Isabella Whitworth

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


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Purple stains

stain

A very obvious spill of orchil left this 1853 letter stained, with loose deposits of a powdery purple substance on the surface

This is my 38th day in coronavirus lockdown. Like many, I have a diary full of scratched-out teaching, appointments, celebration parties and anticipated trips. I haven’t felt particularly creative for the past few weeks and admire the achievements of those who use their daily exercise to draw and paint and record their experiences visually, or translate their time into the positivity of making work. I feel as though that particular tap ran dry for me a few weeks back. It’s a bit weird but I don’t feel bad about it, it just is. I have found other things to do.

When I’ve not been gardening, or training the new puppy, or learning to make videos,   I’ve been working on family history links with England, USA, Ireland and Ecuador. And with no other distractions or excuses I have finally managed to get my teeth back into the Leeds-related archiving I’ve been undertaking for some years. You can find other blogs about this research in the ‘word cloud’ on the right, under the search titles Wood & Bedford, orchil, and Yorkshire Chemicals.

Over these weeks of lockdown the archived boxes of labelled documents are growing, the unsorted papers are diminishing.  Most nights when I turn out the light and go to wash my hands (in a non-coronavirus way) there is a trace of pink or purple in the dirty, soapy water. I know it’s from orchil. The earlier papers, dating  between 1833 and 1855, came from a time when many of the working spaces of Wood & Bedford adjoined. The Fire Insurance document of 1855 describes these workspaces and some of the equipment. Orchil lichen was ground into powder with stones before manufacturing into dye, after which it was reduced back into powder (cudbear), or sometimes paste. Orchil dust would have hovered permanently, coating surfaces and settling on any uncovered papers. I have sorted papers with heavy purple stains, as if spills took place where they were stored, and there’s even a purple thumbprint on the back of an invoice for glass and earthenware. This gave me a real archival shiver because at that time (1850) there was just one person, James Bedford (1824 – 1903), who would have been working on orchil at the Hunslet address: the move to Kirkstall Road was imminent but had yet to take place. I have developed a very healthy respect for James and I like to think it is his thumbprint on the paper. It feels like a kind of handshake.

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Back of an 1850 invoice showing a purple thumbprint

I also found an 1853 letter stained with a large spill, which had resulted in several crusty deposits of a loose and powdery purple (see top image). I am neither equipped nor funded to conserve these papers and have stored the heavily stained ones separately so that at some time in the future there is the potential for them to be studied further. But while I was working a tiny deposit loosened off and I rescued it, putting it in a container with a little water. I checked it impatiently, and slowly, over several hours, the powder began to release its colour. It shows a typical fresh purple orchil pink. Amazing to see, and a rewarding moment that joins several other highlights in many years’ work on this archive. I will drop a few silk fibres in once I think all the colour has been released, and see if it will still dye.

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Orchil dye reconstituted from the 167-year-old orchil spill. The colour is typical of orchil

It’s intended that my section of the archive will finally join the main Yorkshire Chemicals collection already in the curation of the West Yorkshire Archive Service facility at Morley, Leeds. Wood & Bedford became the lead company of the Yorkshire Dyeware and Chemical Company in 1900, which was renamed Yorkshire Chemicals from 1974 – 2004 when it went into administration. The work on the Morley archive was completed by Dr Howard Varley who had been an employee of Yorkshire Chemicals until its demise. The complete set of archives will give a rare insight into the lifespan of a dye manufacturing company whose work spanned the transition from natural to synthetic dyes.