Isabella Whitworth

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


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Learning the ropes: learning methods

One of my first posts on this blog included a reference to bellringing.  If you live outside the UK you may know nothing of the ancient tradition of church ringing which seems to have started in England at an uncertain date, but was well established by the 1600s. It spread to the English-speaking world, but not to continental Europe. Bells are rung in sequences of ‘changes’. They start in rounds (ringing down from the highest bell to the lowest). Then, bells swap places in the sequence. This can be done any number of ways, but always ends up in rounds. It requires control, co-ordination and concentration. The changes are normally called out for ringers to follow, so they are not feats of memory.

These ‘changes’ are what I have learned for about four years but recently we started to learn a different system, called ‘method ringing’. Bells are rung in a sequence but the patterns or order of ringing must be memorised and executed by the ringers – once they are experienced.

If you have followed some of my Leewood posts you’ll have read that I have problems with numbers and maths. I recognise the mathematics of patterns, but experience a debilitating sense of panic when urgently or publicly required to do a sum, follow a numerical sequence or hold a set of numbers in my head. Method ringing is therefore a real challenge. An entire community of over 1,000 people can hear my every mistake.  I have tried to take in the information I need in several ways and this involves learning a sequence of numbers (not so hard for me, but apparently not a good way to learn methods) or writing them out on paper. Then I found a method-teaching explanation describing the pattern changes as a kind of ‘plaiting’. Plaiting or braiding comes from a world I understand, so I thought I’d apply textile tech to bell tech and see where it got me.

It was very interesting. I used dyed string (prepared for braiding workshops I taught in Wales 13 years ago). There was a different colour for each of the six bells rung in learning a beginners’ sequence called ‘Plain Hunt.’ Here the bells move along one place in the sequence but more than one bell may be doing it concurrently. So it isn’t just a case of swapping to the next number in logical sequence because it too may have swapped…. Bring on the debilitating panic.

The image shows what I did with my string. In the right hand sample if you follow a particular colour it travels along one step at a time and remains on the outer edge for two rows, before travelling back the opposite way and returning to its starting position. On the left hand sample, ignore the thick yellow string on the outside right and just look at the sequence to its left.

I certainly find it easier to ‘see’ the ringing patterns by visualising it this way. Removing the scary numbers helps. But I take issue with the description of its being ‘plaiting’ or ‘braiding’ in the method-teaching instructions. To me, a plait or a braid has every change or sequence held in position by the previous one. In the samples above it is impossible to hold the sequence changes in place without the addition of a ‘weft thread’ in the form of a cocktail stick.

Merry postscript: I learned while checking bell facts that that when Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded in1587 the parish of St Margaret’s, Westminster, paid ringers 1 shilling per head to ring out in rejoicing. That is a mighty sum.

Following on from a Welsh mention, I am off to the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Summer School at Carmarthen next week. I am thoroughly looking forward to attending as a student rather than as a tutor for a change and to meeting  Journal colleagues, old friends and students from past years. I will be on Deb Bamford’s course (Deb is The Mulberry Dyer) called Turkey Red and all that Madder. Deb has asked us to take 5 litres of tap water, and to obtain a water analysis from our water supplier. I didn’t know, until she told us, that the water supplier is legally obliged to supply this without charge. Mine finally arrived last week.

I am hoping to blog from the Summer School and will now need to reacquaint myself with the Blogsy app I have on my iPad. It worked very well in Australia last year when we created our travelling blog.

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BB3: Teaching rewards: wax, dye and shibori

Blog-Bite 3 – and almost up to date

It’s great when a student lets me know if something from my course has helped them in their work or studies. Last week I heard from someone on my West Dean course last March . The ‘Brilliant with Pattern’ course introduces several techniques with an emphasis on scarf making, although the skills are useful for general fabric design as well as learning about dyes, wax and silk. The young student who contacted me had just completed a Foundation Course in Sussex. She has been awarded a distinction. She told me she had made her final major project based on what she learned at West Dean and sent me some images, which I have her permission to publish here. Thanks, PJ, and congratulations on your success.

She wrote, about the silk vest in the images: For my final major project I made from georgette silk , the middle panel is actually a print from a photograph I took, using this direct imagery I printed onto transfer paper, then heat pressed onto cotton with an overlay of white chiffon. Then made into a basic top to focus the attention on the print.

More recently I taught two students (J and R) at home. I normally enjoy this: everything is to hand and I don’t have to load the car, drive 200 miles, unload it, sleep in a strange bed with scary pillows and eat too much breakfast every day. There is but one but – and I know it’s something of a cliché.  When students come to me I have to tidy the studio. By the time cleaning operations are complete I don’t recognise the place. Acres of floor emerge, bin bags are filled with things I didn’t know I didn’t need, I am emotionally drained by the stress and I then can’t find a thing for weeks.

J and R had a professional interest in learning silk and steam-fixed dye technique. They were already ‘creatives’ which made technical input the most important part of their visit. To realise the designs and garments they planned through the use of wax, resist and dye, they need to experiment with equipment, materials, various dye techniques and resists and work on various weights of silk. Because they live abroad, heat and humidity will play a part in how they work, how dyes need to be stored etc. There was a lot to pack in, from dye basics to some studio safety, steaming, where to buy to buy silk and wax, even how best to label and market work. We discussed various technical issues, such as painting long lengths and supporting the fabric. We had  to improvise this to some extent using workbenches: I don’t have a set of shinshi sticks and these days do not paint fabric lengths.

We worked in the garage for the longer length as the studio isn’t big enough. The garage too had required a moderate tidy but the Maintenance Department (also Catering Department for two days) had already taken care of it.

