a sofa or cover a chair, but you can make a statement with smaller pieces, too: A few vivid napkins or a braided trivet can add a delightful touch to a table, and colorful bolsters become an engaging focal point for a daybed. Small accents of ticking are playful enough to brighten up a child's room yet serious enough to refresh a guest bedroom. And ticking's simple stripes coordinate well with just about any pattern. Pair it with romantic florals and bold plaids, for instance, and you'll have an effortless country look.

Summer is the ideal time to experiment. Ticking's machine-washability and relaxed sensibility are a good match for the onslaught of dripping ice-cream cones, lemonade spills, and wet, sandy feet.

No doubt our forebears would be shocked to see ticking displayed with the cheery abandon you'll find on these pages. On the other hand, they might wish they had realized the winsome potential of this time-honored, homespun cloth.

 

Braided Trivets
Pretty and practical, these surface protectors were made by weaving together strips of ticking. We used a traditional technique that, if you keep going, will result in a braided throw rug.

Bunch of Bolsters
Ticking with thin or thick stripes of green, beige, lavender, or blue were dyed a scale of greens to turn a sitting room into a serene space. For the pillows, we sewed on side panels so the stripes would be perpendicular.

Rainbow of Napkins
Ticking napkins with light-green stripes are made even more attractive when dyed a series of luscious colors. There's no sewing required for this project; just fringe the raw edges. Be sure to make the fringe before dyeing the fabric, so the color will be evenly absorbed by the threads. After using the napkins, wash on the gentle cycle or hand-wash to prevent further fraying.

Patchwork Quilt
Vintage ticking was cut up and dyed in delicate shades of lavender and pink for a quilt that looks like a treasured hand-me-down. Some of the ten-inch squares are made of pieces in two or three different colors. The patchwork of squares was sewn to an antique white-linen backing and a layer of cotton batting; then the whole thing was turned right side out (so the batting was tucked inside) and topstitched around the edges. Embroidery floss tied at the squares' corners keeps the layers together.

 

Dyeing How-To:
To make dyed ticking, you will need a large bowl or basin, 24 cups of very hot water, about 6 heaping tablespoons of salt, and, of course, ticking (pre-wash it in warm water with detergent to loosen the fibers and clean it; then dry thoroughly). Wear rubber gloves to protect your skin, and use metal or brand-new porcelain bowls because dye can stain plastic, fiberglass, or worn porcelain.

1. Soak ticking in a separate bath of hot water until ready to begin dyeing.

2. Prepare the dye bath: Fill the basin with very hot water. Add salt to cover the bottom of the bowl. Pour in dye. Stir well. Wring ticking, and slowly submerge in dye bath, making sure fabric is not bunched so it will dye evenly (if you want, use a test strip to see what the color looks like). To create our colors, leave the fabric in the dye bath for about 30 minutes and move it around every 10 minutes. If you're experimenting with tints, check fabric frequently to inspect shade, starting after just 30 seconds.

3. Rinse ticking in cold water until the water runs clear; this will remove excess dye and salt. Dry each piece of fabric separately in a dryer or on a clothesline.

4. When cleaning dyed fabric, machine-wash on the gentle cycle with detergent in cold water.