Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history


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Harvesting Japanese indigo

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Blue stains which developed after rubbing Japanese indigo leaves onto paper

I planted out my Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) several weeks ago, having grown it all from seed. This week I picked some leaves and rubbed them on the page of my sketchbook to see if any blue appeared. It did (ignore the buff coloured stain to the left of the image, which is nothing to do with it). From this I knew that I could make a vat from the crop.

I began by picking half a bucketful and testing it as a small vat. I achieved a very good blue, which was used to overdue some cochineal-dyed scarves I had shibori-tied ready and waiting. You can see the result in the gallery below.

On the second vat I used a whole bucketful of leaves, rammed down hard. I just pick the tips, like tea: not the whole stalk. I sometimes weigh the leaves before processing but the material was wet after rain and there didn’t seem much point. I don’t always strip the leaves from stalks either, so a known dry weight is somewhat academic because the stalks don’t, as far as I know, produce any colouring matter.

On the day I dyed the second bucket I live-tweeted the various stages with images and received a good response. I think more and more people are trying to grow, and dye with, their own indigo.

With colleague Christina Chisholm I co-authored a piece on growing and using Japanese indigo for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in 2011. It was a free download and you can still access it here so I don’t have to write it all out again. We included some information on growing the plant in two distinct climates (Devon and north east Scotland). Christina has much more experience with dyeing wool, so fibre dyers might find her comments useful. If I were to be able to edit the article I’d make a couple of additions / amendments: 

1. I have since found that I don’t always see a blue froth when I whisk up the strained dye bath. Instead, the sherry-coloured liquid darkens and looks greener – but the froth is often colourless. Why? No idea. These days I have stopped using soda crystals and use washing soda instead. Maybe that’s the reason. 

2. I have found that leaves are often ready whether or not they have the red/blue tinge shown in the Journal download document. What I have heard since (but don’t know if it’s true) is that you need to use the leaves before the plant produces flowers.  

3. I try to encourage flowers for seeds each year and there is some urgency about this as in the UK the plants die with the first big frost. I mark a few vigorous stalks early on by tying a conspicuous ribbon round each one. Then I can’t pick them by mistake. I let these stalks develop flowers as early as possible.


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Summer schools…

No posting recently because I’ve had a month of intensive teaching followed by intensive feet-putting-up. I ran three courses at Ardington in Oxfordshire and then four days in Nether Stowey at the studio of Janet Phillips.

At Ardington School of Crafts I taught my synthetic dyes shibori day, plus two one-day (repeated) courses on natural dyes. The natural dye course is a taster to a fascinating subject with some practical work at the dyepots, but also intended as an eye-opener to textiles seen at a stately home, museum etc. It’s even relevant to looking at paintings: I often wonder what dyestuffs were used on garments represented (with pigments) in a historic portrait. We had to move fast, with all fibre and fabric pre-mordanted, and an indigo vat ready to go. Most students dyed a scarf using simple immersion methods. We used madder, weld, cochineal and two indigo vats (one weak, one strong).

At Nether Stowey, I taught a three-day-dye course to several of Janet’s graduates from her Masterclass.  On day one they learned some shibori folds using steam-fixed dyes; day two gave them a taster of wax resist, and day three was a full day with indigo. At the same time as I taught dyes, Janet was teaching ‘shibori on the loom’ to students from the London Guild. In this technique, removable weft threads are incorporated into the weaving. They are later used to draw up the cloth tight. According to how the shibori threads are woven, patterns emerge after the piece is dyed, then opened up.

Students used coloured and plain warps, on different pieces. Some of this shibori work was put into my indigo vat on day four; others used Janet’s fibre-reactive dyes which were applied by placing woven pieces into a short length of gutter (brilliant idea) and painting by hand.  I am used to folding, tying and clamping for indigo work and although I have seen loom shibori before, I haven’t watched the whole process from start to finish. A combination of enthusiastic and knowledgeable students,  Janet’s teaching and the imaginative arrangements made by Janet and Nigel made for a very enjoyable week. Did I mention glorious weather?

