Isabella Whitworth

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

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.

18 thoughts on “Dyes, history, and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

  1. What a lucky lady you are (it could not have happened to a nicer one though) but it does go to show you never know what is round the next corner. I look forward to read more about the archive and also about your trip to La Rochelle.
    Coming across an archive like this must have sent shivers up your spine once you realised what you had been offered to look through.
    Although it is difficult to do research back in time now just think how difficult it will be in 200 years time with hardly any records on paper any more – just how much digital media will be “readable” let alone “decipherable” then.
    Hope you have thawed out now you are back in the sunny south of the country.
    BTW love the colours of the lichen dyed wool.

    • At the time it all happened, I simply didn’t realise what I had taken on. If I’d known, I don’t think I would have started! Once I realised that the collection was important and talked to friends whose work was in related academic fields I was lucky to benefit from their advice and support. They pointed me in valuable directions, ‘opened doors’ for me and didn’t judge me for my lack of academic qualifications in research or history. That gave me a lot of confidence.

      I agree about the future and our digital archives. There are files in my computer less than 10 years old I can no longer open..

  2. A fascinating account which puts flesh on all the bits and pieces I’d learnt over the years, and puts the story into some sort of coherent order. I love the way webs weave their way through life, they catch all sorts of things, and lead who knows where. Always an exciting journey to an unknown location.

    • Writing things down often helps to settle them in one’s head although as we know, there are endless variations on every ‘truth’! The Bedford Family History, from which much valuable information proceeds, was written by the elder brother. He seemed to have a blind spot about his younger sibling who, I suspect, was rather a brighter spark than his Big Bruv.

  3. Life is full of surprises! What a fascinating journey though and discovering archives of that nature is totally amazing.

    • It has certainly been extraordinary. I think that what has fascinated me most is the human aspect. I know the descendants of the founding chemist, of course; I can read letters and diaries and accounts which refer to merchants, botanists, chemists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and these have given me some idea of how dyes were obtained and processed in Leeds.

  4. What an extraordinary red! Did we have that in the Journal? I remember your (excellent) article, so how could I forget that astonishingly red red?

    Hope your ears are now snug and warm.

    • I’m not sure (can’t remember) if I used the red orchil image in the Journal article.. And to be honest, the photo / screen / does increase the depth of colour. Nevertheless it is redder than most orchil samples I’ve seen. But just as light fugitive, I’m afraid. Orchil is a shocker.

  5. Thanks for this look at the origins of your research. I look forward to learning of future developments as you follow this fascinating trail.

  6. Beach-combing in Italy… is there a more romantic image than that!!

  7. Oh dear, does this mean we have to sign the ‘dyers secret act’ if we are going to La Rochelle in October…:) Looking forward to hearing your talk then.

    • An interesting idea, Tricia. I could have you swear secrecy in orchil although it wouldn’t be legal long, as it would fade.. As a non-academic, I have often wondered about the legal position re research that has been ‘read’ at a conference but is not yet published. Anyone know, Cally? Richard?

  8. I think copyright exists once it’s published as Proceedings or whatever. I think a poster presentation has the intellectual copyrights of published text. I don’t think you can copyright speech unless it’s been recorded and published. But I could be wrong on all this, and it wouldn’t be the first time. These links might help, and

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