Isabella Whitworth

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


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Stockholm and Leyden Papyri Project

Orchil lichen growing on the Ecuador coast, near Puerto Lopez

I’m involved in an international project to recreate historic recipes from the Stockholm and Leyden Papyri. The group have a blog, and I have just published an account of why I am so interested in orchil recipes, how I set about searching for a historical dye lichen in Ecuador and more importantly, why I ate a dessert in the interests of science. My blog is called ‘Talking Orchil’ and was published on October 17th 2021.

The blog’s admirable administrator Mel Sweetnam (of the equally admirable Mamie’s Schoolhouse) describes it as a ripping yarn, so head over there to see if you agree. Stockholm and Leyden Papyri Project

Mamie’s Schoolhouse


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RHS Rosemoor: Course in Natural Dyes

Green leaves of Japanese indigo are shown in top of a pink, white and purple silk scarf with a stylised floral motif. There are small seed-like grains on the right which are cochineal
Top left: wax resist scarf dyed in indigo and cochineal; leaves of Persicaria tinctoria and cochineal grains. Underneath left: fringed wool scarf dyed a deep purple in cochineal and indigo

Teaching has so long been off my radar I can’t quite believe that my first course for 18 months is rapidly approaching. I will be at RHS Rosemoor in North Devon on 25th and 26th September for a hands-on introduction to using natural dyes. With a bit of luck students will end up as bonkers as I am about natural colour and its ancient history – and will leave with a great set of dyed samples and a beautiful, individually-dyed scarf.

For overseas readers, RHS stands for the Royal Horticultural Society. The RHS is the UK’s leading gardening charity and owns five beautiful gardens across the country. RHS Rosemoor is one of them and it’s just up the road from me. I have visited it countless times since I moved to Devon nearly twenty years ago. On my visits I often noticed some of the plants that yield dye colour and thought it would be a wonderfully appropriate place to run a course.

In 2019 I contacted the Education and Learning Manager and found her to be very receptive to the idea. The Manager was the late Sarah Chesters, a bright, funny and delightful gardening expert who was also very knowledgeable about textiles and fibre. She was engagingly interested in all I told her about natural dyeing and came to my house on a memorable day when I was working with Jenny Balfour Paul: we showed her how my indigo crop was processed, shared lunch, and we all laughed a lot.

So I was very saddened to hear that Sarah died earlier this year, and I will actively remember her warmth and humour when I am teaching at Rosemoor.

Booking through RHS Rosemoor here


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The Loom Shed Online Natural Dye Symposium

Left: Perkin’s mauve; centre, Tyrian purple threads and murex shells; right; orchil lichen, orchil-dyed silk and wool

At the end of the month I’ll be taking part in an online symposium run by The Loom Shed. What is The Loom Shed? Well, it’s a shed and it has looms in it. But weaving isn’t all that’s planned at this new and imaginative venue.

The Loom Shed has been set up by Louise Cottey, weaver and tutor, and Liz Croft, crochet specialist, weaver and tutor. Both Laura and Liz are passionate about yarn craft and the benefits to mental health that craft work can bring.

My talk Pursuing Purple: Shellfish, Lichen and Mauve will follow some of the dye trails I discovered when researching a nineteenth century industrial archive. If you follow my blog you’ll know I became particularly intrigued by the dye trade in lichen, historically used for making a purple dye called orchil. My findings very unexpectedly linked two other famous purple dyes: Imperial or Tyrian Purple, and Perkin’s Mauve.

The Natural Dye Symposium is on June 26th and will offer a day of talks by four specialist natural dye speakers. It was decided to hold the event online this year but in the future there will be dye-related workshops and events at The Loom Shed itself, which is located in East Devon. There is also a varied programme of speakers and courses and you can look at their Events page to see the latest listings.

