Isabella Whitworth

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


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Reasons to be Stressful

Presentations

I’m halfway between two presentations. The first was for the 6 Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers at Stratford where I spoke about orchil and how the trade in lichen dyestuff reached global proportions in the late nineteenth century. I thoroughly enjoyed my day at Stratford which included a talk by co-speaker Joan Baxter on the way the East Sutherland landscape influences her tapestries. Her recent collaborative work with dancers Between the Web and the Loom was interesting and she showed some video clips. But I can’t find any images on the internet to provide a link beyond this one (about the dance) and this one (about the tapestry she wove).

The second presentation is for the Dyes in History and Archaeology Conference (DHA) in La Rochelle, France. That’s later this week, is about something else entirely, and it’s going to be rather sensational.

Friday 4th October

11:45          Treasures from a Leeds Dye Chemist: A Century-Old “Tyrian Purple”?

                   Isabella Whitworth, Zvi C. Koren

If you want to know more about the sensational, come to La Rochelle. Otherwise, I’m sorry, you may have to wait a little. To download the whole DHA La Rochelle programme, visit this page and follow the links at the bottom.

For the moment, here is a taster in the form of some images. You will see two men, both chemists. There is a brother and a sister, and the son of a famous father.

Lectures and technology

Those who are of ‘a certain age’ will remember that one of the worst things that could happen when giving a lecture was that you dropped all the slides just prior to going on stage then reloaded them upside down, in the wrong order and back to front.

Technology wasn’t satisfied with such piffling levels of stress. So it created Macs and PCs and system updates; memory sticks and SD cards and PowerPoint and embedding. It now arranges that hosts provide an ancient laptop unable to read anything post 1910;  it organises missing leads, the wrong leads, deflating batteries, clickers that die, videos that won’t load and projectors which will have nothing to do with your laptop.

I have watched entirely respectable speakers show a presentation devoid of images because they haven’t checked their Mac presentation on a PC – or haven’t embedded their photos.

As a result I am obsessive about options. At the 6 Guilds event I took my own Mac laptop, own projector, requisite leads plus a boggling array of memory sticks and SD cards correctly formatted and checked out on a neighbour’s PC. In fact, the options proved unnecessary as the 6 Guilds laptop was up-to-date, the memory stick loaded, and two super-calm techies were in control.

For DHA, all presentations have to be sent in advance of the Conference which is good sense – in theory. You will be informed that something has arrived, but you still don’t know if the presentation shows exactly the way you designed it. So, when you get there, you need to check – and have some options up your sleeve. I didn’t do the DHA PowerPoint: my co-author did, for which I am deeply grateful. It can all be his fault.

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Talking Orchil

Canterbury graveyard, 1960s sketchbook

Lichens in a Canterbury graveyard: from my 1960s sketchbook

In my last post I started to write about orchil, and how I became fascinated by its story through my researches on an eighteenth / nineteenth century Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive.

To start at the beginning, orchil (pronounced or-kil) comes from lichens. It has been used for millennia to dye wool and silk a purple colour. There is some confusion over ancient recipes for purple. It isn’t always possible to decipher which recipes refer to lichen and which to shellfish dyes. Both dyestuffs produce a remarkably similar colour, were to be found in the same areas (e.g. the Mediterranean coast) and descriptions of lichen are often a little vague. For instance, dyestuff might be referred to as a plant, or a moss, or a seaweed.

There is evidence (Pliny, Theophrastus, Dioscorides) that orchil was used in conjunction with shellfish purple and it’s a ready assumption that this was done  to defraud – which of course it may have been. The processing of orchil would have been significantly cheaper than for shellfish dye. But the combination was also undertaken to produce a legitimately cheaper alternative to pure shellfish-dyed cloth. Nevertheless, orchil and shellfish-dyed cloth seems regarded with disdain because of the great and unique reputation of shellfish purple, and orchil’s tendency to fade.

The beauty of fresh orchil on woollen yarn

The beauty of fresh orchil on woollen yarn

Orchil dye is extremely beautiful in its first, fresh bloom of colour but it normally proceeds to fade fast. It is therefore interesting to read a 2012 paper (link below) in which Casselman and Terada demonstrated that a combination of orchil and shellfish dye may in certain circumstances, stabilise the orchil. They also reported that the  use of orchil as a base dye would to some extent neutralise the intensely unpleasant odour of shellfish-dyed cloth. Those facts cast an entirely different light on the historic combination of orchil and shellfish dye.

