Like many, I felt the urge to grow-our-own veg at the panicky beginning of lockdown. However, I decided that were food to run short, our veg patch wouldn’t sustain us for long. So I took a chance and grew indigo.
In this previous post you can read about how I grew three types of Japanese indigo over the summer and compared some dyed results. I worked on wool and silk.
With the fragrant assistance of 6 sacks of chicken poo I produced my best crop of indigo ever. It grew tall and bushy and cropped heavily in August and September, until flowers started to form. (The general view is that indigo content starts to wane after flowering starts). As the plants are frost sensitive and autumn is definitely here, I am swiftly using up part of the remaining crop to make pigment, preserving the most advanced flowering stems to produce seed. I am obtaining good strong blue from the extractions despite the presence of flowers. At this stage I am picking and mixing leaves from all the plants regardless of type.
Normally in late summer, groups of local friends plus grandchildren gather to help process each other’s leaves and have fun dyeing day together. It couldn’t happen this year, for obvious reasons. But my crop has been so successful that pigment making has been a very lengthy and solitary process – except when our useful collie intervenes with her personal views on processing.
Many rather more experienced dyers have written about preparing pigment and I have been specially reliant on the advice of Jenny Balfour Paul and Jane Deane, plus the book ‘Singing the Blues’ by John Marshall. Versions tend to differ slightly, but I have produced some respectable-looking pigment.
On the left above you can see stripped leaves in a stainless steel bucket. On the right the leaves are shown post-extraction. Note the blue bloom on the surface
Left above: squeezed out leaves can be composted. On the right, lime has been added and the mixture aerated
On the left above: mixture is being passed through a coffee filter. On the right the dried paste is being ground back into powder.
The pigment making process I used
Leaves are stripped from stems and placed in a stainless steel vessel with enough rainwater to cover. Mixture is heated to no higher than 60C (140 F) over about an hour, held for a further hour, then left to cool overnight. I pound the leaves gently with a wooden pole. Leaves are sieved out, and squeezed over the bucket. Squeezed leaves can be composted.
Hydrated lime is added to the mixture: I use a teaspoon in my 8 litre vat. I then aerate the mixture with a balloon whisk, or with the wooden pole, or by passing the mixture from one bucket to another. It becomes foamy at the top and the foam will slowly change to blue.
I usually transfer the bucket contents to several smaller vessels. Once the mixture settles it is possible to (carefully) pour off the clear liquid at the top of each vessel.
The remaining contents are passed through a coffee filter resting in a plastic funnel over a coffee jar, or similar. If the liquid dripping through appears very blue I pass it through again. When the filter only contains blue paste I open it up on a tray and gently scrape off the paste with a spatula.
The paste is dried: I put more on the top of the boiler where it is kept gently warm all the time.
Mixture is ground in a pestle and mortar. I use a facemask for this stage: the powder easily becomes airborne.
UPDATE December 13th 2020. Every year, visitors to the Members’ exhibition at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen are invited to vote for their favourite piece. This year the invitation was extended to online visitors and I am delighted to announce that Dr Denim won the People’s Choice Award, 2020. My thanks to all who voted for the Doctor.
UODATEUPDATE December 13th UPDATE
One of the stranger items I’ve ever made is currently on exhibition nearby in Devon. Dr Denim is a full-sized cloaked ‘figure’ wearing a beaked mask, similar to those used by Plague Doctors of the past. The mask is made from a deconstructed pair of old denim jeans; the cloak uses my exhibition stand background felt over a dressmakers’ form and the ‘remedies’ strung on the unstitched waistband represent thoughts on the current pandemic.
I feel every artwork should speak without words, and I hope it does. But if it intrigues you and you want to know more, please read supplementary information below, or on the exhibition’s own website where you will also find additional images. The exhibition is called 2020 (it’s basically, the annual Members’ Show) and is being held at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen in Bovey Tracey until the end of this month. You can visit in person from Wednesdays to Saturdays. But you can also drop in online, from anywhere in the world.
The show was rigorously selected by a panel of Members and I was extremely happy to receive the ‘thumbs-up’ for Dr Denim. It is a particularly strong exhibition this year and contains fascinating and moving statements that Members have written about working during lockdown.
(this information is similar to that shown on the Devon Guild of Craftsmen 2020 exhibition website)
While making fabric masks during lockdown I looked into the historic use of masks during epidemics. An extraordinary 16thCentury Plague Mask is held at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin. The mask had glass coverings to the eye holes and a curved, bird-like beak. It was believed that plague, such as the Black Death, spread through bad smells known as ‘miasma’ and the beak, strapped close to the nose, held aromatic herbs, dried flowers and sometimes a vinegar-soaked sponge. Fragrant smells were thought to fight the pestilential miasma. Plague Doctors were hired by a community during an outbreak of the plague. They wore a beaked mask, long dense robes and a wide brimmed hat. Their key role was not to heal the sick, but to separate infected from well, to write and witness wills, arrange burials and count and record numbers of dead. Some doctors were renowned for their skills and even wrote treatises to assist others. But many took advantage of their proximity to the dead and dying to line their pockets.
We are now all familiar with manifestations of fear during an epidemic, and the universal desire to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Then as now, the medical profession offers hope, as does religious faith. Over the sewing machine making Covid masks, I considered remedies and ‘cures’ past and present, what they have in common, and I then made Doctor Denim.
