Isabella Whitworth

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


Mud on the dog, blood on the ropes

The mud? Our snowflake melted, the moor is waterlogged, ditches and streams are overflowing, and although water is trying to flow downhill, it has to queue up and wait its turn. Water has nowhere left to go. The dog ploughs happily through it all, acquiring an abstract expressionist look to her fur. The final dog walk event nearing home must be in the ditch we call the Dog Wash.

Damp in the Devon air oozes into cob, thatch, wood  and stone. I am a church bell ringer and it also oozes into the bell ropes if they are not kept dry between ringing sessions. We have an extraordinary system to keep our ropes dry in the main tower – ropes are held within a large tube and a piano heater placed inside. But we ring in other places where there is no heat available.  Damp ropes become hard and tight and they also shorten in length. It makes them particularly hard to ring and is wicked on the hands, often resulting in blisters and friction burns – hence occasional drawn blood.  We had a long practice session on Saturday and I scored a four-plaster pair of hands this morning. Later, during the day’s ritual dog-mudding, I wondered what fibre is used for bell ropes.

These two quotes are from the website of Mendip Ropemakers Ltd

Flax has become the most widely used natural fibre for Church bell ropes. Flax is widely available at a reasonable price but the quality can vary depending on a wet or dry harvest. Flax is hard wearing and soft to handle. It is liable to absorb moisture and stiffens in damp or humid conditions. Longer ropes can change in length as a result of wet & dry weather.

Hemp is the traditional material for bell ropes. It is a superior quality of natural fibre rope, giving greater strength and abrasion qualities. Hemp is not as readily available as flax and is therefore more expensive. Hemp rope may seem a little hard on the hands initially, but softens with use. Hemp is also liable to absorb moisture and stiffens in damp or humid conditions. Longer ropes can change in length as a result of wet & dry weather.

There are several companies that make ropes, among them Ellis Bell Ropes in Leicestershire whose site shows how the sallies are made, by inserting coloured wool into the rope. The sallies are the tufted lengths which ringers grip while ringing; you can see some of them in the images above. They are often striped, which makes it easier to see them whizz up and down in dark bell towers.

Man-made fibres are also used: I saw references to pre-stretched polyester and something called Dyneema which is a ‘polyethylene core shrouded with a polyester sheave’. You can also buy combination ropes, where the bottom of the rope is flax and the top of man-made fibre.

Why do I ring? I enjoy being part of a team following an ancient tradition. I love old churches, and ringing in different places gives me the opportunity to climb towers. And, crusty old cynic that I am, I enjoy the ceremony, celebration and hope signified by a wedding and the theatrical moment when a peal of bells announces the emergence of the newly-married couple into the daylight. In our small town, there is normally a large crowd waiting.

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Of shibori and Eisenia fetida

Britain has embarrassingly ground to a halt under the assault of several frightening snowflakes. If you live in continental Europe, our annual impotence in the face of white stuff falling from the sky is the subject of tittering merriment from Montpellier to Munich.

If you live further afield I should explain that snow is not at all unknown in Britain. But gritters, snowploughs, de-icers etc are on the endangered list having been overfished, over-harvested or hunted to extinction. As a result schools close, public transport fails, there is panic buying in the shops and local news teams go searching for slopes covered in merry tobogganing children.

Last week’s accelerated endeavour to make shibori scarves for Friday turned out pointless; the morning meeting at which I was to hand them over was cancelled because of a large snowflake between Exeter and Bovey Tracey.  A major road was ‘too dangerous’ and we were all advised to stay in our homes wrapped in blankets and listen to our radios. Nevertheless, getting ahead and completing scarves did give me unexpected studio time and I have been working on a set of samples to demonstrate techniques for my March course Brilliant with Pattern at West Dean. I am combining shibori and wax resist with a new set of techniques that occurred to me in one of those middle-of-the night eureka! moments.

I occasionally think of useful things in the middle of the night but normally I lie awake beset by obsessional anxieties over pieces of paper I may or may not have lost, people I may not have upset and whether the worm composter needs emptying at 4 am before the entire population of Eisenia fetida drowns. And talking of the worm composter, it did a Boris Johnson last week and some seeds germinated inside to form an extraordinary growth of thatch. It was quite a picture inside, so I took one. And here are a couple of others of work from weather week.



I happened to mention to a friend that I only look tidy for an hour once every six weeks. This unusual sixty minutes occurs immediately after my haircut – and today was haircut day. Friend suggested that I astonish my blog readership with an image of me during tidy-hour, but I am a bit shy to do that. Instead you shall have a reflection of the svelte-for-a-moment-me in the cylinder of my fabric steamer. I loaded it up this morning with nine shibori scarves, and the three waxed ones which I completed since New Year. The image is wonderful, for in the reflection process I have lost three tons and almost look thin. Other images show the lead up to the steam with making the shibori scarves, removing wax from the waxed pieces and other bits and pieces.

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I’ve had a busy few days which have included a preview of Devon Guild of Craftsmen’s biennial exhibition Get Fresh. This features the work of emerging south west makers. It’s open until 24th February. A trip to London for the Journal editorial meeting was on Saturday in the Gradidge Room at the Art Worker’s Guild. I like this elegant but slightly crumbly old building in Queen Square, with stern portraits of past masters (there were, it seems, no mistresses)  looking down on us from the walls. The Art Workers Guild was founded in the 1884 and I enjoy reading  its aims, comparing them to what we are trying to achieve through the work of the Journal and the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. Looking up their textile membership, I found Bobbie Kociejowski and Charlotte Grierson, both names well-known to the Journal.

I particularly  like the last few words in this quotation from the home page of the Art Workers’ Guild:

The Guild is a society of artists, craftsmen and designers with a common interest in the interaction, development and distribution of creative skills. It represents a variety of views on design and stands for authenticity (irrespective of political and stylistic ideology) in a world increasingly uncertain about what is real.

Back home, and after a Journal meeting, there is normally a great deal of follow-up emailing to do, and this time is no exception. I need to make a small collection of shibori for the Devon Guild of Craftsmen on Friday, which means last opportunity to steam-fix will will be on Thursday.

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In the second post…

It’s time to open the blogdoor and let the first visitors into the studio. Actually, I haven’t been in the studio much today because the red pen is out, which means it’s proofreading time for Journal issue number 245. On Saturday there is a Journal committee meeting in London – always a long and packed day with a trip from rural Devon to buzzing central London and back again. But it’s mentally stimulating, it’s fun and I enjoy seeing friends from far-flung places and eating too many biscuits. We always fight the clock but our chairman wields her claymore and we normally finish the agenda on time.

In the studio I have wax-resist / steam-fixed dye work on the frame in a new series called Between Worlds. I am working on a silk crêpe de Chine and the finished scarf will be 134 cm x 20 cm, or 8″ x 54″ in English. The image on the right above is a scarf that was selected for the National Exhibition of the Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers last July; on the left, the detail shows a new scarf in early stages of making. I have been using different-shaped wax brushes to create the marks. The design is worked freehand except for a light pencil mark, just visible, which I need to follow in order to define the shapes of the dark pools (or are they shadows?)  beneath the trees.

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Starting afresh

I first designed and managed my own website over ten years ago.  I set it up with certain aims in view at a time when silk painting was often poorly regarded. There was an abundance of salt-flinging at wet dyes on cheap silk, poorly-drawn scarves using clumsy water-based resists that bled dye, and derivative design. The medium developed a bad name and it wasn’t always wise to introduce yourself to a gallery as a silk painter. At that time I hoped to illustrate some of the medium’s potential on my website.

Since then, my working priorities have developed, as have teaching venues and the technology to write and publish online. These days I still work with wax-resist on silk but I also produce natural-dyed silk and wool scarves and grow some of my own dyestuff. With colleagues and friends I have been researching methods of using natural dyes with wax resist, which has proved a very complex problem.


For four years I have been researching historical dyes in a more academic form, which can involve intense and concentrated writing; I also assist with the editing of  the Journal of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. The old site is no longer relevant to my wider aims. The final straw for my website camel was that the Dreamweaver program I used is no longer compatible with my computer system. It’s now incredibly tedious to update and I find all sorts of excuses not to get around to it.

During a seven week trip to Australia in autumn 2012, we set up and maintained a blog (from some very unlikely upload locations) and I realised that the format of a blog plus a few static pages would probably work well for a new site.

I’ve launched this new site in the last hours of 2012 – in the spirit of optimism we are expected to adopt at this time of year – before the Talisker properly takes hold.