 

Many thanks to students at Ardington and Nether Stowey for permission to use images of their work.

Teaching in 2015

Dates of next years’ courses are accumulating. I will be tutoring two courses at the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Summer School in August 2015 at Moreton Morrell. Details of the entire event can be seen here and there are details on this page.

I am teaching a new one-day introductory course in wax-resist at Ardington School of Crafts in 2015 as well as days on shibori scarves, indigo dyeing.  The Vibrant World of Natural Dyes proved very popular this year and I will be teaching it again in 2015: I have one course at West Dean scheduled for March. If you want to sign in, do so soon because my October course has been full since April.


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Oddments

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Packs of indigo and Rubia cordifolia, (Indian madder) shown with Phytosanitary Certificate

My latest excitement is today’s arrival of a parcel from India, containing indigo and Indian madder (Rubia cordifolia) from the excellent KMA Exports. I am sharing the consignment with a friend because the freight is expensive and costs more than the dyestuff, but it took just one day to arrive from Tamil Nadu. Sometimes a parcel takes longer from Okehampton. It would have been here earlier but import regulations into the UK now require fumigation which takes a bit longer; the Phytosanitary Certificate confirms that my consignment is free of Khapra beetle (Trogoderna granarium) and other quarantine pests.

Having tried Rubia cordifolia with Deb Bamford at Summer School last year I can’t wait to have another go. It produced the most astonishing colour on wool.

A highspot of recent weeks was a short trip to Finistère in Brittany, in the glorious weather also enjoyed in the UK that week. I enjoyed seeing fine examples of Breton embroidery, something about which I knew nothing, in the Musée Bigouden, Pont l’Abbé. There is an informative page about traditional Breton costume here from which I’ve learned a lot. You can see a photo of the embroiderers of Pont l’Abbé at the top of the page. Until I studied the caption I thought it was a very old photo, but it is dated to 1976, when I was about the age of some women in the picture. Perhaps that does make it a very old photo, come to think of it.

Several walks along the coast west of Douarnenez offered stunning views over the sea and as always, I was on the lookout for lichen. I don’t collect it, but I like to find it; my views on actually using lichen for dyeing are here. A knowledgeable colleague has told me that one of my images probably shows an orchil lichen, one of the Roccellae, which cheers me up now I’m back and the weather has changed.

The historic cork floats and netting tools, which I found rather beautiful, were in the window of shop selling fish in Audièrne. Without a given explanation, I must assume the carved names once indicated owners of nets. When I lived on the west coast of Scotland I remember several vitriolic exchanges over ownership of creels, buoys and nets. This appears to be a simple way of marking equipment.

 

I’m teaching three courses at Ardington School of Crafts from Wednesday. Natural dyes on Wednesday 9th and Thursday 10th, and shibori with synthetic dyes on Friday 11th. If you’re coming, I look forward to seeing you there.


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Pysanky and a kystka

On the recent Brilliant with Pattern course at West Dean one of my students had brought along something unusual. It was an Eastern European kystka. These small tools for applying hot wax are used, particularly in Ukraine, for the decoration of Easter eggs known as pysanky. I’d heard of a kystka but never seen one and until I started to research today’s post I knew nothing of the pysanky tradition. Wikipedia has a page on it here; it is a full and fascinating read which explains symbolism in the colours, the motifs and the actual giving of the eggs. It describes the ancient heritage of the craft, how patterns and methods were handed from mother to daughter, and the tools used. The list of pysanka recipients each Easter is especially interesting, revealing ‘life priorities’ of the givers. It includes a gift to the beehive, and eggs to the graves of deceased family members.

A list of natural dyes in traditional pysanky includes familiar names, such as alder buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Dyer’s Broom (Genista tinctoria) and green walnut husks from Juglans nigra. The Wiki article introduced me to two new words in the language of symbols: scevomorphic and cosmomorphic. To find out what they mean, follow those links to a website about pysanka tradition.

