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


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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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Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763 – 1765 (1)

Passavant_edited-1

Detail of the Exeter cloth dispatch book shows several wool samples and their associated bale-mark. Image courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives. For full reference to this document please see link at foot of page

Late last year I was contacted by a friend with a very interesting proposal. She had been invited to write a chapter on dyes and dyeing for a ‘book about a book’ and asked if I would be interested in co-authoring. A very rare, cloth merchant’s dispatch book had been found in the London Metropolitan Archives by Todd Gray, a well-known Exeter-based historian, and as yet – amazingly – no-one had made a study of it.

Todd was editing a book (Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763 – 5) about his find, to be published by the Devon and Cornwall Record Society (DCRS) this autumn. He was assembling specialist authors to write chapters giving a wide context to the dispatch book. These were to include a history of Exeter’s cloth merchants, the archaeology of the cloth industry in Exeter, fulling mills, Exeter’s dyers, lead cloth merchants’ seals, and tillet blocks (look them up, they’re fascinating). And, of course, a chapter on dyes and dyeing.

A dispatch book is neither a ‘sales‘ book to show potential customers, nor a dyer’s book recording dyestuffs and recipes. It records dyed cloth sold, in this case exported, between 1763 and 1765, and relates to the South West. There are bale-marks drawn on many pages. It is a collection of wool cloth samples (all 2,475 of them) and was the one-time property of a wealthy Swiss émigré of Huguenot descent, named Claude Passavant. Passavant had strong connections to the city of Exeter and in the 1750s established a factory producing high quality Gobelin-style carpets there; he was also a cloth merchant. 

The friend who invited me to co-author is Jenny Balfour Paul, a world authority on indigo. In the early 1990s I attended one of her lectures at the Crafts Council in London and her knowledge and enthusiasm for indigo pushed me in the entirely new direction of natural dyes, and we also became friends. So I wasn’t going to say no, was I?

figured_edited-1

Four figured fabrics from the Exeter cloth dispatch book. The bale mark from the page reverse can be seen in mirror image, bottom centre. Image courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives. For full reference to this document please see link at foot of page

Colours are hard to describe, but in my vocabulary the range covered in the dispatch book includes scarlets, dusty and dark salmon pinks, russets, golden browns, tans, beiges, and all manner of blues. There are soft watery-blue-greens, olive and grassy greens and there are blacks and greys. There are several figured weaves among the samples. We have no dye analysis for these cloths but we could make educated guesses about how they were dyed by studying contemporary sources, and literature. Together with Dominique Cardon and Anita Quye, Jenny has been researching the Crutchley Archive, an important set of pattern, recipe and account books from the eighteenth century Crutchley dyeing business in Southwark. This source, and Jenny’s knowledge of it, was a vital part of our interpreting the likely dyes and chemicals used in the dispatch book. We also researched Standerwick’s Somerset Pattern Book (c 1760) located in the Somerset Heritage Centre, maps and journals held at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter and other papers located by Todd Gray in Devon archives.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

UPDATE January 2021

The publication of this book, originally scheduled for Autumn 2020, was postponed as a result of the pandemic. It is now scheduled for release on 19th February 2021 and can be ordered from the publishers Boydell and Brewer here

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London Metropolitan Archives 

Cloth book of an Exeter wool merchant, 1763-1765 (London Metropolitan Archives, City of London reference CLC/B/227/MS09803)

Somerset Heritage Centre

Standerwick’s Somerset Pattern Book at Somerset Heritage Centre: SHC, A/ALU/1, ‘John Standerwick of Rydiness [Buckland St Mary] and Hermitage [Broadway], 1717-1777’

Devon Heritage Centre

Devon and Cornwall Record Society homepage

Extract from full bibliography used in chapter 

Crutchley Archive: Anita Quye, Dominique Cardon and Jenny Balfour Paul‘The Crutchley Archive: red colours on wool fabrics from master dyers in Southwark, London 1716-1744’ in Textile History (forthcoming 2020)

By Dominique Cardon: Mémoires de teinture: Voyage dans le temps chez un maître des couleurs (Paris, 2013); The Dyer’s Handbook: Memoirs of an 18th Century Master Colourist (Oxford and Philadelphia, 2016); Des couleurs pour les Lumières: Antoine Janot, teinturier occitan 1700-1778 (Paris, 2019);  Le Cahier de Couleurs d’Antoine Janot /Workbook, Antoine Janot’s Colours (Paris, 2020).

William Partridge: A Practical Treatise on the Dying of Woollen Cloth, Cotton and Skein Silk (New York, 1823)

Carolyn Griffiths, ‘Woad to This’ and the Cloth Trade of Frome (Frome, 2017)



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Dyes, silk and North Portugal

Bragança

Display board from the Museu do Abade de Baçal, Bragança showing natural dyes once in use for silk dyeing. From top left: Daphne gnidium; indigo; gall nuts; madder; logwood; sumac; soapberry; rosemary; walnut; cochineal; dyers’ broom; Arundo donax (giant cane); ginger; common black alder

I spent most of December in northern Portugal, travelling from the north-east corner of Trás-os-Montes via Miranda do Douro, Bragança and Guimaraēs and, after a visit to Porto, to an area south-west of the extraordinary Peneda-Gerês National Park.

