Isabella Whitworth

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


Leave a comment

Bells, wool, ropes and a phobia

The English bellringing tradition is ancient. The country’s first bells were associated with Celtic Christianity and were flat sided and welded rather than bronze-cast. They were rung by hand and probably sounded clonky, like a cow-bell. The skills of bronze casting that developed transformed the purity and clarity of bell sounds, and the mechanism of a wheel-mounted bell, perfected around the time of the Reformation, enabled bells to ring individually in a predetermined order. This is a particularly English form of ringing. Patterns of ringing are called out by the Ringing Captain, or must be learned by heart. Some learned sequences or ‘peals’ involve hours of high concentration from a team and can be ruined with a single mistake.

The sound of a bell carries miles across fields and was a key method of communication. Bells sounded the curfew, acted as a call to arms, a warning of invasion, and in some English churches alerted parishioners to the presence of vermin. Churchwardens once held the vermin bounty which was paid out when an unfortunate dead fox or badger was presented. Bells called parishioners to worship, rang for weddings and occasional funerals, and tolled on half and full muffles to mourn the passing of monarchs and royalty.

Hatherleigh Church, Devon

Why am I talking about bells? Some of you may know that I am a church bellringer and that the history of bells has become a recent focus of mine. There is a textile connection too, so please read until the end.

shows bell mounted on wheel
The bell wheel mechanism

Hatherleigh’s Bells

In my small Devon town of Hatherleigh we have a very beautiful set of eight bells, recast in 1929 at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry by Mears and Stainbank. They are set in an oak frame now distinctly past its prime and the bells need some attention too, although they do not need to be recast. The necessary restoration is going to cost about £75,000 ($US91.58 in today’s conversion rate).

Hatherleigh’s eight bells waiting for transport to Whitechapel for recasting, 1929. Photo courtesy of Hatherleigh History Society

I have been involved in an intensive fundraising campaign since February and have been learning about the history of bells, bronze-casting and our town’s bells.

Creepy Sleep-Out

On the night of 16th – 17th July 2022 I will be camping in the church tower to raise funds for our appeal. The name for it was coined by our Vicar, Reverend Leigh Winsbury, who of course has to give permission for such japes on his patch. Thank you, Leigh.

Is sleeping overnight in the tower such a big deal? Not really, unless, like me, you have a lifelong fear of spiders (I’m not so bothered about mice, bats, or strange sounds in the graveyard, although that may change on the 16th…). There are a few hefty spiders in the tower and I undertake to co-exist with, and not squish, my eight-legged dormitory mates. So if you’d like to sponsor me as I face my fears, please follow the links at the bottom of the page. A pdf of our fundraising leaflet is attached so you can see what this is all about. You can also visit our GoFundMe site, but if you are kind enough to leave a donation there please leave a spidery comment too, because it’s our generic fundraising page and I’d like to know how much money my particular stunt has raised.

GoFundMe page for our project

The Textile Connection

There is a textile connection to our bells because the tower in which they hang was built at the time of major medieval south-west wool prosperity, in the 1300s. Many very fine English churches, such as Lavenham and Northleach, were entirely built from wool money. The money for building Hatherleigh’s tower alongside an existing structure may have come from donations from wool-wealthy parishioners, or through church tithes. A wooden spire was added in the 1400s. We don’t yet know when the first bells rang in Hatherleigh, but by 1553 there were three.

Keyrings

Selection of keyrings from old bellrope. The rings to hold the keys are steel cable with a tiny screw section which can be opened and closed. Ropes are whipped with waxed cotton twine.

I have been making small keyring giveaways for the first 25 people that donate £10 and they are made from our old bell rope. The rope has been washed and is probably of hemp, but bellropes can be of flax and it’s hard for me to tell the difference. Modern ropes are sometimes a blend of natural and synthetic fibre.

If you live in the UK, donate £10 and would like a keyring, please send me a screenshot confirming your donation. Include your postal address and email me at persicaria5@gmail.com

The bellringers would of course be grateful for any amount donated, however small.

Links, follows, media

Blogpost on fibre and bellropes from 2013 here

My Instagram: @whitworthisabella

Hatherleigh Bells Instagram: @eightbells8

GoFundMe If you donate here, please leave a spidery comment!