And in case you’re wondering how to pronounce pysanky, this is what the pysanky website says:

Despite what you may have heard on the Food Network or in a local class, ‘Pysanka’ is pronounced ‘PIH-sahn-kah’  (with the plural ‘pih-sahn-KIH’),  with all short vowels.  The term ‘pysanky’ is not, never was, nor will it ever be correctly pronounced ‘pie-SAN-kee’!!!!

 

My West Dean student (not the lady in the image above!) showed me how she uses her kystka on silk fabric. I was impressed because it was clear that the tool adapts well to applying fine lines to fabric and it doesn’t drip. I have never felt wholly at ease with a tjanting, although it produces beautiful fine lines in expert hands. The reservoir and spout of the kystka is made of brass but looks similar to the ‘rotring-style’ heads I used to use to apply spirit-based gutta resist in pre-wax days. The reservoir is small and the hot wax would soon run out, but one can adapt to this. I am wondering if I could improvise my old, now-unused gutta nibs into home-made kystkas. But brass may be a preferable metal with hot wax than steel ‘rotring’ nibs and I’ll have to try it out.

 


 

A greeting to Ukraine  This post sends a special greeting to L, a reader in Ukraine, who has been a regular visitor to my blog until all the current distractions. I send warmest spring and Easter wishes at a time of continuing anxiety.

Update: a reply from Ukraine I had a reply from my reader L, recalling their grandmother using onion skin dyes to make krashanky, which are one-colour-dyed eggs. The skins were collected well in advance of Easter so that there were enough to make deeper colours. In Ukraine, the kystka is called a pysachok.  My Ukrainian correspondent also recommended a great website here. Teresa Mihalko Harbert is The Real Thing when it comes to decorating eggs and the Trypillian culture, which provides some of her inspiration, a source of some superb patterns. Thank you L.


 

Acknowledgments: The image of Olga Kryway is by Robert L. Stone from the State Archives of Florida which allows reproduction for educational use. Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/108313

Thanks also to R for allowing me to reproduce an image of her family’s beautiful collection of decorated eggs and to A for the generous gift of a kystka.


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Follow-up on gall ink

Gall ink

Just before Christmas I wrote about my experiment making ink from oak galls. Read it here. I tried using the mixture as an ink fairly early on in the experiment, using recipes found on the internet, with disappointing results. It came out very pale and did not darken with exposure to light as I had read that it would. That could be for many reasons.  I maybe didn’t use enough galls, or fresh ones, or I hadn’t left it all to soak enough; maybe the mixture was insufficiently concentrated; maybe I hadn’t added enough iron. I also learned that ink would flow better with the addition of gum arabic. I couldn’t find my stock of gum arabic, so I sent off for some (in powder form).

When the gum arabic arrived I decanted some of the gall liquid, added an iron mixture (made from rusty nails and vinegar) and allowed it to reduce naturally by leaving the jar in a warm dry place. I hoped to concentrate the pigment. I then added a small quantity of powdered gum arabic and made some drawings and scribbles using sharpened twigs: a proper quill pen would have been great, but I was short of a goose.  The second ink result was somewhat better than the first, but having looked at some manuscripts written in gall ink, I think it could be a more intense brown/black. I’m leaving the galls to continue soaking and will try again later in the year – as well as looking for more samples in late summer when they will be fresh.

Time will tell if I have used too much iron and my ink rots through the paper – definitely a problem with ‘over-ironed’ dyes of the past which ate their way through wools and silk.

I spent my childhood in the New Forest and have enjoyed following artist Stephen Turner’s blog about his year in the ‘Exbury Egg’. I know the area he is writing about intimately. Coincidentally, Stephen has undertaken a similar experiment with gall ink and you might like to look at two of his posts. He describes collecting galls here, and his ink results here. Stephen’s observations on the Turkey oak (Quercus cerris) were completely new to me: apparently this species was reintroduced into the British Isles in the eighteenth century and there were concerns that acorn production, vital for the local feeding of pigs, was affected by the arrival of the Turkey oak and its attendant galls. The Oak Marble Gall Wasp (Andricus kollari), for which a Turkey oak is vital, is responsible for the marble galls Stephen used.