I am hoping J and R keep in touch – I’d love to see how the two days with me translates and how they solve some of the technical difficulties we discussed.

And I now have a squeaky-tidy studio and am scared to go in.


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BB2 Teaching dyes, Fusion and Sewing a Boat

Blog-Bite 2: Ardington update

The shibori course I ran at Ardington School of Crafts at the beginning of last month will be repeated on Thursday May 1st and Friday 11th July 2014. There will also be an introductory ‘taster’ day on natural dyes on 10th July 2014 plus a day on shibori using indigo on May 2nd. Look out for the courses in Ardington’s forthcoming programme.

Fusion at West Dean

On June 22nd and 23rd I took part in a new outdoor event at West Dean called Fusion. On the first day I was demonstrating and selling my work, and on the second I led three 90-minute workshops designed to introduce students to working with wax and dyes. The evening before Fusion, I arrived at West Dean to set up and the weather was fine and sunny. It was only a day off midsummer night and I took a walk up onto the hills above West Dean to look down on the tented site. The moon was up and great fields of oxeye daisies caught the evening light. It was like walking on paths through moonlight. Marvellous stuff, but no time to go all romantic because we live in England and it was the last fine weather we saw until Sunday afternoon.

Hot waxpots, dyes and fourteen students confined in a tent taking off for Chichester, anyone?  Not a mix I would normally recommend. But  with a few precautions all seemed to go ok. I was pleased with what students achieved. The sessions were carefully pre-planned and timed, with a basic traced design already on the silk so no-one had to panic because they were expected to draw anything. With the assistance of heavy-drinking Devon friends, I had made a set of simple tools using wine corks and wire which could be dipped into wax to make textures and lines. I offered students small, cheap, bristle brushes which wouldn’t drip wax onto the silk. For sessions two and three we pre-stretched the silk to save time, but students could choose colours and some tools and textures. Without friend and helper Fiona it wouldn’t have worked half so well, and here is a huge and grateful cheer for her.

HOORAY FOR FIONA!!

Sewing a Boat

In my last post I mentioned a family visit. My brother, who is well known for his epic perambulations in rather a small boat (see here)  has been visiting from Australia. In mid June we made a trip down to Falmouth, where several of his voyages have ended and begun and went to the National Maritime Museum. We saw the replica of the Bronze Age boat Morgawr which was built by a team of volunteers led by master boat-builder Brian Curnby. Paul Harry has made a brilliant time-lapse film of the building: see here.

Section of the boat showing sections sewn with yew withies

Section of the boat showing sections sewn with yew withies

One of the things that  fascinated me about the oak boat was that it was sewn together using yew withies. These appear to have been twisted into a kind of rope and pulled up very tight, probably assisted by shrinkage. From the Bronze Age onwards, English longbows were made using one stave of yew (Taxus baccata). The wood is very springy, and the sapwood and heartwood together combine to resist tension and compression. I don’t know all the techie stuff, but I ‘did’ Shakespeare’s Henry V for O Level.  I remember being not in the least interested in his tedious French wife, but far more intrigued by the English longbows used at Agincourt. There is more here about the history and the wood relating to bow making. Wikipedia has a page on yew trees with images of ancient examples from Northern Europe.

Possibly, the same qualities that made yew effective for longbows also worked well for sewing boats together, but I don’t know how the structure of the withies would differ from larger staves of yew used in bowmaking.  The most ancient trees in the British Isles are yew, with the oldest surviving wooden artifact from these shores being a spearhead an astonishing 400,000 years old – see link below.

White, T.S.; Boreham, S.; Bridgland, D. R.; Gdaniec, K.; White, M. J. (2008). “The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of Cambridgeshire”. English Heritage Project. 


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BB1: Historical Dyeing at Leewood

June was my busiest month for a very long time. Work continued on the historical dye project at Leewood, I taught three courses including three sessions of 90 minute workshops plus demonstrating at West Dean over a weekend, sat on an exhibition selection committee and enjoyed a family visit. As a result I am so behind with blog posts that I need to tackle them in Blog-Bites (BBs) or I’ll give up before I start.

So. BB1 is about the final ‘public’ day of historical dyeing at Leewood which I have been working on with friend and colleague Jane Deane. If you want to see what it’s all been about, click here. After this exploratory phase we’ve concluded that we can focus on what we believe is affecting dyes and fleeces. There are certainly differences in dye take-up although they are so far unpredictable across the range of dyes and fleeces. We think we are onto something interesting, which came as a result of the intially frustrating and unpromising day using cochineal in May.

An effective and foolproof  method of collating, labelling and notekeeping has developed as the project has progressed so that we can remember precisely what we did from one session to another and compare results. Each fibre sample is individually labelled and kept in a (similarly labelled) transparent bag. This allows the contents to be viewed without always needing to remove and handle them.

We had intended to run our last day using indigo or woad, but as a result of the cochineal experience decided to repeat three dyes on the same day, but using different water sources. To create conditions as near identical as possible, we made a stock dye solution and divided it equally into jars containing an equal weight of dry fibre. By putting the jars into a bain-marie we kept dyeing conditions the same for all jars.

Our public dye-days have run since March and we have welcomed a number of visitors. The work will now continue privately at Leewood and we’ll no longer suffer the humiliation of ‘maths in public’, at which neither of us excels. Our final day in June was the most busy, with eight visitors (we can count ok provided we have sufficient fingers between us) crammed into the studio workshop. We are grateful to all who braved the creative weather to visit, ask questions and learn about natural dyes.