It occurs to me that in more recent days, far from being ‘poor man’s purple’, orchil could have been considered a great luxury. If you could afford the rich glories of orchil-dyed silk, and these would be obvious to all by the colour, it might indicate one’s financial indifference to fading and the realities of a soon-spoiled garment.

Dye lichens

Not all lichens will dye, not all dye lichens will make orchil. Orchil-producing lichens (and there are innumerable species) contain precursors of the dye and to make this available the dyestuff must be crushed in ammonia or stale urine and water and then kept well-oxygenated. It undergoes a type of fermentation, and the purple colour develops over several weeks.

Orchil is very sensitive to changes in pH and by adjusting vat strength and acidity, a wide variety of colours can be achieved, ranging from browny reds to reds, pinks and purples.

Crotal / crottles

There are lichens that will dye rusty reds, browns and golds. They are often referred to as ‘crotal’, (a Gaelic word) or crottle, lichen. These require no fermentation and are normally boiled up together with fibre, yarn or cloth. They have been in traditional use in Scotland for centuries and the warm, earthy smell of crotal-dyed yarn is also a moth deterrent. But crotals are not orchils!

Mordants

Neither orchil nor crotal requires a mordant although some historical recipes recommend an alum mordant for orchil.

 

The Wood & Bedford Orchil Story

I found a vast number of items in the archive which related to the nineteenth and twentieth century trade in orchil. A couple of them can be seen in the previous post. The records defined several sources of orchil lichen. Around 1830 these included Scandinavia, Sardinia, the Azores, Madeira,  the Canary Islands and Cape Verde. Political changes and colonial interests affected trading in the later 1800s, as did the slave trade and, eventually, its abolition. A picture emerged of a voracious trade that reached an industrial and even global scale by the mid nineteenth century. There is a certain irony in the fact that stocks of what, in effect, is a non-renewable product were saved by the synthesis of mauveine by Perkin in 1856. The demand for lichen then dropped. Nevertheless, Wood & Bedford,  later the Yorkshire Dyeware and Chemical Company, continued to buy and process orchil lichen well into the twentieth century. I understand that the last unused lichen stocks went to Johnsons of Hendon who presumably used lichen to make their indicator papers.

Lichen ethics

You will see that I have learned to make orchil and to dye samples for research purposes but I don’t use it in my studio work. You can read some of my thoughts on lichen use here. I am extremely grateful to all those who taught me about making orchil and how to dye with it.

Pronunciation

How do you pronounce lichens? I say it to rhyme with kitchens. Most people and academics (ok, sorry, academics are also people)  say ‘likens’. The OED pronunciation makes it official: you can say it either way:
/ˈlʌɪk(ə)n, ˈlɪtʃ(ə)n/

References:

The Politics of Purple: Dyes from Shellfish and Lichens Karen Diadick Casselman and Takako Terada

Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science; Dominique Cardon, Archetype Publications

The Colourful Past: Origins, Chemistry and Identification of Natural Dyestuffs; Judith H. Hofenk de Graaff, Archetype Publications

Lichen Dyes: The New Sourcebook and Craft of the Dyer by Karen Diadick / Leigh Casselman

 


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Dyes, history, and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

About five years ago life veered off in a new and unexpected direction.

My neighbours asked me to look at a dye-related company archive they were liberating from their attic. They were selling their house, thought they had a ‘firm offer’ and there wasn’t a lot of time.  There would be no space for the archive in their new home and I offered to rescue anything important from its potential new resting place – an unconverted stone barn. I imagined I’d see a small, disparate heap of documents and books descend the attic stairs with little supporting contextual information;  honestly, I did wonder how interesting that might be.  Because I knew a little about dyes I hoped to advise my neighbours if anyone would be interested in any of the collection before it made its acquaintance with the barn.

Six weeks later (the ‘firm offer’ wasn’t) I had opened and listed the contents of dozens of boxes and trunks containing documents, books, ledgers, patents, dye samples, photographs, letters, diaries, Minutes, catalogues, invoices, plans, maps, contracts, botanical samples, watercolours, chemicals, medals and awards….   and even a mousetrap, devoid of mouse.

Are you beginning to get the idea? Neither disparate, nor without context.

This is some of what I initially learned. The archive had been handed down through my neighbour’s family. He is a direct descendant (the great-great grandson) of a chemist called James Bedford who was born in  1795 and apprenticed to a chemist and druggist in Briggate, Leeds, in 1810.  James Bedford was the first in a descending series of three James’, all of whom worked in the family business, which started its life as Wood & Bedford. The same company, though it amalgamated with others and changed names, never underwent a takeover and occupied the same premises in Leeds, on Kirkstall Road, until it went into administration in 2004. It was by then the internationally-known Yorkshire Chemicals.

The Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive was largely assembled in the early twentieth century by the third of the James’, although it included material from the early 1800s. There was little after 1945 as later material was largely retained by the company and not kept within the family. I published an article in the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in 2008 (it can still be downloaded here) which gives a summary of the early days of my research. I was amazed to discover that, contrary to what I had read and often heard, the use of natural dyes persisted long after 1856 when mauveine was discovered by the young William Henry Perkin. Logwood, orchil lichen and various tannins featured in the archive well into the twentieth century, although the company also worked successfully on the development of synthetic dyes.

It’s hard to pin down why I became particularly intrigued by the orchil trade, but an early 1800s dyers’ notebook (there’s a page shown above) certainly helped. My orchil-dyed path, proceeding from the heap of rusty trunks, has since led me to Galicia in Spain, to Posnan in Poland, to Leeds, Lisbon and to Ecuador. In October it’s taking me to La Rochelle, and last week it took me back to Yorkshire. I will be giving a talk on the orchil trade to the ‘6 Guilds’ group of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers at the end of this month in Stratford; at DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) in La Rochelle in October I am delivering a joint research paper with Professor Zvi Koren on samples labelled ‘Tyrian Purple’. I can’t say any more about those until after the event – or I would have to leap through the screen and kill you. It’s Classified.

Yorkshire Grit

The Wood & Bedford / YC archive has been accepted by the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS) through the generosity of my one-time neighbours; a ‘firm offer’ did eventually materialise. So the collection has gone back to Leeds where it belongs. WYAS were excited by the fact that the archive covered long periods of the same company’s history. It isn’t yet available for study as archiving is being undertaken by a dye chemist; through a coincidental set of circumstances I was put in touch with a large group of ex-employees of Yorkshire Chemicals (YC), of which he is one. This contact led to my giving ex YC employees several presentations as they knew nothing about Wood & Bedford’s beginnings. Most professed great affection for their time at YC, and one referred to it as ‘the best days of my working life’.

A (sadly) dwindling band of ageing YC folk meet up from time to time and I sometimes join them for the annual outdoor charity Band Concert given by the Elland Silver Youth Band. That’s why I have just been back to Yorkshire. The rest of the country sweltered in tropical heat, but Halifax wasn’t having that. It was practising Yorkshire Winter. The wind Heathcliffed down from the moors with such enthusiasm that tents and gazebos couldn’t be put up to protect the young Band members – who played valiantly in shirtsleeves. A knocky-kneed and freezing set of ex YC attendees cowered under woolly blankets and discussed cryogenic concerts. There’s nout like Yorkshire Grit.

I’ll be writing more about the archive in future blogs, once I thaw out.

Farfield Mill

Some years ago when Farfield Mill reopened as an arts centre, I used to sell work there but I have never visited until this week. The impressive Mill centre is set on four floors which include exhibition spaces, a retail area, the best second-hand textiles bookshop ever, a historical display about wool, weaving and knitting  and small workshop / display units. A large industrial working loom weaves blankets and throws next to the Weavers Café – a refuelling stop after the rigours of viewing everything at Farfield. I enjoyed seeing but particularly, handling, Laura Rosenzweig’s Howgill Range which I have only read about in the Journal  (issue 243).  As Laura’s Loom, Laura runs one of the work and display units. With my next Yorkshire concert in mind, I bought a Shetland wool hat from Angela Bradley‘s shop.

On the top floor we found a welcoming group of weavers, some of whom I know through the Online Guild. They had a variety of looms and equipment on show and in use, and were clearly a valuable asset offering explanations to visitors, many of whom, it seems, don’t know the difference between weaving and knitting.