Isabella Whitworth

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


Shibori, sheep and the power of six

Last week I tutored a day-course in shibori techniques at Ardington School of Crafts. Ardington is a village on the edge of the Berkshire Downs. The venue is housed in a Victorian school, and its large windows ensure good light at all times. It has been imaginatively and calmly adapted for its current incarnation as a craft school and overlooks a traditional English landscape of farmland and trees. This week, with fine weather and leaves at the multiple-greens stage, everything looked at its best.

Students were introduced to the basic principles of shibori and how patterns will build in the fabric through what is a mathematical logic of repeating folds and layers. We worked principally with the equilateral triangular fold which creates hexagon-based patterns through its geometry of six equilateral triangles. I prepared a set of triangular card units showing how this repeat principle works. The positioning (and shape) of the clamped and identical wooden blocks either side of the folded fabric is represented by the white areas in my patterns. The clamping inhibits the flow of dye through the fabric. The wood blocks can be any shape – there is a pattern created by the green-painted triangular blocks below – and placed in any practical position. Block position will dictate the basics of the pattern. You can see from the image (below right) that the blocks do not necessarily prevent dye from entering the fabric beneath the clamped area. They just affect the character of the final pattern which is based on dye dilutions, deliberate drying of work, overdyeing etc.

Students ironed vertical folds in a scarf length and converted the strip to a stack of triangular folds. They checked the wood blocks and protected them with new clingfilm. This enables a clean start each time the blocks are used: wood absorbs dye readily and will mark  work that follows. I advise beginners to work with three colours only, plus dilutant, to avoid shades of mud. Some students admitted they had been sceptical that their seemingly random application of dye would create something so ordered and I think all were pleased with their results.

Below, you can see me opening up the steamer. This has to be done with considerable care, hence the somewhat stressed expression. You can see the roll of paper and scarves, which has been protected with foil at top and bottom to prevent drips entering the folds and spoiling the work. Note that the top piece of foil was dislodged as I lifted the chamber from the boiler.

Many thanks to the students for allowing me to post these pictures and to Faith at Ardington for taking the photos.

Other news: On Thursday 13th June, Jane Deane and I will be working on our dye research at Leewood for the final open-to-the-public time. We haven’t finished our research, but from Thursday on you can’t come to watch us. To check on details, see here.

With shearing time in Devon arriving, local flocks are looking cooler and in the summer-ish sun my nest of mason bees (Osmia) is hyperactive. The bees don’t make honeycombs (that’s another hexagon-based subject) but are laying eggs in the tubes and sealing them in various shades of Devon clay. We are lucky to have culm meadow locally which is filling with textured grasses in some summer sun. But tomorrow it is going to rain.


Surprised at Leewood: dyeing with cochineal

Dyeing at Leewood: If you have been following for a while, you’ll know that Jane Deane and I are researching natural dyes on five different fleeces, initially using four dyes. The  four dye-days were / are open to to the public. Visitors can watch, ask questions, and howl at our inability to do basic maths without recourse to endless bits of paper and the assistance of passing goats.

We are dyeing at Leewood, a smallholding on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. So far we’ve worked with weld and madder; this week it was cochineal. We used raw dyestuff  and there is a post on preparing a stock solution of Lanzarote cochineal here. At Leewood we decided to use Mexican cochineal rather than Lanzarote. Why?

Mexican dyestuff  is reputed to be stronger but is more suited to the historical aspect of our interests. It also has a significant local connection.  Lanzarote cochineal arrived on the natural dye scene in about 1830, which is relatively late in terms of pre-synthetic dyes. Our dyestuff was a gift from a friend, who had obtained it while in Mexico from Rancho Tlapanochestli, Oaxaca. If you are reading, thank you, Ana.

A brief history lesson: When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Hernán Cortés heard of the existence of nocheztli, or grana, which the Aztecs used for a rich, red dye. Recognising its efficiency compared to insect dyes available in Europe (eg: kermes, St John’s Blood, Armenian Red), specimens were sent to Spain in the 1520s. The Spanish monopolised the dye, so it rapidly became a great prize to pirates of all nations. A fabled English ‘pirate’ of the age was a Devon boy, Sir Francis Drake, sometimes known as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s chief pirate’. He was born in Tavistock, a few miles from Leewood. You can see Sir Francis, probably dressed in cochineal-dyed garments, in this portrait from the National Gallery.

What happened: Neither Jane nor I consider ourselves novices, but we were taken aback by our first batch of cochineal dyeing this week. Using our normal water source and mordant we failed to produce  colour on any one of five fleeces after around two hours’ dyeing in the jars. The dye ‘baths’ had turned from red to purple but the fleeces were virtually undyed.

Resourceful Jane suggested a different water source and we started a second batch.  That resulted in almost instant dyeing –  and the expected cochineal red. Why? We have absolutely no idea. We aren’t working in a laboratory so can’t analyse the water content of the original source which clearly had some vital part to play. But we take notes on pH, temperature, quantity etc and all the fleeces are dyed from the identical mordant and dye solution. It is the nearest we can get to comparing like with like.

The final surprise was that the initial batch, at first so reluctant to dye, did after four hours pick up very pale colour. This varied most from fleece to fleece of any of the three dyes we have tried. Why again? No idea.

Instead of working with indigo for our final ‘public’ day we are going to retest some of the dyes, comparing water sources.  To find out more about the final ‘open’ day or how to find Leewood, see this page.

Book: For a really interesting read on the history of cochineal I recommend A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield. My own copy is published by Black Swan (2006).