Isabella Whitworth

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

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Dyes, silk and North Portugal


Display board from the Museu do Abade de Baçal, Bragança showing natural dyes once in use for silk dyeing. From top left: Daphne gnidium; indigo; gall nuts; madder; logwood; sumac; soapberry; rosemary; walnut; cochineal; dyers’ broom; Arundo donax (giant cane); ginger; common black alder

I spent most of December in northern Portugal, travelling from the north-east corner of Trás-os-Montes via Miranda do Douro, Bragança and Guimaraēs and, after a visit to Porto, to an area south-west of the extraordinary Peneda-Gerês National Park.

In Bragança’s Museu do Abade de Baçal there was an excellent display on the region’s historic silk industry including an illustrated panel on dyes. There were a few I’ve not heard of, such as Daphne gnidium. In her book Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science, Dominique Cardon lists the Daphne in her chapter on flavonoids, which indicates it was a yellow colourant. Cardon offers no local name for it in Portuguese, but the Bragança display gives it the name trovisco. The yellow dye was known in French as trentanel; daphné sainbois; or garou and Cardon notes that the dye came to rival weld in 18th century Languedoc.

The giant cane, Arundo donax, does not appear in Cardon’s book and an internet trawl came up with a few references to its pollen being used to make a yellow dye, but I found no solid information for this.


Oak galls found washed up on the shore at Moledo, near Viana do Castelo

The museum panel also illustrated some large spiky oak galls. I suggest these are of gall wasp Andricus kollari, but please put me right if you think they aren’t. Tannin-rich galls would probably have been used as mordants. I saw these galls on and beneath oak trees in Trás-os-Montes and all across north Portugal, and there were hundreds washed up on the beach near Viana do Castelo.


Oak galls used as a necklace in man’s costume, from the displays of masks and costumes of the Bragança area at the Museu Ibérico da Mascara e do Traje

Some pre-Christian traditions survive in remoter areas of North Portugal, in the form of rituals that take places at certain times during the year, with men and boys in bizarre costumes and some extremely scary masks. I saw necklaces of oak galls, along with wooden cotton reels, at Bragança’s Museum of Mask and Costume.


At the Museu do Abade de Baçal I found one reference to orchil (urzela in Portuguese) as a lichen dye used in the 18th and 19th centuries. I wasn’t overly surprised because I had never seen such profusion of Lasallia pustulata anywhere, and growing to such a large size. The lichen favours granite, the local stone; the air is clear and unpolluted, and the area remains relatively undeveloped. So the lichen grows undisturbed – and long may it continue.


The Silk Industry in Trás-os-Montes During the Ancient Regime: paper by Fernando Sousa, University of Porto

This is a gem of a museum: Museu Ibérico da Mascara e do Traje, Bragança

Excellent display on silk industry: Museu do Abade de Baçal, Bragança


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Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive

Summary of my presentation to the DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) Conference, Hampton Court, October 27th, 2017. 

Airedale Works, Kirkstall

The Airedale Chemical Works (Wood & Bedford) around 1850

For the last nine years I have been researching an archive relating to dye manufacture in nineteenth and twentieth century Leeds. In September 2017 a large portion of it was handed over to West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS). The archive represents 186 years of a dye manufacturing company’s existence, and covers its life from cradle to grave.

The founding Bedford family has a long and distinguished history of political, social and commercial significance in and around Leeds. The archive is concerned chiefly with their commercial activities, and illustrates how successive generations played an important role in business developments which contributed to the emergence of Leeds as a commercial centre during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Beginnings In around 1810, a 15-year old James Bedford became apprenticed to a chemist and druggist in Leeds. In 1821 he was involved in oil refining but by 1827 was solely engaged in making cudbear and orchil.  The company ‘Wood & Bedford’ was founded in the 1850s, manufacturing natural dyes and tannins. Wood & Bedford became a leading manufacturer in Leeds, based at premises on Kirkstall Road.


Colophon from after 1850

Wood & Bedford brought together eleven leading local companies in 1900 to form the Yorkshire Dyeware and Chemical Company Limited (YDC). Over the next hundred years this company evolved from being predominantly dependent on natural dyes and extracts to becoming one of the major synthetic dye manufacturers in the world, known for creative ideas and innovative products.

YDC Lorry

Photo from the archive showing YDC lorry. Note the telegram address ‘Dyewood Dewsbury’ on the door!

Yorkshire Chemicals In the twentieth century the company operated under the name ‘Yorkshire Chemicals plc’, signifying its diversification into other chemical classes and acquiring the plc designation when the business floated on the stock exchange in the 1970s.

