Isabella Whitworth

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


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Celebrating Ethel Mairet

 

submisson

Silk yarn skeins showing the results using two Mairet recipes. The lower skein was divided into three to demonstrate increments of iron added to the vat. Dried cochineal is shown at the lower left

A book of dye recipes by weaver Ethel Mairet was first published in Ditchling, Sussex, in 1916. Its title is Vegetable Dyes. Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft is undertaking a collaborative project to re-interpret and recreate Mairet’s recipes, with the help of  contemporary dyers. There is a considerably large number to complete.

However, not all Mairet’s recipes are safe by today’s standards. Some use toxic chemicals once common in historic use, such as chrome, tin, sulphuric acid, quicklime, lead and zinc and these recipes are excluded from the project, or some individual ingredients amended. Environmental considerations have changed over the years and it is no longer recommended (or permitted) to dye with certain plant material. Lichen dyes, for instance, appear in the book but are omitted from the project because they are rare in many areas and some species are protected. Lichen recipes will be dyed, but by one specialist in Scotland. I am happy with this decision: those who have read my blog for a while know my feelings about dyeing with lichens.

The project is open to natural dyers who are confident handling their materials and they can ‘apply’ for recipes as I did, through the Museum website. The Museum sends material to be dyed; the dyer supplies dyestuff.

The Book 

In Douglas Pepler’s Introduction he quotes the opening lines of the Gospel of St John (In the Beginning..) to illustrate his belief in the ‘goodness’ inherent in discoveries which mankind achieves for the first time. In tracing the subsequent destruction of quality through an urge for quantity (and one assumes, profit), he remarks that this inherent ‘goodness’ is lost. This was true, he suggests, when natural dyes were supplanted by those synthesised by chemists.

In a similar vein Ethel Mairet writes:

‘Dyeing is an art; the moment science dominates it is is an art no longer, and the craftsmen must go back to the time before science touched it, and begin all over again.’

The book is available online.

recipes

The two recipes I selected from Mairet’s book. They are for wool, but I chose the silk option offered by the project

Decisions

 I selected two cochineal recipes to dye onto silk yarn and ‘ordered’ them online from Ditchling Museum. The original recipes were for wool, but the project organisers offered the silk option and I chose it in preference to wool.  One recipe (7, above) uses iron to give a purple shade. (Note that cochineal is an insect, not a vegetable dye, but is included in Mairet’s book).

Many recipes which Mairet collected from the 17th C onwards, before science touched them, are scant on explanation and assume prior knowledge. Compare them, for example, to a contemporary book where a recipe can occupy a page of explanations and options.

So, following the two recipes wasn’t straightforward and often puzzling. I would never in normal practice add wool or silk to a boiling vat. So how should I interpret ‘Boil and enter wool while boiling, till the required colour is got.’?  And should I rinse after mordanting in recipe 4, or sling the cochineal and cream of tartar straight into the mordant as is suggested by the word ‘add? In recipe 7, what colour is considered violet? What does a 1 oz solution of iron mean? And so on. I had to make some of it up as I went along.

Happily, I had no spectators when calculating the Mairet quantities to simple percentages.

I’m including my recipe reports under the links, below. They are not of interest to everyone but indicate some quandaries faced when using historic recipes.


Links

Get involved in the dye project here

Download Ethel Mairet’s book here

Here My earlier blog about Mairet’s madder recipes

Here My blog on dyeing with lichens

Hilary Douglas Clark Pepler

Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft


 

Recipe report page 93, recipe 4: silk

PINK WITH COCHINEAL FOR WOOL

 12 gram silk skein supplied

Calculations were made at

10.4% alum

6% cochineal

12% cream of tartar

Method:

Cochineal ground finely in pestle and mortar.

Silk was washed, rinsed, and remained wetted out.

Mordanting was started cold so that the silk would not be entered at boiling point as the recipe requested (unwise for silk) but was raised to boiling over the period of an hour. It was held at boiling point for 50 minutes.