In Bragança’s Museu do Abade de Baçal there was an excellent display on the region’s historic silk industry including an illustrated panel on dyes. There were a few I’ve not heard of, such as Daphne gnidium. In her book Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science, Dominique Cardon lists the Daphne in her chapter on flavonoids, which indicates it was a yellow colourant. Cardon offers no local name for it in Portuguese, but the Bragança display gives it the name trovisco. The yellow dye was known in French as trentanel; daphné sainbois; or garou and Cardon notes that the dye came to rival weld in 18th century Languedoc.

The giant cane, Arundo donax, does not appear in Cardon’s book and an internet trawl came up with a few references to its pollen being used to make a yellow dye, but I found no solid information for this.

galls

Oak galls found washed up on the shore at Moledo, near Viana do Castelo

The museum panel also illustrated some large spiky oak galls. I suggest these are of gall wasp Andricus kollari, but please put me right if you think they aren’t. Tannin-rich galls would probably have been used as mordants. I saw these galls on and beneath oak trees in Trás-os-Montes and all across north Portugal, and there were hundreds washed up on the beach near Viana do Castelo.

necklace

Oak galls used as a necklace in man’s costume, from the displays of masks and costumes of the Bragança area at the Museu Ibérico da Mascara e do Traje

Some pre-Christian traditions survive in remoter areas of North Portugal, in the form of rituals that take places at certain times during the year, with men and boys in bizarre costumes and some extremely scary masks. I saw necklaces of oak galls, along with wooden cotton reels, at Bragança’s Museum of Mask and Costume.

Orchil

At the Museu do Abade de Baçal I found one reference to orchil (urzela in Portuguese) as a lichen dye used in the 18th and 19th centuries. I wasn’t overly surprised because I had never seen such profusion of Lasallia pustulata anywhere, and growing to such a large size. The lichen favours granite, the local stone; the air is clear and unpolluted, and the area remains relatively undeveloped. So the lichen grows undisturbed – and long may it continue.

Links

The Silk Industry in Trás-os-Montes During the Ancient Regime: paper by Fernando Sousa, University of Porto

This is a gem of a museum: Museu Ibérico da Mascara e do Traje, Bragança

Excellent display on silk industry: Museu do Abade de Baçal, Bragança


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A Harris Way of Life

Last month I took a ferry to the Western Isles. There is much to say about the wild, bleak beauty of the islands, and their resilient inhabitants, but this is about Harris Tweed and natural dyes.

crotalspoon

Crotal used to scrape lichen from rocks. Marion Campbell collection, Harris Tweed Knitwear at Drinishader

A well-timed tweet from @HTAarchive advised me not to miss a display at the old Drinishader schoolhouse, on Harris. This relates to the life and work of Marion (Morag) Campbell (1909 – 1996) who once lived nearby and had attended the school as a child.

Marion was visited by a Washington Post journalist in the 1990s, telling him, ‘I’m the last person doing it the really old way — dyeing my own fleeces, carding, making my own yarn, weaving — I even do my own ‘waulking’ to clean the tweed and shrink it a bit. That takes a lot of stamping about in Wellington boots!’

scraping crotal

Marion Campbell scraping crotal lichen, probably Parmelia omphalodes or P. saxatilis. Rephotographed at Drinishader. Regret no photo credit available

In a stylish, purpose-built centre behind the school is a contemporary Harris Tweed exhibition called Clo Mhor (The Big Cloth). It is beautifully designed and presented, contains up-to-date examples of catwalk fashion and high quality local design using Harris Tweed.  The Marion Campbell collection, housed off the shop in the schoolhouse itself, could not appear more different. It comprises a number of woven samples, lengths of tweed, photographs, newspaper articles and other items associated with Marion’s long and active life, all assembled in a cramped, higgledy-piggledy fashion and often a bit dusty. It took a little time to absorb, but was rewardingly full of treasures. I found the crotal spoon Marion used to scrape lichen from the rocks, a waulking board, her loom, and dyed but unspun fleece. Marion used only natural dyes in her work, such as peat soot, crotal from various types of lichen, mugwort, logwood and indigo.

Drinishader schoolhouse is well worth a visit and its location on the Golden Road is exceptionally beautiful.

From the Drinishader shop, I bought a copy of Gisela Vogler’s biography of Marion Campbell, first published in 2002. It’s called A Harris Way of Life. A recipe for indigo dyeing puzzled me as it does not appear to explain familiar processes common to all usage of indigo:

indigorecipe

From ‘A Harris Way of Life’ by Gisela Vogler, first published 2002 by Harris Voluntary Service, West Tarbert, reprinted 2006

The description gives no clues as to where and when reduction (removal of oxygen) takes place although the use of stale urine clarifies that the vat will be alkaline. The statement about mordant is curious (because indigo doesn’t need one), as is the phrase ‘making the dye permanent’, and the specific reference to ‘dogleaf’. Dock is sometimes referred to as dogleaf, and is from the Rumex family.