The textiles industry migrated to Asia, and in the late 1990s the company over-reached itself by acquisition of new companies. Yorkshire Chemicals went into rapid decline, and into administration in 2004. It struggled for another year as Yorkshire Colours under a management buyout, and collapsed again in 2005 when the Leeds factories finally closed. In 2008 the main Leeds sites site were demolished.

The Yorkshire name and brands survive, with the business now under Chinese ownership and continuing to trade in Europe as Yorkshire Farben GmbH based in Germany, and in Asia as Yorkshire Asia Pacific, with headquarters in China.

demoliton 2

Kirkstall Road site under demolition, 2008

Archive sources The archive, which is now housed at WYAS’ Morley facility near Leeds, preserves documentary records and photographs spanning the complete history of a company whose changing fortunes broadly parallel those of the UK and European textiles industry. The collection comprises items from three main sources.

Devon source I live in a small Devon market town. In 2008, a neighbour (who is descended from the Bedfords) invited me to look at a large quantity of family papers and documents. Recognising their historical value, I undertook to find them a permanent home. The items from this Devon source are of the earliest in date, assembled around 1914 by James E. Bedford, at that time Lord Mayor of Leeds.

Demolition Source In 2008 I visited the demolition site in Kirkstall Road and asked to take some photos, explaining my research to the foreman. A fortnight later he called me as his team had found a set of photo albums sealed in to partition wall. These invaluable records now form part of the archive. There are 11 albums, with photographs dating from the 1920s until around 1990.

Muck and brass 1960_edited-1

Photo from one of the 11 albums with a view of Yorkshire Chemicals, 1960s. It has the caption ‘Where’s there’s muck, there’s brass’.

Ex-employee Source Through my research I made contact with a large group of Yorkshire Chemicals ex-employees. Many of them had retained papers, photographs and other documents relating to the latter days of the company which they were happy to donate to the archive. One of these employees has undertaken the colossal task of indexing, annotating  and cataloguing the collection. Future scholars will be indebted to him for his knowledge and insight as a chemist, as a long-serving employee who knew the various sites, subsidiaries and employees, and as an intelligent and often critical bystander to the final company collapse.

Edited 17th January 2018 The catalogue is now online through WYAS. You can start your Search here

A quote from West Yorkshire Archive Service 

‘The West Yorkshire Archive Service are delighted to be the new custodians of the Yorkshire Dyeware and Chemical Company Archive, playing our part in preserving the memory of a comprehensive archive of a local business.  The records gives a fantastic insight into the creation, development, success and eventual decline of the company over a 150 year period which will be of great interest to anyone researching the history of manufacturing natural dyes and the evolution of the textile industry in Leeds and we look forward to facilitating public access to the records now, and for generations to come’.


You will find other information on my research, and the archive, by searching the blog using the word cloud.














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Three historic purples: Tyrian Purple, orchil, and Perkin’s mauveine


Top: blue-purple samples: mauveine-dyed using a shibori technique; lower pair of silks: orchil-dyed in redder shades; threads on orchil-dyed silks: dyed with Tyrian Purple

Here is an image showing an extraordinary trio of historic, and historical, purple dyes. Two are the natural dyes Tyrian Purple and orchil, whose histories are so ancient their origins are unknown. The other dye is a recreated mauveine, the first synthetic dye to be commercially developed, after synthesis in 1856.

All three dyes play a part in an archive I have been researching, which relates to a dye manufacturer based in Leeds. The company began when a young chemist called James Bedford started making orchil and cudbear, later forming a company named Wood & Bedford in around 1850. Through various changes of names and expansions, the company became a major international dye and chemical manufacturer, finally folding in 2004 under the name Yorkshire Chemicals. You can read more about the history by following links below.

Orchil was the natural, lichen sourced dyestuff on which the company’s fortunes were founded by James Bedford. But by the late nineteenth century, William Henry Perkin had discovered and patented his synthetic dye mauveine, signalling the gradual demise of natural dyes in commercial use and the beginning of chemical manufacturing. There was a family connection between the Bedford family and the Perkins’: WH Perkin’s son Arthur G. Perkin married a Bedford daughter. The Leeds company managed to weather the transition from natural to synthetic products and its archives are a fascinating record of how they achieved their success.

As to the Tyrian Purple, perhaps the most unexpected items from the archive are the genuine shellfish-dyed thread samples found in a small envelope. You can see one of the two samples in the image above. Again, please read their story by following links below.

Mauveine dyeings

I was contacted earlier this year by Dr John Plater, a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Aberdeen. John has made a study of mauveine and has come to several interesting conclusions about Perkin’s dye. It seems that not all mauveines were / are the same. To read about John’s research, please follow the links below. John had read about my studies in orchil and was curious to know something of the versatility of mauveine in working practice. I sent him shibori-tied silks so that he could experiment with dyeing them, suggesting he try an immersion method on one set of samples, and separately apply dyes with an eyedropper. I find the eyedropper method very successful with synthetic dyes as it gives great control of the dye, and is very economical. You can judge which you think most effective from the page below. Immersion dyed are on the left.


The archive’s new home

Later this week I will be presenting a paper at the DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) Conference at the Royal School of Needlework, Hampton Court. It will describe the entirety of the Leeds archive, part of which I have been studying. It is now available for public study through the West Yorkshire Joint Services (WYJS) facility at Morley, near Leeds. I will write a separate blog about this after the Conference.


Story of the Leeds Archive on this blog 

Tyrian Treasure Part One

Tyrian Treasure Part Two

Dyes, history, and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

Some articles about the work of John Plater:

Detective work uncovers Perkin’s deep understanding of first synthetic dye

Meet the Researcher: free online article from Au Science magazine, (p 21)

Purple’s Reign

‘Accidental chemist’ who brought colour to Victorian society was ‘far ahead of his time’







A Harris Way of Life

Last month I took a ferry to the Western Isles. There is much to say about the wild, bleak beauty of the islands, and their resilient inhabitants, but this is about Harris Tweed and natural dyes.


Crotal used to scrape lichen from rocks. Marion Campbell collection, Harris Tweed Knitwear at Drinishader

A well-timed tweet from @HTAarchive advised me not to miss a display at the old Drinishader schoolhouse, on Harris. This relates to the life and work of Marion (Morag) Campbell (1909 – 1996) who once lived nearby and had attended the school as a child.

Marion was visited by a Washington Post journalist in the 1990s, telling him, ‘I’m the last person doing it the really old way — dyeing my own fleeces, carding, making my own yarn, weaving — I even do my own ‘waulking’ to clean the tweed and shrink it a bit. That takes a lot of stamping about in Wellington boots!’

scraping crotal

Marion Campbell scraping crotal lichen, probably Parmelia omphalodes or P. saxatilis. Rephotographed at Drinishader. Regret no photo credit available

In a stylish, purpose-built centre behind the school is a contemporary Harris Tweed exhibition called Clo Mhor (The Big Cloth). It is beautifully designed and presented, contains up-to-date examples of catwalk fashion and high quality local design using Harris Tweed.  The Marion Campbell collection, housed off the shop in the schoolhouse itself, could not appear more different. It comprises a number of woven samples, lengths of tweed, photographs, newspaper articles and other items associated with Marion’s long and active life, all assembled in a cramped, higgledy-piggledy fashion and often a bit dusty. It took a little time to absorb, but was rewardingly full of treasures. I found the crotal spoon Marion used to scrape lichen from the rocks, a waulking board, her loom, and dyed but unspun fleece. Marion used only natural dyes in her work, such as peat soot, crotal from various types of lichen, mugwort, logwood and indigo.

Drinishader schoolhouse is well worth a visit and its location on the Golden Road is exceptionally beautiful.

From the Drinishader shop, I bought a copy of Gisela Vogler’s biography of Marion Campbell, first published in 2002. It’s called A Harris Way of Life. A recipe for indigo dyeing puzzled me as it does not appear to explain familiar processes common to all usage of indigo:


From ‘A Harris Way of Life’ by Gisela Vogler, first published 2002 by Harris Voluntary Service, West Tarbert, reprinted 2006

The description gives no clues as to where and when reduction (removal of oxygen) takes place although the use of stale urine clarifies that the vat will be alkaline. The statement about mordant is curious (because indigo doesn’t need one), as is the phrase ‘making the dye permanent’, and the specific reference to ‘dogleaf’. Dock is sometimes referred to as dogleaf, and is from the Rumex family.

An interesting exchange between various contacts on Twitter took place when I aired the finding on Twitter, and came up with a revelation for which I thank Anna NicGuaire, (or @A_M_Q on Twitter). In Jean Fraser’s book Traditional Scottish Dyes a similar description is included in an indigo recipe from South Uist. It gives sorrel as the ‘mordant’ ‘to make the colour adhere to the wool’.  (Sorrel is Rumex acetosa).