It would normally be my practice to allow the silk to cool in the mordant and rinse, but the recipe seemed specific about procedure as follows:

Then add 1lb. Cochineal and 5lbs cream of tartar

So I kept the silk in the very hot mordant liquid and added the cochineal and cream of tartar. The colour seemed to ‘take’ immediately and after half an hour the vat looked to be exhausted. The recipe suggests that items be left in the vat till the required colour is got . To obtain a lighter pink, this would have meant removing the yarn after a very short time in the vat which as far as I’m concerned isn’t very good practice. So, using this recipe, a lighter pink would be best obtained by reducing the percentage of dyestuff.

The colour in the sample therefore reflects the 6% of cochineal used.


 

Recipe report page 94, recipe 7: silk

VIOLET FOR WOOL

12 gram silk skein supplied

The following quantities used:

1.5 gr alum

.75 gr cochineal

Iron water as described below

Method:

Cochineal was ground finely in pestle and mortar. Silk was washed, rinsed, and remained wetted out.

No method was given for mordanting in the recipe. Mordanting was started cold and the vat raised to boiling over the period of an hour. It was held at boiling point for 50 minutes, as in my sample for the p. 93 recipe 4 sample. However, for this recipe I allowed the silk to cool in the mordant for several hours and then rinsed it. This is because the recipe seemed to separate the mordant and dye processes, unlike the p. 93 recipe.

Because there was no specific mention of cream of tartar in this recipe (and there was on p. 93), I did not use it in the mordant.

A clean vat was made with cold water and the cochineal added. The silk was entered into the vat and stirred: the colour ‘took’ quickly. The recipe states that the cochineal and iron should be added at the same time but I was reluctant to do this because I do not use ferrous sulphate. Instead I keep a jar of iron water, made with rusty nails, water and vinegar. This serves my dyeing purposes well but means that for this project I could not calculate what the recipe’s 1 oz solution of iron would represent in terms of iron water. I was therefore wary of adding too much too soon.

I therefore dyed the silk yarn for a full half hour, and the vat was exhausted. I added 1 ml iron water to the vat and after ten minutes there was an appreciable change in colour so I removed the yarn.

When the yarn had dried I decided it wasn’t ‘violet’ – or at least not violet enough. So I divided the skein into three equal parts, keeping the original colour as Skein 1. Skein 2 was wetted out, reintroduced into the vat with a further 1 ml iron water, and removed after ten minutes. Skein 3 was wetted out, and reintroduced into the vat with a further 2 mls iron water.

All skeins washed and rinsed to remove iron.

NOTE: The colour of the dyed silk prior to the addition of the iron was almost identical to the sample obtained for p. 93. The two sets of samples thus offer a good progression from pink through to violet and purple.

 Cochineal source The cochineal was sourced from Lanzarote.


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Getting to Blue

In my last blog A Purple Pursuit, I wrote about Browning’s Popularity, in which he referred to shellfish dye in a complex poem on inspiration, skill and genius. What I didn’t say, but others wisely pointed out, was the oddity of Browning referring to the dye as blue throughout the poem. Shellfish dye (from the ‘Tyrian shells’) is quite definitely purple and the colour, history and source of Imperial Purple were well known in Browning’s time. So, why blue?

Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes

Whereof one drop worked miracles,
And coloured like Astarte’s eyes
Raw silk the merchant sells?

I scratched around many sources but failed to find a historical reference, or image, defining Astarte’s eyes as blue. Maybe I have missed something. But the Resident Poetry Advisor says that Browning was more than capable of implying non-existent references, or even inventing them. This seems most perverse, but Browning was a poet and that’s the kind of thing poets do.

indigo

Author’s indigo-dyed wool yarn, using increasing vat strength

Putting Browning firmly aside, I happened across a reference to William Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Gladstone (1809 – 1908) was a British Liberal politician, three times Prime Minister, living at a time when politicians digested more than soundbites.

Gladstone studied the Iliad page by page, and as he did so he recorded the occurrence of words for colour. What he noticed was rather remarkable. He came across much mention of black, some white, less red, very little yellow, tiny amounts of green…but no blue. Was Homer ‘colourblind’, or unable to perceive colours? Were all Greeks the same, and their perception of colours (and the words to describe them) inherited, building over several generations? It left me wondering whether Astarte’s eyes could have been blue if there wasn’t yet a word for it, which was a head-spinning prospect.

Lazarus Geiger (1829-1870), a philosopher and philologist, took Gladstone’s research further and studied other ancient texts (for instance, Icelandic sagas, Vedic literature, and the original Hebrew version of the Bible) finding that none of them contained a word for blue. Geiger concluded that across ancient cultures, words for colour developed in an oddly consistent order. Black was always first, followed by white, red, yellow, green. Blue came next, eventually.

If this intrigues you, I suggest you listen to the Radiolab broadcast linked below. It makes more sense of it than I can here, but still left me wondering what exactly was being said. One of the programme’s guests is linguist Guy Deutscher. Listen, particularly, to the account of his little daughter trying to name the colour of the sky.

buddhist_edited-1

Author’s watercolour from sketchbook, 1995, recording the many dyed colours and fading shades of Buddhist monks’ robes in Sikkim and North India

My head can’t get itself round the concept that without an object to attach it to, a colour didn’t ‘exist’ and didn’t acquire a name. But that’s partly what is being said and it leads me to dyeing, and the need to name colours. I was dyeing felt last week, trying to achieve a good range of reds. I used different amounts of mordant, varied the percentages of weld, cochineal and madder and overdyed in different sequences. Small variations occurred in the reds and I sought to describe these to a client in words. Colours need adjectives like ‘bright’, ‘dark’, ‘dull’ etc but one inevitably ends up with a comparison to a universally understood coloured object, such as a poppy, a pillarbox, a brick, a patch of rust, a rose. We take this for granted but it’s very sophisticated, relying on a well-established set of understandings. We often need an object when we describe colour.

In her book Tintes y Tintoreros de América, Ana Roquero records the many changes that took place in Central and South American textile practice during the Spanish colonial period. One of the imports from Spain to the New World was an entire vocabulary for textiles. As well as words for machinery, tools, technical terms and cloth and fabric, this included words for colour. These colour words are still alive in parts of Latin America amongst mestizo weavers and dyers, when their use in today’s Spain is long lost.

In this case it’s the itinerant word that has preserved the colour, and I find that fascinating.


Links

Radiolab broadcast ‘Why Isn’t the Sky Blue’ here

The Himba and the perception of colour Anthropology and the Human Condition: here

Books:

Roquero, Ana, 2006, Tintes y tintoreros de América: catálogo de materias primas y registro etnográfico de México, Centro América, Andes Centrales y Selva Amazónica, Ministerio de Cultura, España

Deutscher, Guy, 2010, Through the Language Glass, Heinemann

Comments

Please also check out the very interesting links offered in comments for this page. Many thanks to those who have written and included them

 


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Harvesting Japanese indigo

photo

Blue stains which developed after rubbing Japanese indigo leaves onto paper

I planted out my Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) several weeks ago, having grown it all from seed. This week I picked some leaves and rubbed them on the page of my sketchbook to see if any blue appeared. It did (ignore the buff coloured stain to the left of the image, which is nothing to do with it). From this I knew that I could make a vat from the crop.

I began by picking half a bucketful and testing it as a small vat. I achieved a very good blue, which was used to overdue some cochineal-dyed scarves I had shibori-tied ready and waiting. You can see the result in the gallery below.

On the second vat I used a whole bucketful of leaves, rammed down hard. I just pick the tips, like tea: not the whole stalk. I sometimes weigh the leaves before processing but the material was wet after rain and there didn’t seem much point. I don’t always strip the leaves from stalks either, so a known dry weight is somewhat academic because the stalks don’t, as far as I know, produce any colouring matter.

On the day I dyed the second bucket I live-tweeted the various stages with images and received a good response. I think more and more people are trying to grow, and dye with, their own indigo.