Leave a comment

Shibori, silk, natural dyes. Teaching update, 2022

Student samples from a natural dyes course

After two long years, teaching has resumed. I managed to teach both my scheduled courses at West Dean, with a dose of Covid sandwiched between. The first was Brilliant with Pattern, a course using synthetic dyes and wax resist, and the most recent was A First Dip, my introductory course to natural dyes.

There is one further course currently scheduled at West Dean this year which will run from 12th – 16th June. It is called Silk Scarves – Developing Pattern and is suitable for beginners and improvers. It will focus on creating patterns for scarves and fabrics using shibori, wax resist and some associated dye techniques. Synthetic steam-fixed dyes on silk will be used on the course.

Shibori-tied scarf

Next month I’m running a one-day workshop at The Loom Shed, in East Devon. Students will make two light, summery scarves in colours and designs of their choice using steam-fixed synthetic dyes on gauze silk. Shibori techniques of tying and clamping will be used to create patterns.

Indigo leaves, dried weld, cochineal and rudbeckia

Just down the road from me is RHS Rosemoor, and I’m delighted to be part of their workshop programme this year. I am teaching a one-day workshop on 9th July, and another on September 10th. See booking links below for details of all courses.

Links to view and book courses

(Synthetic dyes) Silk Scarves – Developing Pattern West Dean

(Synthetic dyes) Twist and Tie, Clamp and Dye The Loom Shed

(Natural dyes) Natural Dyes: A First Dip RHS Rosemoor

(Natural dyes) Dyeing the Rainbow RHS Rosemoor

Aquarelle Ardington Ardington School Ardington School of Crafts Association WSD Australian Journey blogging cochineal Devon Guild of Craftsmen DHA Eastern European kystka endangered plants environment Exhibitions Fibre History indigo Jenny Dean Journal for Weavers Spinners and Dyers Leewood madder mordant natural dye natural dyes nonsense orchil orchil and dye research Persicaria tinctoria printed fabric reclaimed dye Rubia cordifolia Scotland shellfish purple shibori steaming silk tannins teaching Twitter Tyrian Purple wax wax resist West Dean West Dean College Wood & Bedford Yorkshire Chemicals


Leave a comment

Stockholm and Leyden Papyri Project

Orchil lichen growing on the Ecuador coast, near Puerto Lopez

I’m involved in an international project to recreate historic recipes from the Stockholm and Leyden Papyri. The group have a blog, and I have just published an account of why I am so interested in orchil recipes, how I set about searching for a historical dye lichen in Ecuador and more importantly, why I ate a dessert in the interests of science. My blog is called ‘Talking Orchil’ and was published on October 17th 2021.

The blog’s admirable administrator Mel Sweetnam (of the equally admirable Mamie’s Schoolhouse) describes it as a ripping yarn, so head over there to see if you agree. Stockholm and Leyden Papyri Project

Mamie’s Schoolhouse


2 Comments

RHS Rosemoor: Course in Natural Dyes

Green leaves of Japanese indigo are shown in top of a pink, white and purple silk scarf with a stylised floral motif. There are small seed-like grains on the right which are cochineal
Top left: wax resist scarf dyed in indigo and cochineal; leaves of Persicaria tinctoria and cochineal grains. Underneath left: fringed wool scarf dyed a deep purple in cochineal and indigo

Teaching has so long been off my radar I can’t quite believe that my first course for 18 months is rapidly approaching. I will be at RHS Rosemoor in North Devon on 25th and 26th September for a hands-on introduction to using natural dyes. With a bit of luck students will end up as bonkers as I am about natural colour and its ancient history – and will leave with a great set of dyed samples and a beautiful, individually-dyed scarf.

For overseas readers, RHS stands for the Royal Horticultural Society. The RHS is the UK’s leading gardening charity and owns five beautiful gardens across the country. RHS Rosemoor is one of them and it’s just up the road from me. I have visited it countless times since I moved to Devon nearly twenty years ago. On my visits I often noticed some of the plants that yield dye colour and thought it would be a wonderfully appropriate place to run a course.

In 2019 I contacted the Education and Learning Manager and found her to be very receptive to the idea. The Manager was the late Sarah Chesters, a bright, funny and delightful gardening expert who was also very knowledgeable about textiles and fibre. She was engagingly interested in all I told her about natural dyeing and came to my house on a memorable day when I was working with Jenny Balfour Paul: we showed her how my indigo crop was processed, shared lunch, and we all laughed a lot.