I later found a similar reference in Ethel Mairet’s 1916 book on vegetable dyes, where she states, ‘Some add a decoction of dock roots the last day, which is said to fix the blue. The wool must then be thoroughly washed.’

The function of sorrel or dock is far from clear in any of the three instances, but it will not be acting as a mordant in the standard sense. Dock does appear in several dye publications I have consulted, but as a colourant.

I have great respect for traditional recipes and expect there to be a reason for the sorrel or dock stages as described. I’d be very interested in anyone’s views.


Marion Campbell, BEM

Video of Marion Campbell weaving

David Yeadon’s 1990 account of a visit to Marion Campbell for the Washington Post  

Clo Mhor exhibition at Harris Tweed and Knitwear


Special thanks to the Twitter community including @HTAarchive, @A_M_Q, @Freyalyn, @ripplescrafts, @TorranIslay, @squeejay


My National Archives blog: in pursuit of lichen dyes


Specimen page from lichen collection found in Leeds archive, now held in the Economic Botany Collections, Kew. The botanist was J.M. Despréaux.

‘Connecting Collections’ is a series of National Archives blogs by academic researchers, exploring the connections between archives across the UK and around the world Last year The National Archives held a competition inviting researchers to submit guest blogs. When I thought about it, I realised just how many such connections had been made in my early research into the lichen dye trade. My blog just made it on the closing day and I was delighted it it was accepted for publication – on 18th May. The title was A Purple Pursuit and you can read it here:

It is about my research into the history of a Leeds dye manufacturer whose early fortunes were based on a lichen-sourced dye called orchil.


There are several other interesting blogs available at the Connecting Collections page on National Archives site

More on my Wood and Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals research on this blog:

Tyrian Purple – from a Leeds archive?

Tyrian Treasure: Part One

Tyrian Treasure: Part Two

Dyes, history, and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

A Purple Pursuit


India Freehand


Sketchbook pages from Madurai showing kolam designs recreated after photographing in situ

I’m recently back from a few weeks in Tamil Nadu, Southern India and this post strays from dyes and textiles to celebrate kolam. Kolam are the daily drawings drawn freehand at the threshold of houses by women, using rice flour. Designs are sinuous or angular; sometimes figurative, but usually abstract. They incorporate lines enclosing series of dots called pulli. Kolam can be found in many parts of India, where they are known by other names, such as rangoli and muggulu.

Kolam have religious and ornamental significance and there are several websites devoted to explanations on their history, making and meaning – as well as their complex mathematics. I’ve put some links below but I warn you, it’s addictive stuff.

I began to photograph kolam in Tamil Nadu because I was instantly attracted to them for their apparent simplicity, only to find them much too complex to sketch accurately in a busy, scorching street. I photographed them so that I could study them in more depth and back at the hotel I found the internet generous with explanations and video demonstrations. Thus I realised (duh) that the dots were not the embellishments I had at first thought. They were the key to the structure of each kolam and created a guide for freehand drawing of the design.

One of my courses teaches students to create patterned scarves and shawls on silk using wax resist. I discourage students drawing a design onto the silk with pencil or a textile marker to follow with wax or fluid resist. Apart from being difficult to remove, it normally saps fluidity and freedom from the drawing. I have taught that the use of small guide marks can greatly assist freehand drawing on the silk. With some experience of kolam structure I will be able to pass on these examples as inspirational freehand, yet guided, drawings.

Websites: Kolam information:

Kolam videos


Tyrian Treasure: Part 2


Colophon from after 1850

Part One of this research story can be found in the previous blog, or just click here

The Bedford family of Leeds The Bedford family first started manufacturing orchil, a purple dye made from varieties of lichen, in around 1820. Orchil-making was a skilful process relying on fermentation, and dye vats could be expensively spoiled through inattention or inexperience.

Printed matter from early days of manufacturing. The name ‘Wood’ was retained after the death of Edward Wood, a sales partner from around 1850

Three successive generations of enterprising Bedfords steered the expanding manufacturing company into the 20th century, with achievements stemming from knowledge of new research and techniques, coupled with their inventive outlook. This period saw them incorporate synthetic dyes into their manufacturing, but their use of natural products for tanning and dyeing continued into the mid 20th century. The company changed names several times, but there was never a takeover. As ‘Yorkshire Chemicals’ the business finally folded in the early 2000s: by then there were no Bedfords in the company.