With colleague Christina Chisholm I co-authored a piece on growing and using Japanese indigo for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in 2011. It was a free download and you can still access it here so I don’t have to write it all out again. We included some information on growing the plant in two distinct climates (Devon and north east Scotland). Christina has much more experience with dyeing wool, so fibre dyers might find her comments useful. If I were to be able to edit the article I’d make a couple of additions / amendments: 

1. I have since found that I don’t always see a blue froth when I whisk up the strained dye bath. Instead, the sherry-coloured liquid darkens and looks greener – but the froth is often colourless. Why? No idea. These days I have stopped using soda crystals and use washing soda instead. Maybe that’s the reason. 

2. I have found that leaves are often ready whether or not they have the red/blue tinge shown in the Journal download document. What I have heard since (but don’t know if it’s true) is that you need to use the leaves before the plant produces flowers.  

3. I try to encourage flowers for seeds each year and there is some urgency about this as in the UK the plants die with the first big frost. I mark a few vigorous stalks early on by tying a conspicuous ribbon round each one. Then I can’t pick them by mistake. I let these stalks develop flowers as early as possible.


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Summer schools…

No posting recently because I’ve had a month of intensive teaching followed by intensive feet-putting-up. I ran three courses at Ardington in Oxfordshire and then four days in Nether Stowey at the studio of Janet Phillips.

At Ardington School of Crafts I taught my synthetic dyes shibori day, plus two one-day (repeated) courses on natural dyes. The natural dye course is a taster to a fascinating subject with some practical work at the dyepots, but also intended as an eye-opener to textiles seen at a stately home, museum etc. It’s even relevant to looking at paintings: I often wonder what dyestuffs were used on garments represented (with pigments) in a historic portrait. We had to move fast, with all fibre and fabric pre-mordanted, and an indigo vat ready to go. Most students dyed a scarf using simple immersion methods. We used madder, weld, cochineal and two indigo vats (one weak, one strong).

At Nether Stowey, I taught a three-day-dye course to several of Janet’s graduates from her Masterclass.  On day one they learned some shibori folds using steam-fixed dyes; day two gave them a taster of wax resist, and day three was a full day with indigo. At the same time as I taught dyes, Janet was teaching ‘shibori on the loom’ to students from the London Guild. In this technique, removable weft threads are incorporated into the weaving. They are later used to draw up the cloth tight. According to how the shibori threads are woven, patterns emerge after the piece is dyed, then opened up.

Students used coloured and plain warps, on different pieces. Some of this shibori work was put into my indigo vat on day four; others used Janet’s fibre-reactive dyes which were applied by placing woven pieces into a short length of gutter (brilliant idea) and painting by hand.  I am used to folding, tying and clamping for indigo work and although I have seen loom shibori before, I haven’t watched the whole process from start to finish. A combination of enthusiastic and knowledgeable students,  Janet’s teaching and the imaginative arrangements made by Janet and Nigel made for a very enjoyable week. Did I mention glorious weather?

 

Many thanks to students at Ardington and Nether Stowey for permission to use images of their work.

Teaching in 2015

Dates of next years’ courses are accumulating. I will be tutoring two courses at the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Summer School in August 2015 at Moreton Morrell. Details of the entire event can be seen here and there are details on this page.

I am teaching a new one-day introductory course in wax-resist at Ardington School of Crafts in 2015 as well as days on shibori scarves, indigo dyeing.  The Vibrant World of Natural Dyes proved very popular this year and I will be teaching it again in 2015: I have one course at West Dean scheduled for March. If you want to sign in, do so soon because my October course has been full since April.


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BB1: Historical Dyeing at Leewood

June was my busiest month for a very long time. Work continued on the historical dye project at Leewood, I taught three courses including three sessions of 90 minute workshops plus demonstrating at West Dean over a weekend, sat on an exhibition selection committee and enjoyed a family visit. As a result I am so behind with blog posts that I need to tackle them in Blog-Bites (BBs) or I’ll give up before I start.

So. BB1 is about the final ‘public’ day of historical dyeing at Leewood which I have been working on with friend and colleague Jane Deane. If you want to see what it’s all been about, click here. After this exploratory phase we’ve concluded that we can focus on what we believe is affecting dyes and fleeces. There are certainly differences in dye take-up although they are so far unpredictable across the range of dyes and fleeces. We think we are onto something interesting, which came as a result of the intially frustrating and unpromising day using cochineal in May.