‘Remedies’ are hung around the doctor’s neck in the manner of a Siberian shaman’s costume. The remedies reflect and blend contemporaneous knowledge of causes and transmission, anecdote, religious faith, folklore, superstition, fake news and conspiracy theories, the role of leaders and the state, racial or religious prejudices leading to ‘persecution as remedy’, duplicitous quackery, and the ever-present spur of money-making. Inequality of social circumstances could affect the likelihood of plague infection and death, as it does with Covid.
All materials used are recycled, ‘found’, or from existing studio stock. The only specially-bought items were the rainbow ribbons. The fabric elements are created from a partly deconstructed and entire pair of worn-out indigo-dyed (denim) jeans, a garment which has become iconic in our time. The black ‘robes’ are from my exhibition stand display.
Denim and indigo
Denim, from which jeans are made, is an indigo-dyed cotton twill suitable also for a Covid mask because its densely woven fabric will help to impede virus-carrying droplets from passing through it. Natural indigo-dyed fabric is revered by many for its healing properties; it coats fabric and offers a further layer of protection.
Visitors may rest assured that in the spirit of true quackery the potions are not precisely as they claim. Unicorn horn remains hard to obtain and is substituted by brown sugar. Urine is Yorkshire Tea, the crushed emeralds and arsenic are Indian Holi powder. The ‘Holy Relic’ is a sheep or goat’s bone from a Cretan beach, theriac contains neither opium nor viper’s flesh, but is made of blue and white twine pills. There were no leeches in the box when I last checked.
Construction of the piece has consciously reflected the raw quality of unpicked and chopped-up jeans.
Notes on the remedies
Blame is placed at both ends of the chain. The persecution by expulsion, fire or torture of marginalised minorities such as Jews, the disabled or gypsies, took place during times of plague. They were believed to be the source of the pestilence. Modern 21stcentury conspiracy theories about coronavirus continue to spread through the press and social media (for example, blaming a Chinese laboratory, the Freemasons, Bill Gates, G5 and even Norwegian Salmon).
The bone is mounted in a denim pouch, blinged up by gold ribbon from a chocolate box. The power of a holy relic was historically believed by Christians to effect a miraculous cure, or aid the intercession of a saint on the patient’s behalf. Belief in the power of prayer and intercession is still with us today.
Blue and white threads
The remedies are suspended from blue and white twine cords. I use the twine for tying shibori and once through the vat they are dyed blue with indigo. Some cords are made with reference to the knotted technique of tzitzit, or fringes, for the tallitor Jewish prayer shawl.
It was believed by Christians that the plague was divine punishment for human sin. Processions of flagellants would whip themselves and each other as penance, in the hope of avoiding the pestilence.
Pharmaceutical companies compete or co-operate to develop lucrative medications which may alleviate symptoms, cure, or prevent infection.
Disposable ‘gloves’are fronted by a cartoon by The Times cartoonist Peter Brookes.
Eyam (hung in isolation down the back of the Doctor)
During the Black Death there were no remedies, beyond quarantine, that made much difference to outcome. When the Black Death arrived in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1665, the rector and a minister introduced a number of measures, such as outdoor church services and burial of the dead by their own families. They further persuaded villagers voluntarily to quarantine themselves as a community, in an act of great sacrifice and selflessness, with the aim of not spreading the disease beyond the village.
Donald Trump’s ideas on preventative measures are covered in a brief treatise.
With no current cure or vaccine for Covid, a main course of action has been to avoid contracting and spreading the disease by means of quarantine and lockdown. Connection to locked-down friends and family through the internet has eased isolation for many: online contact has been a kind of remedy.
Flowers, herbs and incense
Bound up, dried fragrant herbs and flowers comprise a selection of scented remedies to ward off miasma. These include rosemary, mint, lemon balm, sage, lavender and meadowsweet. The Doctor’s beak is stuffed with lavender and rosemary. Incense is carried in a hanging pocket, together with Café Rouge matches. At exact time of writing, Café Rouge has announced that it too is a Covid casualty and is going into administration.
Medical knowledge: The Four Humours
Much medical knowledge during the Black Death was based on ancient theories of Hippocrates and Galen who described four bodily humours. This theory stated that the elements of earth, water, air, and fire are linked to bodily fluids of yellow bile (fire), blood (air), phlegm (water), black bile (earth). Remedies were prescribed to restore a natural balance which had been corrupted by the plague.
Deliberate bleeding of a vein, with leeches (expensive, but less painful) or a knife (cheaper, and it hurt) was believed to be an effective method to rid the body of undesirable ‘hot’ blood.
Theriac was a popular remedy among the wealthy and included many ingredients such as viper flesh and copious amounts of opium. Ingredients were mixed with honey or treacle and could be thickened and made into pills.
Crushed emeralds, arsenic, mercury (quicksilver)
Crushed precious minerals were made into concoctions to drink. Those who couldn’t afford them drank mercury or arsenic – which probably despatched them even more swiftly than the plague. It was thought that ‘like could be treated with like’, and one poison could cure another.
The feather: the Vicary Method (after inventor and doctor Thomas Vicary)
A live chicken had its back and rear plucked. The chicken’s bare skin was then applied to the swollen area of the body, and strapped on to ‘draw the disease’ from the patient. The chicken died, or the patient died, or both.
Drinking a potion comprising ground unicorn horn was thought to be an effective remedy for many sicknesses including the plague, and, not surprisingly, was very rare and expensive. To obtain any horn, the unicorn had first to be lulled into submission by a young female virgin.
Bathing in urine or smearing oneself in faeces was a cost-free remedy open to the poor.
The hope pocket
Our hopes for a Covid solution centre on the research to find an effective vaccine and the pocket contains part of a syringe. I’m happy for people to write their hopes on slips of paper and put them in the pocket.