Isabella Whitworth

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


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Knitwits: Knitting the Blue Stockings

Indigo-dyed wool showing how adjustments in vat concentration and multiple dips can achieve many shades

Once in a while a seemingly mundane request, such as ‘could you look at some old boxes from the attic’ explodes like a dandelion head and breezes into all corners of your life. That happened to me in 2007 and the research it led to is well documented on this website.

About a month ago I had a simple-sounding request from Nicole Pohl. Would I, the email innocently requested, ‘talk on Zoom for ten minutes about dyeing wool?’ Nicole Pohl is Professor of English at Oxford Brookes University and the Editor in Chief of the Elizabeth Montagu Correspondence Online (EMCO), a charity that was set up to digitise and edit all known letters by the ‘Bluestocking woman’ Elizabeth Montagu. I looked up Elizabeth Montagu and the Bluestockings and was intrigued. This was going to be about more than just blue wool.

It meant I would have to learn how to present a Powerpoint via Zoom, compress the subject of natural dyes and what I know about eighteenth century dyestuff into ten minutes and, along the way, include a section on blue-dyeing. Anyone who knows how to dye with indigo or woad will understand what that means. Nicole said there’d also be presentations by two other speakers, plus the input of a knitwear designer. A group of academics would then start knitting blue stockings…. it all sounded a bit of a lark, so I said I’d do it.

Then I learned that one speaker is Susan North, Curator of Fashion, 1550–1800, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Another is Lis Gernerd, a historian of eighteenth century dress, art and material culture. The knitwear designer is none other than Kate Davies whose very recently launched Bluestocking Club has hit over 2000 members. All of them are invited to the Zoom event on Monday 24th May 1600 – 1700 UK time.

You are invited too. It’s free but you have to book, so do it fast as numbers are limited. Here is the link.

https://www.brookes.ac.uk/about-brookes/events/knitwits–knitting-the-bluestockings/

I think its time for a gin and tonic – and it’s only half past two.

Links

The Bluestocking Club

A conversation between Kate Davies and Nicole Pohl on Kate’s site here

Elizabeth Montagu Online


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Mulberry silk

I have been trying to find a more satisfying source of silk than commercial, sparkling white, smooth and ‘perfect’ cloth imported from China. Since last autumn I have been working on mulberry silk, a handwoven ‘heritage’ cloth from India whose export and sale is supporting handweavers in West Bengal. Its natural colour is a pale creamy yellow. Slubs and weave imperfections in the shawls I have chosen are part of their intrinsic beauty.

I mordant the scarves in alum and cream of tartar (unless I’m only dyeing with indigo) and I either dye a pale base or start from the natural silk colour. The wax and dye is worked in layers, with each layer and colour building up a pattern as I block areas out with wax. The designs are loosely based on forms of virus – which are helpful and unhelpful to the human race – and frequently look very pretty through a microscope.

A madder-dyed shawl will be exhibited in the Spring Show at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, which starts on 29th May

Despite the technique being slow and methodical it isn’t without hazards, mostly due to my senior lapses in concentration. I have overheated the dye vessel (the wax melted); I’ve placed a pattern motif in the wrong place, and I’ve left a small piece of masking tape on the cloth, which efficiently resisted the indigo and left a mark. Because the shawls are expensive I feel very upset when I mess one of them up, but minor wobbles or mistakes reflect the handwoven beauty of the scarves themselves, so I try to be philosophical about it. The cloth is full of slubs, and often shows an uneven density of warp threads which affect the dye take-up. More fibre takes up more dye, so the cloth can have variations in colour. They are utterly fiendish to photograph as they are very lustrous and the colour appears to change all the time.

Details of the forthcoming Spring Show at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen here