Isabella Whitworth

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


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Changing knowledge, changing attitudes: lichen dyeing

Because it looks like the inside tissue of human lungs, the lichen  Lobaria pulmonaria  (also known as Lungwort) was once commonly used in the treatment of chest infections. The historic rationale of using herbs that resemble parts of the body to treat illnesses of those parts of the body is called ‘the doctrine of signatures’. According to Wikipedia,  a theological justification was made for this philosophy in Christian European metaphysics: It was reasoned that the Almighty must have set his sign upon the various means of curing disease which he provided. The ‘signature’ on the plant was that of God, as a means of guiding the healer’s hand.

The substances in lichens used for both medicines and dye are normally acids; each lichen species can contain several types. The Wikipedia article (linked above) contains contemporary references to possible medicinal uses for  L. pulmonaria, which has indeed been found to have anti-inflammatory and ulcer-preventing properties. So, perhaps it did assist in the treatment of chest infections. When I was in Ecuador I saw usnea lichens sold  for the treatment of sore throats.

I took a serious interest in lichens when I began to study the orchil trade five years ago. You can read how it all came about here. Back then I joined a one-off lichen study walk, arranged by the local branch of the British Lichen Society (BLS). On the walk we were shown L. pulmonaria growing on just one ancient oak; the presence and abundance (or not) of this particular lichen is considered an indicator of forest age as it is normally found only in ancient woodland. It has been badly affected by habitat loss and pollution and according to Dominique Cardon, in many European countries it is a Red Data Book lichen.*  Those of us on the lichen walk were asked not to broadcast the precise location of this rare specimen, but as the BLS  Lobarion Interactive Map reveals L. pulmonaria  at Rosemoor, I can confirm that’s where I saw it – without incurring enduring wrath from the BLS.

In 1960, Eileen M. Bolton published a little handbook for handweavers called Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing.** The book is no less than a classic. It is scholarly from botanic and chemical perspective and it’s also beautiful. It is illustrated with Eileen Bolton’s carefully observed drawings and paintings with several lichens appearing on the same page along with snails, butterflies and curling fronds of ferns or flowers. Through these she shows a thorough knowledge, love and and respect for lichens, and her text includes comments relevant to the US as well as Europe. She makes no general statement on the wisdom and ethics of gathering lichen although she does advocate taking only a little of the L. pulmonaria ‘as it takes years to grow, and forestry operations are likely to make the plant even more scarce.’ She also refers to some species as being ‘less plentiful’.

In 1991 the book*** was reissued in the US due to the efforts of Karen Diadick Casselman. The fascinating story of Eileen Bolton, her family, and tracking down the copyright to her 1960 book, is told in the preface. I strongly recommend reading the preface but the whole book is available to read online here where you can also see Eileen Bolton’s illustrations. The re-issued book was updated to included the status of rare and potentially endangered lichens; L pulmonaria is noted to be endangered in Britain by 1991.

Ten years later, Karen Diadick Casselman’s 2001 book**** on lichen dyes is prefaced by two pages on the ethical approach to dyeing, a useful chapter  on ethics and identification, and an epilogue which briefly exposes some conflicting attitudes and raises questions that potential lichen dyers might consider. I would just add this: I have learned a little through  my contact with mycologists while researching orchil and one of these is the utter complexity of lichen reproduction. It still isn’t properly understood. It isn’t known that a ‘windfall’  lichen can no longer reproduce, or for how long it might reproduce once fallen.  Gathering windfall lichen seems less of a wise move than once it did unless you are actually rescuing it from the bonfire. I now place windfalls back into the crevices of trees.

Last but not least: the pronunciation issue

Is it lichens (to rhyme with kitchens) or lichens (sounds like likens)? I have always said lichens to rhyme with kitchens. Maybe it’s a generation thing in the UK. I am not sure about pronunciation in the US (I’d like to hear from you!) but I think the likens pronunciation is more common. At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where I have worked with mycologists, they also say ‘likens’. But they also say I am not wrong, and as I have no intention of changing at my age, that’s just as well.

Books referred to in this post

*Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science; Dominique Cardon; Archetype Publications; 2007; p 518-9

** Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing; Eileen M. Bolton; Studio Books 1960

*** Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing; Eileen M. Bolton; second edition edited by Karen Leigh Casselman and Julia Bolton Holloway; Robin and Russ Handweavers 1991

**** Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book; Karen Diadick Casselman; Dover Publications 2001

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Ten things I learned about blogging

What do I have in common with two new-road-protesters, a writer seeking a publisher, a foster-carer, a few craftspeople and a family history researcher ? We all met last night at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, attending a beginners’ workshop called ‘Writing an engaging blog.’ The workshop was given by Cosmic ethical IT, a local social enterprise company.

The presenter faced a diverse group. Many of us were familiar with material she had prepared, but to others it was new and puzzling. Some of us operated blogs; others would like to, but didn’t know where to start. Few understood the full potential of interaction with other social media or the best use of tags, categories, search engine optimisation (SEO) and Rich Titles (which are nothing to do with last week’s bones in the car park).

I have distilled the evening into my own LIST of 10 useful / interesting pieces of information:

  • Over a glass of Rioja or similar, identify 15 words or phrases that anyone would need to find your blog, and use them regularly in posts, tags, categories. Do this before too much of the Rioja disappears 
  • Decide who you are, and who your audience is, and always speak to that audience
  • Words in titles of posts carry more ‘weight’ for search engines than the body of the post. Making ‘rich titles’ means including key words or phrases in the titles as well as the post
  • Google spiders, which regularly trawl the internet, take sophisticated  ‘snapshots’ of sites and compare them next visit, giving greater weight to updated content. Updating regularly is vital
  • Having links from more prominent organisations into your site will carry more search engine weight than the other way round. Spiders can, and do, cancel out reciprocal links in their calculations!
  • Pinterest is becoming a particularly important social media tool in the US. Workshop participants commented on how time-consuming it can be to maintain a Pinterest board
  • The Facebook business page can be used to generate very useful statistics on the traffic into a site or blog
  • You can search Google specifically for blogs with the content you want
  • Using YouTube is considered very valuable and it is easy to add (properly attributed) video content to your site
  • Certain types and formats of post are very popular with readers. One of these formats is THE LIST.

This is cheating, as it will make 11. But the other thing I learned was that when you wrap text around an image in WordPress, you can set a border so that the text doesn’t crowd in on it. I have disliked this but haven’t known how to avoid it. I learned how to rectify it last night by using the ‘Advanced’ settings for images. You can set the border to be white as below, not the default black. Warning: In the ‘dashboard’ stage my version looks awful, with the photo overlapping the text. But when uploaded it comes right.

studio

Studio scene complete with empty Rioja bottles

The evening left me wondering who exactly I am in this blog, in terms of my 15 useful words or phrases. Natural dyes, history of natural dyes, dyeing, synthetic dyes, wax resist, shibori, orchil, orchil research, silk painting, indigo, Devon, teaching, workshops, lectures, talks makes 15, and I’ve used them, and it is all the serious stuff.

But it leaves no room at all for nonsense, which will surely creep in amongst the worthy natural dye and shibori. For instance, take a look at the Guardian comment generator, found via the Twitter feed of the admirable  @SimonNRicketts. Press the buttons and you will generate some gems, such as this one from Gwyn Trig-Hampsteath of St Andrews:

After spending three years in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, I find that I am able to see much more clearly the interconnections between today’s geo-political imbalances and many of our social predicaments – for instance: Isn’t it amazing that we can find £30bn to spend on Trident but we can’t afford even basic woodwind lessons for all Primary school pupils?

You see? There is currently no danger of me joining Facebook and going viral.

Thanks to Fiona of Cosmic, and to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen for organising this event.


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A purple tent and Mr Ibsen’s haplotype

A journalist friend once told me that when bored in the newsroom, colleagues would set each other random words or phrases to insert as logically as possible into the day’s articles. The game was to sneak them past the wily editor, and everyone bought the winner a beer. With no colleagues to deal me a rum hand, I idly set myself a trio. A purple tent; sheep’s dung and Ibsen’s haplotype.  

As only the wily and super-smart read this blog, they will instantly smell a rat and I will not win the beer tonight.

Yesterday I received a draft paper on a set of sixteenth century tapestries at the Historic Royal Palaces – in this case, Hampton Court. During conservation work last year, dye analysis was carried out on a tapestry and orchil was found. Because tapestries were such lavish purchases, (a series might cost the equivalent of a super-yacht in today’s money), the use of such a light fugitive dye is surprising. But it’s not the first instance I know of. In the book accompanying the V&A’s 2010 exhibition of the Sistine Chapel Tapestries,* the (pitifully small) commentary on the dyes included the finding of orchil.