So I was very saddened to hear that Sarah died earlier this year, and I will actively remember her warmth and humour when I am teaching at Rosemoor.

Booking through RHS Rosemoor here


Leave a comment

The Loom Shed Online Natural Dye Symposium

Left: Perkin’s mauve; centre, Tyrian purple threads and murex shells; right; orchil lichen, orchil-dyed silk and wool

At the end of the month I’ll be taking part in an online symposium run by The Loom Shed. What is The Loom Shed? Well, it’s a shed and it has looms in it. But weaving isn’t all that’s planned at this new and imaginative venue.

The Loom Shed has been set up by Louise Cottey, weaver and tutor, and Liz Croft, crochet specialist, weaver and tutor. Both Laura and Liz are passionate about yarn craft and the benefits to mental health that craft work can bring.

My talk Pursuing Purple: Shellfish, Lichen and Mauve will follow some of the dye trails I discovered when researching a nineteenth century industrial archive. If you follow my blog you’ll know I became particularly intrigued by the dye trade in lichen, historically used for making a purple dye called orchil. My findings very unexpectedly linked two other famous purple dyes: Imperial or Tyrian Purple, and Perkin’s Mauve.

The Natural Dye Symposium is on June 26th and will offer a day of talks by four specialist natural dye speakers. It was decided to hold the event online this year but in the future there will be dye-related workshops and events at The Loom Shed itself, which is located in East Devon. There is also a varied programme of speakers and courses and you can look at their Events page to see the latest listings.

On June 10th at 12.45 pm I will be doing an Instagram Live with Liz Croft. You can Insta-follow me on @whitworthisabella, and The Loom Shed at @the_loom_shed


The Loom Shed Online Natural Dye Symposium Programme

Aviva Leigh 10.00 am – 11.00 am Strips, Stripes and Satins – Exploring 18th Century Norwich Textiles

Isabella Whitworth 11.30 am – 12.30 pm Pursuing Purple: Shellfish, Lichen and Mauve

Luisa Aribe 1.30 pm – 2.30 pm An Indigo Journey

Susan Dye 3.00 pm – 4.00 pm Growing and Using your own Dye Garden

There is an ‘all day’ ticket for all four talks, or you can book in for individual speakers here

Times given are British Summer Time


Links

The Loom Shed

The Loom Shed Events page


2 Comments

Knitwits: Knitting the Blue Stockings

Indigo-dyed wool showing how adjustments in vat concentration and multiple dips can achieve many shades

Once in a while a seemingly mundane request, such as ‘could you look at some old boxes from the attic’ explodes like a dandelion head and breezes into all corners of your life. That happened to me in 2007 and the research it led to is well documented on this website.

About a month ago I had a simple-sounding request from Nicole Pohl. Would I, the email innocently requested, ‘talk on Zoom for ten minutes about dyeing wool?’ Nicole Pohl is Professor of English at Oxford Brookes University and the Editor in Chief of the Elizabeth Montagu Correspondence Online (EMCO), a charity that was set up to digitise and edit all known letters by the ‘Bluestocking woman’ Elizabeth Montagu. I looked up Elizabeth Montagu and the Bluestockings and was intrigued. This was going to be about more than just blue wool.

It meant I would have to learn how to present a Powerpoint via Zoom, compress the subject of natural dyes and what I know about eighteenth century dyestuff into ten minutes and, along the way, include a section on blue-dyeing. Anyone who knows how to dye with indigo or woad will understand what that means. Nicole said there’d also be presentations by two other speakers, plus the input of a knitwear designer. A group of academics would then start knitting blue stockings…. it all sounded a bit of a lark, so I said I’d do it.

Then I learned that one speaker is Susan North, Curator of Fashion, 1550–1800, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Another is Lis Gernerd, a historian of eighteenth century dress, art and material culture. The knitwear designer is none other than Kate Davies whose very recently launched Bluestocking Club has hit over 2000 members. All of them are invited to the Zoom event on Monday 24th May 1600 – 1700 UK time.

You are invited too. It’s free but you have to book, so do it fast as numbers are limited. Here is the link.

https://www.brookes.ac.uk/about-brookes/events/knitwits–knitting-the-bluestockings/

I think its time for a gin and tonic – and it’s only half past two.

