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.

4 thoughts on “Shibori, sheep and the power of six

  1. Good luck tomorrow. My Mason bee colony is nearly full, I’ll send you a pic. I’m thrilled that my own small herb-rich meadow grass area is responding so well to my ‘management’ of it over the last 5 or 6 years – the removal of the swathe at the end of each summer and the introduction of Yellowrattle has reduced the nutrients and dense grass cover, opening it up to allow more light in.
    I have a book for you Issy which I picked up in Crediton yesterday at a lovely 2nd hand book shop; you probably already have it but if so, you can possibly pass it on to one of your students; it is Jenny Balfour-Paul’s ‘Indigo’ – a BM publication.

  2. Hi Rich-of-the-Rich grass, I remember learning about Yellowrattle when I did a guided walk at Rosemoor and have since identified it in all sorts of places. But I’d forgotten that it reduces nutrients and gives other stuff a chance, and that’s why it’s useful. The indigo book would be greatly welcomed by someone as yet unknown and I will find a good home for it. I can’t imagine second-handing Jenny’s seminal book, but there you are.
    My Mason bees have started the second nest we put up. But it is old black gutter pipe and I do wonder if it gets too hot in there in the hot sun. Hope to see you soon. I


    Jenny Balfour Paul’s book

  3. lovely grasses! here we don’t have mason bees as our weather is too warm but the bee nest photo is another beauty- all those clay colors! are they in cardboard tubes or reeds of some sort?
    the itajime shibori looks grand- similar to what students here make. i have taken to using my wood blocks for indigo only and the acrylic forms for other colored dyes because the dyes do transfer…

    • Thanks for the visit.. the bee nest is something I bought several years ago from a little company that, sadly, no longer exists. The outside is terracotta and like a jar turned on its side. You can buy the tubes in the UK easily:
      The tubes are cardboard but have a central, removable paper inner which should be changed each year so that parasites don’t build up inside.

      I live in an area super-rich in clay, which is why I enjoy the different coloured clays appearing at the sealed tube ends.

      Like you, I use a separate set of blocks for indigo. I don’t have an easy source of acrylic, so clingfilm is the answer.

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