Charles Samuel Bedford (1865 – 1945) In 1880 – 81, Charles Samuel Bedford, grandson of founder James Bedford, attended the Yorkshire College to study chemistry. There was one other student: Arthur George Perkin, the second son of Sir William Henry Perkin whose 1865 discovery of a synthesised purple dye known as mauveine had revolutionised the dye and chemical industry. The meeting of these two young students developed to a lifelong connection when Arthur married Charles’ sister Annie. Arthur and Annie spent their lives in Leeds where Arthur worked at what became the University of Leeds. Strong social ties existed between both families.

Connections Family, scientific, and working connections of the Bedfords may explain why samples of genuine Tyrian Purple arrived in the archive. There was no commercial or industrial potential in shellfish dye so one can assume there was a purely academic interest in dyeing and retaining them.

What did the dyer of the Tyrian Purple need to know? Zvi’s photomicrographic images of the purple threads confirmed that the samples were evenly and homogeneously dyed, meaning that they were dyed, not smeared by direct application. Therefore, two key pieces of knowledge had to be in place to vat dye the cotton threads. The dyer needed to know that the shellfish pigment was an indigoid molecule, and that a reduction vat was required.

Knowledge of the hydrosulphite reduction vat was first presented in 1873 by Schützenberger and Lalande. Paul Friedländer’s work in 1909 Vienna determined that the main component of purple pigment from shellfish was an indigoid, namely dibromoindigo.

Scientific connections to the Bedfords were strong, coming from the wider Perkin family, and the Yorkshire College (later the University of Leeds) where Arthur worked. Latest research would have been quickly accessible.


The envelope containing the two small skeins of shellfish dyed cotton: labelled in Charles Bedford’s handwriting

Dating the dyeing and the identity of the dyer The relevant part of the Leeds archive was assembled from around 1914. By considering the timeline, we arrived at a possible dyeing date of 1910 – 1913. The identity of the dyer remains unknown since no explanatory notes have been found, but the writing on the envelope containing the threads is that of Charles S. Bedford. So it’s quite possible he dyed it himself, had it dyed by a colleague well-versed in the chemistry of the time, or it was given to him by someone whose work he trusted. In Zvi’s words, this century-old Tyrian Purple sample is the most modern historic sample yet found: a true historic treasure.

Tyrian Purple, known as the ‘Purple of the Ancients’ was a well-discussed subject and appears in 19th century  literature associated, as ever, with wealth and status. The Bedford and Perkin families already represented two historic purples – orchil and mauveine – and one can imagine their curiosity about the dye chemistry of this exotic third.



Demolition site, Yorkshire Chemicals, Kirkstall Road, Leeds, 2008

The demise of Yorkshire Chemicals The Bedford family’s original business changed names several times over its lifetime, but there was never a takeover. It went into receivership in around 2004 styled as Yorkshire Chemicals. The factory on Kirkstall Road, first occupied by the Bedfords in 1850, was abandoned. I visited the demolition site in 2008 and felt unexpectedly emotional. Rising smoke, derelict buildings and heaps of twisted metal seemed the only legacy of a proud family’s early endeavours.

The Phoenix  But there is now an upside. The envelope of purple threads falling from hinges of an upturned rusty trunk has restored to us genuine samples of fabled Tyrian Purple. They are the first ‘modern’ dyeings known since  the 15th century, which illustrate scientific connections of the time as well as the curiosity, inventiveness, and the achievements of a Leeds family. To use Zvi’s words once more, the samples are like a ‘Phoenician rising from the rubble’, serving as a testament to past working and family lives of the Bedfords – and so many like them. They are, quite simply, Tyrian Treasure.

If you are interested in knowing more about any aspect of this research please write to me via the blog contact page.


Many thanks to colleague and friend Zvi Koren for his knowledge, his diligence and his support, and for his comments and additions to this pair of blogs. And for not forgetting to see the punny side of things.

Links and bibliography

Whitworth and Koren paper published in Ambix. Available from Taylor & Francis Online here.

Ancient shellfish used for purple dye vanishes from eastern Med  Guardian article , December 5th 2016

Related posts  on this blog

Testing Times 1 & 2

Getting to Blue

A Purple Pursuit

French Connections

Reasons to be Stressful

Talking Orchil

Dyes, History, and a Chilly Trip to Yorkshire

Inge Boesken Kanold artist researching and working with shellfish pigment

The Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts

John Edmonds’ book: Tyrian or Imperial Purple Dye: The Mystery of Imperial Purple Dye, Historic Dye series no. 7, Little Chalfont, 2000. Published by the author.

Smearing process of dyeing