On June 10th at 12.45 pm I will be doing an Instagram Live with Liz Croft. You can Insta-follow me on @whitworthisabella, and The Loom Shed at @the_loom_shed


The Loom Shed Online Natural Dye Symposium Programme

Aviva Leigh 10.00 am – 11.00 am Strips, Stripes and Satins – Exploring 18th Century Norwich Textiles

Isabella Whitworth 11.30 am – 12.30 pm Pursuing Purple: Shellfish, Lichen and Mauve

Luisa Aribe 1.30 pm – 2.30 pm An Indigo Journey

Susan Dye 3.00 pm – 4.00 pm Growing and Using your own Dye Garden

There is an ‘all day’ ticket for all four talks, or you can book in for individual speakers here

Times given are British Summer Time


Links

The Loom Shed

The Loom Shed Events page


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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.

Shawl below dyed in walnut leaf and indigo

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


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Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763 – 1765 (2)

A selection of wool samples from the Dispatch Book

In 2017 a rare 18th century cloth merchant’s dispatch book of Claude Passavant, a Swiss émigré, was discovered in the London Metropolitan Archives by Todd Gray, a well-known historian from Exeter in England’s South-West. Exeter was internationally renowned for all aspects of cloth production, not least dyeing, but few records survive. Realising that no-one had studied Passavant’s book, which contains almost 2,500 wool samples, most of them dyed in a range of vibrant colours, Gray assembled specialist authors to write thirteen chapters for a book on the local and wider contexts of 18th century cloth making. I co-authored the one on contemporary dyes and dyeing techniques with Jenny Balfour Paul. Jenny is a writer, artist, lecturer and traveller, internationally known for her research into indigo and natural dyes.  Other chapters in the richly illustrated book include a history of Exeter’s cloth merchants, the archaeology of Exeter’s cloth industry, fulling mills and merchants’ seals.

There has already been excellent national and local press coverage of this book and the story behind its discovery.

The Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763-5, edited by Todd Gray, launches on 19th February, and is available at a special discount price of £25 from Keith Stevens at http://www.stevensbooks (sales@themintpress.co.uk) or (01392 459760. Otherwise it is on sale at £35 from publishers Boydell & Brewer and can also be found on the usual bookseller outlets.

I wrote a little more about my involvement with this project last year, and you can read it here.

The above images show details of the actual Dispatch Book held in the London Metropolitan Archives, including wool samples and associated balemarks, and the recently published book edited by Todd Gray. Gray’s publication includes images of all pages of the Dispatch Book.


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The Dyeing Year

A whole extra pile of mail arrives before Christmas in many British households. This is the seasonal appearance of greetings cards from family, friends, neighbours, and sometimes local businesses. In my case, several cards represent the sole contact I have with ‘old’ friends and I actively anticipate their arrival to hear everyone’s news. News isn’t invariably happy, of course, and the saddest cards are those that don’t arrive at all.

Wax resist and steam-fixed silk dyes on silk pongee, 2020

Almost without exception this year’s cards express the anguish of the past months and the hope that 2021 will be better. Among my extended friends and family there have been job losses, health and financial crises, cancelled celebrations, stranded travellers and separated families. I also learnt of the cards that will not make an appearance.

Wax resist and steam-fixed silk dyes on silk pongee, 2020

It hasn’t all been bad. One of the better outcomes of the year’s crisis has been the communication enabled by such platforms as Zoom. I chat to student friends regularly, and have caught up with people who live abroad or far away, or I haven’t seen for several years. I’ve attended an online conference, several lectures, an AGM, a charity concert, various makers’ fairs, and yoga classes. I’ve ‘met’ longterm online correspondents – and liked them as much as I thought I would.

Wax resist and steam-fixed silk dyes on silk pongee, 2020

The beautiful summer weather assisted a stellar indigo crop to mature and I had enough left over from dyeing to make pigment, and contribute to a research project into Japanese indigo. In the last couple of weeks I delivered a batch of scarves (pictured above) to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, an organisation that has courageously fought for survival through 2020 and is attracting good sales now that it has been able to reopen. My studio output this year has been meagre because I have been occupied by the complicated business of everyday living, but it felt good to deliver a few new pieces of work at long last. Dr Denim, my contribution to the Guild’s annual Members’ Exhibition, won the People’s Choice Award in November. You can read about much of this work in previous posts.

Thank you for following, reading, contacting me, and commenting. May all your 2021s be an improvement on this stressful year.