The galls I collected in Devon are not the same thing as Stephen’s New Forest marble galls. They were found on a different type of oak and produced by a different wasp. But as far as I know all galls are tannin-rich and can be used to produce ink. So I’ll keep try-ink. Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.

 

Breaking news.. extra course at West Dean: Brilliant with Pattern

Because my West Dean course in March has a waiting list double the size of the course itself, the organisers have scheduled an extra course from 9th – 11th  May. See the West Dean programme here. You can also download the full West Dean College Course programme here.


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Made Not Manufactured: Steve Kenward

Back in 2011 photographer Steve Kenward started on a mission. It was to be an unfunded personal project, of more or less infinite scope, which he called Made Not Manufactured. His idea was to travel the British Isles to photograph ‘people that use traditional crafts to make something that still has relevance today.’ Steve’s paid work as a freelance photographer would fund the entire project which includes his travel, accommodation, and any other personal expenses.

He put the word out for craftspeople / participants through the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) and soon found that makers of objects such as baskets, boats, rakes, bowls, knives and clocks began to contact him. You can see the results of this committed photographic portrait of British craftsmanship on Steve’s website here.  I contacted him as a dyer, and feeling that natural rather than synthetic dyes were more relevant to his ‘traditional’ aims, I made an indigo vat from my crop of Persicaria tinctoria for his day in my dyeroom. Up in my studio I worked with a beeswax resist on the beginning stages of a silk scarf. With Steve’s permission I am including some of his images below.

Steve has photographed 43 craftspeople (plus 13 dogs, including mine) and travelled 5,300 miles – at the last count. Until yesterday, I believed his arrangement to exhibit the complete body of work at the Weald and Dowland Museum in Sussex in August was still going ahead. It seemed the ideal venue to celebrate the work of so many makers, some of whom were prepared to demonstrate their craft, and show Steve’s unique collection of photographs. But something has gone seriously amiss; it seems there is no funding to support the exhibition project and the arrangement has been cancelled.

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Craftsperson’s dog. Now my  iPhone screensaver  © Steve Kenward

I feel disappointed for Steve who has worked extremely hard to achieve his aims. He is an unobtrusive but enquiring observer as his photographs demonstrate but also a delightful guest: even the dog approved, although she took exception to having a tripod in the house.

Steve is now looking for another exhibition venue for this body of work. If you know of somewhere suitable, please contact Steve through his website and while you’re there view other images of his impressive project.

Footnote: I resolved that my dog would never appear on this blog, but here she is, as seen by Steve Kenward. As today is her 100th birthday in doggy years, I think there is something to celebrate.


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Some bits I like: shibori and wax

Extreme Ironing takes place at the start of making folded and clamped shibori and if I’m not in the mood, it can be tedious and exhausting. The next bit is great as it’s working with dyes, but the best is the Christmas Stocking moment of opening up each dyed scarf. That comes after the ironing, but before the steaming.

With wax it’s the other way round. You do the evil stuff after the creative work with wax and dyes is complete. There’s a lengthy sequence of de-waxing, steaming, cleaning and washing out residual wax, etc before the scarves are ready.

despatch

Labels, lists, tissue paper and scarves for despatch this morning

But however they are made, all scarves need a sewn-in label, a personal label / swing tag and a price tag with a stock number. My personal tags were designed for me by Chameleon Studio, a local Devon company. We chose recycled card and vegetable-based inks for the two types of label. I have one for natural-dyed and another for synthetic-dyed work; they look different but the design is related. On the left, you can see the two types of label. The buff label with plummy-coloured ink is the one I use for natural-dyed work. The full-colour image on an individual label is actually a sticker which I attach one by one. It was a brilliant idea of the designer’s to reduce costs on printing because sheets of sticky labels are much cheaper than full-colour printing on card. Once everything is labelled and listed for despatch to a shop or gallery there is always a list to fill out and a package to make up, followed by a trek down the hill to the local post office. Post-dog usually helps with this part of the process.

The latest batch of work has gone down to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen whose Christmas Show ‘Make 2013′ begins at the end of this week. It’s open daily from 10 am – 5.30 pm.

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