Links

The Bluestocking Club

A conversation between Kate Davies and Nicole Pohl on Kate’s site here

Elizabeth Montagu Online


8 Comments

Mulberry silk

I have been trying to find a more satisfying source of silk than commercial, sparkling white, smooth and ‘perfect’ cloth imported from China. Since last autumn I have been working on mulberry silk, a handwoven ‘heritage’ cloth from India whose export and sale is supporting handweavers in West Bengal. Its natural colour is a pale creamy yellow. Slubs and weave imperfections in the shawls I have chosen are part of their intrinsic beauty.

I mordant the scarves in alum and cream of tartar (unless I’m only dyeing with indigo) and I either dye a pale base or start from the natural silk colour. The wax and dye is worked in layers, with each layer and colour building up a pattern as I block areas out with wax. The designs are loosely based on forms of virus – which are helpful and unhelpful to the human race – and frequently look very pretty through a microscope.

A madder-dyed shawl will be exhibited in the Spring Show at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, which starts on 29th May

Despite the technique being slow and methodical it isn’t without hazards, mostly due to my senior lapses in concentration. I have overheated the dye vessel (the wax melted); I’ve placed a pattern motif in the wrong place, and I’ve left a small piece of masking tape on the cloth, which efficiently resisted the indigo and left a mark. Because the shawls are expensive I feel very upset when I mess one of them up, but minor wobbles or mistakes reflect the handwoven beauty of the scarves themselves, so I try to be philosophical about it. The cloth is full of slubs, and often shows an uneven density of warp threads which affect the dye take-up. More fibre takes up more dye, so the cloth can have variations in colour. They are utterly fiendish to photograph as they are very lustrous and the colour appears to change all the time.

Shawl below dyed in walnut leaf and indigo

Details of the forthcoming Spring Show at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen here


Leave a comment

Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763 – 1765 (2)

A selection of wool samples from the Dispatch Book

In 2017 a rare 18th century cloth merchant’s dispatch book of Claude Passavant, a Swiss émigré, was discovered in the London Metropolitan Archives by Todd Gray, a well-known historian from Exeter in England’s South-West. Exeter was internationally renowned for all aspects of cloth production, not least dyeing, but few records survive. Realising that no-one had studied Passavant’s book, which contains almost 2,500 wool samples, most of them dyed in a range of vibrant colours, Gray assembled specialist authors to write thirteen chapters for a book on the local and wider contexts of 18th century cloth making. I co-authored the one on contemporary dyes and dyeing techniques with Jenny Balfour Paul. Jenny is a writer, artist, lecturer and traveller, internationally known for her research into indigo and natural dyes.  Other chapters in the richly illustrated book include a history of Exeter’s cloth merchants, the archaeology of Exeter’s cloth industry, fulling mills and merchants’ seals.

There has already been excellent national and local press coverage of this book and the story behind its discovery.

The Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763-5, edited by Todd Gray, launches on 19th February, and is available at a special discount price of £25 from Keith Stevens at http://www.stevensbooks (sales@themintpress.co.uk) or (01392 459760. Otherwise it is on sale at £35 from publishers Boydell & Brewer and can also be found on the usual bookseller outlets.

I wrote a little more about my involvement with this project last year, and you can read it here.

The above images show details of the actual Dispatch Book held in the London Metropolitan Archives, including wool samples and associated balemarks, and the recently published book edited by Todd Gray. Gray’s publication includes images of all pages of the Dispatch Book.


Leave a comment

The Dyeing Year

A whole extra pile of mail arrives before Christmas in many British households. This is the seasonal appearance of greetings cards from family, friends, neighbours, and sometimes local businesses. In my case, several cards represent the sole contact I have with ‘old’ friends and I actively anticipate their arrival to hear everyone’s news. News isn’t invariably happy, of course, and the saddest cards are those that don’t arrive at all.

Wax resist and steam-fixed silk dyes on silk pongee, 2020

Almost without exception this year’s cards express the anguish of the past months and the hope that 2021 will be better. Among my extended friends and family there have been job losses, health and financial crises, cancelled celebrations, stranded travellers and separated families. I also learnt of the cards that will not make an appearance.

Wax resist and steam-fixed silk dyes on silk pongee, 2020

It hasn’t all been bad. One of the better outcomes of the year’s crisis has been the communication enabled by such platforms as Zoom. I chat to student friends regularly, and have caught up with people who live abroad or far away, or I haven’t seen for several years. I’ve attended an online conference, several lectures, an AGM, a charity concert, various makers’ fairs, and yoga classes. I’ve ‘met’ longterm online correspondents – and liked them as much as I thought I would.