An effective and foolproof  method of collating, labelling and notekeeping has developed as the project has progressed so that we can remember precisely what we did from one session to another and compare results. Each fibre sample is individually labelled and kept in a (similarly labelled) transparent bag. This allows the contents to be viewed without always needing to remove and handle them.

We had intended to run our last day using indigo or woad, but as a result of the cochineal experience decided to repeat three dyes on the same day, but using different water sources. To create conditions as near identical as possible, we made a stock dye solution and divided it equally into jars containing an equal weight of dry fibre. By putting the jars into a bain-marie we kept dyeing conditions the same for all jars.

Our public dye-days have run since March and we have welcomed a number of visitors. The work will now continue privately at Leewood and we’ll no longer suffer the humiliation of ‘maths in public’, at which neither of us excels. Our final day in June was the most busy, with eight visitors (we can count ok provided we have sufficient fingers between us) crammed into the studio workshop. We are grateful to all who braved the creative weather to visit, ask questions and learn about natural dyes.


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Surprised at Leewood: dyeing with cochineal

Dyeing at Leewood: If you have been following for a while, you’ll know that Jane Deane and I are researching natural dyes on five different fleeces, initially using four dyes. The  four dye-days were / are open to to the public. Visitors can watch, ask questions, and howl at our inability to do basic maths without recourse to endless bits of paper and the assistance of passing goats.

We are dyeing at Leewood, a smallholding on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. So far we’ve worked with weld and madder; this week it was cochineal. We used raw dyestuff  and there is a post on preparing a stock solution of Lanzarote cochineal here. At Leewood we decided to use Mexican cochineal rather than Lanzarote. Why?

Mexican dyestuff  is reputed to be stronger but is more suited to the historical aspect of our interests. It also has a significant local connection.  Lanzarote cochineal arrived on the natural dye scene in about 1830, which is relatively late in terms of pre-synthetic dyes. Our dyestuff was a gift from a friend, who had obtained it while in Mexico from Rancho Tlapanochestli, Oaxaca. If you are reading, thank you, Ana.

A brief history lesson: When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Hernán Cortés heard of the existence of nocheztli, or grana, which the Aztecs used for a rich, red dye. Recognising its efficiency compared to insect dyes available in Europe (eg: kermes, St John’s Blood, Armenian Red), specimens were sent to Spain in the 1520s. The Spanish monopolised the dye, so it rapidly became a great prize to pirates of all nations. A fabled English ‘pirate’ of the age was a Devon boy, Sir Francis Drake, sometimes known as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s chief pirate’. He was born in Tavistock, a few miles from Leewood. You can see Sir Francis, probably dressed in cochineal-dyed garments, in this portrait from the National Gallery.

What happened: Neither Jane nor I consider ourselves novices, but we were taken aback by our first batch of cochineal dyeing this week. Using our normal water source and mordant we failed to produce  colour on any one of five fleeces after around two hours’ dyeing in the jars. The dye ‘baths’ had turned from red to purple but the fleeces were virtually undyed.

Resourceful Jane suggested a different water source and we started a second batch.  That resulted in almost instant dyeing –  and the expected cochineal red. Why? We have absolutely no idea. We aren’t working in a laboratory so can’t analyse the water content of the original source which clearly had some vital part to play. But we take notes on pH, temperature, quantity etc and all the fleeces are dyed from the identical mordant and dye solution. It is the nearest we can get to comparing like with like.

The final surprise was that the initial batch, at first so reluctant to dye, did after four hours pick up very pale colour. This varied most from fleece to fleece of any of the three dyes we have tried. Why again? No idea.

Instead of working with indigo for our final ‘public’ day we are going to retest some of the dyes, comparing water sources.  To find out more about the final ‘open’ day or how to find Leewood, see this page.

Book: For a really interesting read on the history of cochineal I recommend A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield. My own copy is published by Black Swan (2006).