Isabella Whitworth

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

Natural dye extracts with wax

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There’s a lot going on. A deadline for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers meant last-minute articles had to be reviewed and proof-read. This coming weekend I am teaching at West Dean in West Sussex, the course is full,  and there is a lot to do in advance. Immediately after getting back from West Dean I start a series of structured historical dyeing experiments at Leewood with colleague Jane Deane – more about the project on this page. The house smells of hot sheep at the moment as I have been scouring fleece. Next week I deliver new work for the spring exhibition at Redearth Gallery… and so it goes on.

Reading that lot, I am not quite sure how I found time to do a little work with Aquarelle liquid extract natural dyes (see my blog post on them here). But I used spare hours to paint the extracts directly onto mordanted silk, using wax as a resist between the layers of dye. The instructions for Aquarelle give details on heated dye baths for fixation but this is not an option with wax resist, because the heat of the dye bath would melt the wax. My plan has been to place dye-painted and partially dewaxed work in the fabric steamer to replicate the heat and damp of a dye-bath. To start with I just used two of the dyes: the liquid indigo ‘Saxon Blue’ and the Himalayan Rhubarb.

NOTE: My comments on the outcome must be read as they stand: they are emphatically not a comment on the effectiveness of the dyes themselves but on the dyes used in this unconventional way.  There is a lot more work I need to do having seen the results.

My working method was as follows:

  • Silk scarf blanks mordanted in 8% alum 2% cream of tartar
  • Dried scarves stretched on a frame
  • Wax applied – in this case and in each layer simple stripes and lines across the scarf
  • Different dilutions of Himalayan Rhubarb (HR) and Liquid Indigo Saxon Blue (SB)  applied to create variations of blue – green
  • After several layers using a similar technique, wax partially removed by ironing cloth between newspapers
  • Work rolled in paper and steamed for one hour (note: I don’t have a thermometer in the steamer. It is brought to the boil every two minutes and turns off for about two minutes)
  • Work dipped in White Spirit to remove residual wax, and rinsed several times

Observations:

The good news is that the dyes have set in the steaming process. Repeated rinses after the White Spirit dip run entirely clear. I lost some of the SB in the first rinses, but this was almost certainly because I notched up the SB concentration to extremely high levels in some areas and probably overdid it. I always think of dyes and dye-sites like a game of Musical Chairs. When the chairs run out, the dye has nowhere to sit, molecularly speaking. It’s more to do with the fibre than the dye.

This experiment shows that it is possible to build quite dark tones by increasing the concentration of dye in selected areas. There are some deep greens. I had wondered if this would be possible, and it looks as though it is.

However, the HR has lost its lovely golden hue (see the original colour centre top) and has dulled to ochre. If you look at the images you can see some in which the steaming paper has picked up a lots of pink from the HR painted areas. The dyed steaming paper is lovely in itself: the red component of the dye has leached into the paper and didn’t fix to the silk. I have no idea why. It could be the mordanting. It could be the paper. It could be that I steamed too long, or steamed too hot. It could be that it would always happen, whatever the steam-time and heat. I now need to  dye silk with all the Aquarelle colours, using their recommended dye bath, to evaluate their ‘true’ colours.

The centre image shows small blotches on a brownish area. These are created by small spots of dye on a wax surface which I failed to wipe off. These are travelling through to the silk surface as remaining wax melts in the steamer, and they then fix. In this case it is not too big a blemish, but it can look smudgy and ruin a design.

On the centre right image there are ugly blue splashes. These weren’t present when the fabric went into the steamer. I think loose dye may have travelled all the way through the steaming paper and I shall use two layers next time.

More puzzling is the bleeding of the SB into areas that had been waxed onto white. You can see these top right and centre left in the images. This can happen with synthetic dyes if the work has been placed too close to the outside of the paper roll. If you imagine the rolled paper in the steamer (see here for an idea of how it looks) there is more moisture reaching the roll on the outer surface when it is in the steamer. If the steamer isn’t up to heat, work on the outer part of the roll receives a lot of moisture, doesn’t begin to fix and starts to wander around – playing Musical Chairs. The solution is to wrap additional paper around the outside of a steaming roll. I didn’t do it this time. I am not sure whether the bleeding is a result of the steaming process or an issue to do with the dyes themselves. This didn’t seem to happen with dyes on the inner part of the roll, so I tend to blame my lack of foresight.

Conclusion

There is a lot to do but I am enthusiastic about the potential for working with Aquarelle with wax. The colours I achieved aren’t particularly exciting because of the dullness of the HR after steaming, and I need to research this aspect. But they have fixed efficiently via the steamer, it does seem possible to use wax as a resist, and to achieve some strong, dark tones. So I am optimistic; I just need a 36 hour day.

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