Japanese indigo in preparation for pigment


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Plant to Pigment: using Japanese indigo

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.

A wheelbarrow jammed full of cut stems from all three types of plant. It takes around 3 hours to strip the stalks on my own and a wheelbarrow makes a small jar of pigment

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.

Links

Jenny Balfour Paul Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans

John Marshall ‘Singing the Blues’

Nature’s Rainbow: Susan Dye and Ashley Walker’s website

Jane Deane’s website


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Dr Denim

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.

Exhibition links

2020 Exhibition, main page

Isabella Whitworth entry page

Vote for your favourite piece

Devon Guild of Craftsmen homepage

More information about Dr Denim

(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. 

Materials

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

Chain

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).

Holy relic

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.

Knotted threads

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.

Stellar pills

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.

Lockdown Pack

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. 

Bloodletting

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

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.

Unicorn horn

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.

Urine

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.

Sources: 

https://www.ancient.eu/article/1540/medieval-cures-for-the-black-death/

https://www.livescience.com/plague-doctors.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_doctor

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virology

https://www.eyam-museum.org.uk/about-us

https://www.dhm.de/blog/2017/07/27/beaky-plague-protection/


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Dyeing with Japanese indigo

With the sun shining last week I enjoyed a socially-distanced dye-day with friend and colleague, Jane Deane. We wanted to test and compare three sets of indigo dye plants, grown from seed here in Devon, by making small dye vats and dyeing different fibres.

In the image above you will see A on the left: an elongated leaf, white flowered indigo. B, in the centre, has elongated leaves and pink-flowers. On the right is C: a broadleaf indigo with pink flowers

The seeds were generously supplied to me by Nature’s Rainbow in the spring, and they have published their own blog on the identification and source of these seeds to be read along with this one. You can read it by following the links at the base of the page. Because we only have a small plot to grow dye plants, the three sets of seedlings were of necessity planted out side by side in blocks as shown above, which meant that the growing conditions were the same for each plant. I planted them out in late May, just after a very late set of frosts which would have killed them. Using identical quantities of leaves and the same dye procedures should give a reasonably good comparison for my soil, the English climate and our summer.

For each plant type, I used 125 grams of stripped leaves and did a 1 hour extraction in a litre of rainwater, heating the leaves slowly to just under 60 C. Leaves were crushed with a pole and the mixture allowed to cool overnight. In the morning Jane joined me and we squeezed out the leaves, sieved the sherry-coloured mixtures, adjusted the pH to 9 and oxygenated each by pouring from one container to another. Containers (Kilner jars) were heated to just below 60 C. We used a commercial reduction chemical (thiourea dioxide) because we needed to complete the tests in one day.

We used identical samples of wool, silk and cotton for each ‘vat’. All samples for each individual vat were put in together.

The groups of samples are A, B and C, and relate to the image of the three plant types at the top of the page. These samples show cotton on the left of each group, silk in the centre and woollen yarn on the right.

After one dip (see above) there were several differences in hue and intensity although the accuracy of colour here isn’t perfect. B appears to have dyed less well overall and this shows particularly on wool. The silk of C is more intense than either A or B, and the cotton in A appears the strongest.

We gave all samples 4 dips of ten minutes each.

The samples after 4 dips. Note that silk is on the left in this image, cotton on the right

Please note that I placed the silks on the left and cottons right in the image above, so they aren’t in the same order as the one-dip image. Sorry about that. The colour, again, isn’t as accurate as I’d like but shows the very real difference in wool dyeings. The cottons at A and C were more similar after four dips. The silk at C is beautiful and has a more turquoise cast than the other two.

You’ll have to take my word for it, but in real life the samples of C, the broadleaf, appear more intense and samples of B least intense.

I intend to repeat the dyeings with more leaf material next time and do a longer sequence of dips. I will also weigh fibre samples to make sure they are identical because the wool would have been heavier in this test, and therefore ‘grabbing’ more of the available indigo.

Ashley Walker of Nature’s Rainbow has kindly annotated my top image with his initial interpretations of the Japanese names for the three sets of plants (see below), but please read his very interesting and informative blog post here

Links

Nature’s Rainbow blog

Jane Deane