In the case of the Hampton Court set, further analysis was to be carried out which involved dyeing and testing wool samples. I assisted  by teaching the making of an orchil vat and demonstrating how to dye with orchil. It was fascinating to be involved in such a project and when the paper is published I will say more about it. Alexander and Hephaestion were the key figures in the tapestry, standing in front of a purple tent. The tapestry is one of a series called the Battles of Alexander. 

And onwards to the sheep’s dung. My initial contact with Hampton Court was through a recommendation. The natural dye / natural dye history world is very small and everyone knows each other’s particular dye obsessions. Deb Bamford is an expert natural dyer, member of the Online Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and always seen at the DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) conferences. She has worked and advised at Hampton Court before and was able to recommend me for my involvement with orchil. Deb will be a tutor at the Summer School of the Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in August this year. I have a place on her course Turkey Red and all that Madder. One of the challenges in natural dye is in obtaining good shades on cellulose and I hope to learn a lot about the various methods and recipes for Turkey Red for which one ingredient used to be sheep’s dung.

My involvement with dyes, history and chemical analysis has increased over the past five years and it is astonishing what modern analysis can reveal about  dyes, colour, and even the variety of a species used to dye a textile. I have been similarly intrigued by the strands of research and archaeological evidence that included the DNA analysis of Michael Ibsen and the identification of Richard III’s bones.  One of the first novels I ever read was The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, which questions the ‘Shakespearian’ version of Richard III and considers how history is constructed very much in the interests of its authors.

Its title is based on a quotation from Sir Francis Bacon: Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.

* Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel; Evans, Browne and Nesselrath; V&A Publishing 2010; pp 36-37


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New toys, no time to play

Last week I took one of my regular looks at Jenny Dean’s website Wild Colour. Jenny is an authority on natural dyes and author of several practical books on the subject.  I respect her work and long experience and her website invariably includes something new and interesting.  Her book Wild Colour was reprinted by Mitchell Beazley in 2010 with updates and revisions – and I wouldn’t be without it.

Jenny’s entry for January 8th 2013 was about a set of natural dye extracts in liquid form. They are called Aquarelle, they are from Botanical Colors and certified compliant with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Jenny’s images show colours on wool yarn and silk fabric; some are mordanted and some are not. The colours look very good, especially on the wool, although the silk looks paler.

Twitter was then tweeted to see if any dyehards had experience of Aquarelle. Positive input arrived from several people including  Jane Deane  (no relation to Jenny and note the different spelling!) who tested the dyes last year. Jane probably told me all about them then, but I’m afraid I had forgotten.

I have used raw dyestuffs or powder extracts, but never a liquid extract which might suit my work better so I ordered a set of dyes which arrived yesterday. There is only one stockist in the UK, as far as I know, and that is D.T Crafts who import the dyes from the States. Unfortunately I just don’t have the time to try them out at the moment, so I took a photo instead.

A satisfying way of combining natural dyes with wax resist continues to be a challenge for me.  I am at my most confident when designs originate in a drawing or sketchbook study and gradually evolve into an image, a texture or an arrangement of shapes, defined by wax as a resist. The original drawing drives me onwards through several incarnations of an idea, although I occasionally fizzle out, exhausted or bored when something doesn’t merit further exploration.  Synthetic dyes are my medium for this type of work; they are painted on in layers alternating with the wax, and then steamed. They go where they are put, they stay there, the overdyes are predictable and they don’t change colour. It’s not at all like that with natural dyes, which, of course, is part of their allure.

Natural dyes normally require heat, and heat melts the wax, so there is an instant difficulty with the natural dye / wax technique. Each separate dye requires individual handling and the colour may not turn out the same as the last time you used it. One dye can affect another, unexpectedly altering a colour or tone and overdyes aren’t always predictable. The timing of the indigo layer is crucial, as is mordanting. I have achieved a few pieces that I am happy with and these can be seen in the gallery section, and above. The central piece suffered from too much alkali in the indigo vat and the silk went harsh. That’s yet another problem with the technique.

I will certainly be posting on the results of work with Aquarelle when I  have time to try them out.