Wax resist and steam-fixed silk dyes on silk pongee, 2020

The beautiful summer weather assisted a stellar indigo crop to mature and I had enough left over from dyeing to make pigment, and contribute to a research project into Japanese indigo. In the last couple of weeks I delivered a batch of scarves (pictured above) to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, an organisation that has courageously fought for survival through 2020 and is attracting good sales now that it has been able to reopen. My studio output this year has been meagre because I have been occupied by the complicated business of everyday living, but it felt good to deliver a few new pieces of work at long last. Dr Denim, my contribution to the Guild’s annual Members’ Exhibition, won the People’s Choice Award in November. You can read about much of this work in previous posts.

Thank you for following, reading, contacting me, and commenting. May all your 2021s be an improvement on this stressful year.

Japanese indigo in preparation for pigment


2 Comments

Plant to Pigment: using Japanese indigo

Like many, I felt the urge to grow-our-own veg at the panicky beginning of lockdown. However, I decided that were food to run short, our veg patch wouldn’t sustain us for long. So I took a chance and grew indigo.

In this previous post you can read about how I grew three types of Japanese indigo over the summer and compared some dyed results. I worked on wool and silk.

With the fragrant assistance of 6 sacks of chicken poo I produced my best crop of indigo ever. It grew tall and bushy and cropped heavily in August and September, until flowers started to form. (The general view is that indigo content starts to wane after flowering starts). As the plants are frost sensitive and autumn is definitely here, I am swiftly using up part of the remaining crop to make pigment, preserving the most advanced flowering stems to produce seed. I am obtaining good strong blue from the extractions despite the presence of flowers. At this stage I am picking and mixing leaves from all the plants regardless of type.

A wheelbarrow jammed full of cut stems from all three types of plant. It takes around 3 hours to strip the stalks on my own and a wheelbarrow makes a small jar of pigment

Normally in late summer, groups of local friends plus grandchildren gather to help process each other’s leaves and have fun dyeing day together. It couldn’t happen this year, for obvious reasons. But my crop has been so successful that pigment making has been a very lengthy and solitary process – except when our useful collie intervenes with her personal views on processing.

Many rather more experienced dyers have written about preparing pigment and I have been specially reliant on the advice of Jenny Balfour Paul and Jane Deane, plus the book ‘Singing the Blues’ by John Marshall. Versions tend to differ slightly, but I have produced some respectable-looking pigment.

On the left above you can see stripped leaves in a stainless steel bucket. On the right the leaves are shown post-extraction. Note the blue bloom on the surface

Left above: squeezed out leaves can be composted. On the right, lime has been added and the mixture aerated

On the left above: mixture is being passed through a coffee filter. On the right the dried paste is being ground back into powder.

The pigment making process I used

  • Leaves are stripped from stems and placed in a stainless steel vessel with enough rainwater to cover. Mixture is heated to no higher than 60C (140 F) over about an hour, held for a further hour, then left to cool overnight. I pound the leaves gently with a wooden pole. Leaves are sieved out, and squeezed over the bucket. Squeezed leaves can be composted.
  • Hydrated lime is added to the mixture: I use a teaspoon in my 8 litre vat. I then aerate the mixture with a balloon whisk, or with the wooden pole, or by passing the mixture from one bucket to another. It becomes foamy at the top and the foam will slowly change to blue.
  • I usually transfer the bucket contents to several smaller vessels. Once the mixture settles it is possible to (carefully) pour off the clear liquid at the top of each vessel.
  • The remaining contents are passed through a coffee filter resting in a plastic funnel over a coffee jar, or similar. If the liquid dripping through appears very blue I pass it through again. When the filter only contains blue paste I open it up on a tray and gently scrape off the paste with a spatula.
  • The paste is dried: I put more on the top of the boiler where it is kept gently warm all the time.
  • Mixture is ground in a pestle and mortar. I use a facemask for this stage: the powder easily becomes airborne.

Links

Jenny Balfour Paul Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans

John Marshall ‘Singing the Blues’

Nature’s Rainbow: Susan Dye and Ashley Walker’s website

Jane Deane’s website