An interesting exchange between various contacts on Twitter took place when I aired the finding on Twitter, and came up with a revelation for which I thank Anna NicGuaire, (or @A_M_Q on Twitter). In Jean Fraser’s book Traditional Scottish Dyes a similar description is included in an indigo recipe from South Uist. It gives sorrel as the ‘mordant’ ‘to make the colour adhere to the wool’.  (Sorrel is Rumex acetosa).

I later found a similar reference in Ethel Mairet’s 1916 book on vegetable dyes, where she states, ‘Some add a decoction of dock roots the last day, which is said to fix the blue. The wool must then be thoroughly washed.’

The function of sorrel or dock is far from clear in any of the three instances, but it will not be acting as a mordant in the standard sense. Dock does appear in several dye publications I have consulted, but as a colourant.

I have great respect for traditional recipes and expect there to be a reason for the sorrel or dock stages as described. I’d be very interested in anyone’s views.

Links 

Marion Campbell, BEM

Video of Marion Campbell weaving

David Yeadon’s 1990 account of a visit to Marion Campbell for the Washington Post  

Clo Mhor exhibition at Harris Tweed and Knitwear

Thanks

Special thanks to the Twitter community including @HTAarchive, @A_M_Q, @Freyalyn, @ripplescrafts, @TorranIslay, @squeejay


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Tyrian Treasure: Part One

 

writtentyreThe Guardian: Monday 5th December 2016.

‘The shellfish that was one of the main sources of Tyrian purple – one of the most storied and valuable trading products in the ancient world – has disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean coast, amid warnings of an ongoing multi-species collapse blamed on global rises in sea temperatures.’

Historical cessation of shellfish dyeing The word ‘Tyrian’ derives from the city of Tyre on the north African coast, an area long associated with the Phoenicians and the shellfish dyeing industry. Tyrian Purple has already ‘disappeared’ once. Although an article linked from the Guardian states ‘snail-fueled purple persisted until chemists learned to make synthetic dyes,’ this is quite untrue.

It’s well known (in the dye world, at least) that shellfish dyeing largely ceased around the time of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, after which the last dyers seemed to have disappeared. And in the eastern Mediterranean, purple dyeing ceased almost a millennium earlier as a result of the Arab conquest at the beginning of the 7th century.  Analysis of historic textiles continues to confirm this. The biochemical method of shellfish dyeing was complex, relying on processes which were not understood chemically, and were probably only passed down within families. Basically, when the dyers ‘disappeared’ they took the method with them. Any contemporaneous written records of the dye process are incomplete or ambiguous, and cannot be used to make a vat.

Recovery of the dyeing method Shellfish pigment must first be made soluble, (as with any dye), and this only occurs in alkaline conditions of around pH 8 and higher. An additional requirement for dissolution of the pigment is that it must undergo ‘reduction’. In reduction the pigment’s molecules are converted to a slightly altered, but more soluble, molecular structure. This reduction process is achieved by removing oxygen from the pigment molecules, or by adding hydrogen to them.  The vat turns a yellowy colour and fibre, threads or fabric are introduced. Colour will return to dyed items as they re-oxygenate on removal into the air. Readers who are indigo dyers will be familiar with this process.

The lost dyeing method Until the painstaking work in the 1990s of a retired engineer, the late John Edmonds, the exact method for creating a true shellfish purple reduction vat was lost. (Note that a reduction vat is entirely different from a direct application process performed by smearing the pre-pigment secretions).  Edmonds used his knowledge of woad fermentation to recreate the ancient shellfish dye method. He knew, from the early 20th century work of Paul Friedländer, that shellfish dye was an indigoid and would need a reduction process to work.  Edmonds used shellfish pigment extract for colour, and the rotting flesh of tinned cockles to start the required fermentation.  In subsequent years, chemist Zvi Koren (more about Zvi later) and artist Inge Boesken-Kanold separately explored and perfected more authentic historical procedures for dyeing and painting using shellfish purple.

The purple threads The earliest known historically accurate shellfish dyeings since the 15th century were, until recently, the initial samples produced by Edmonds. But in 2008 I discovered a small envelope containing purple cotton threads in a nineteenth / early twentieth century archive. They were labelled in as having been dyed with ‘the bodies of shellfish’. Could they be genuine?

dyedwith

bigtyre

Zvi Koren In 2011 I wandered around an exhibition in the company of Zvi Koren. Zvi is an internationally known and respected authority on shellfish purple and his lively presentations on the subject make him a unique and entertaining conference speaker. He showed interest in my presentations on orchil research, and we discovered a mutual obsession for appallingly groanworthy puns.

I tentatively mentioned the envelope of shellfish dyed threads I had found.  Zvi was clearly sceptical, as rightly befitted an analytical chemist, and was fairly certain the threads would be fake. He told me that only a scientific analysis, rather than visual inspection, would prove or disprove the claim. In his work, Zvi has analysed archaeological dyeings previously claimed by analysts to be shellfish dyed. Zvi’s precise analyses on these same artefacts showed that the ‘real purple’ was in fact an overdye produced from madder and indigo. He reminded me that prior to the work of Edmonds and others I’d have to go back nearly 600 years to find a true dyeing supported by chemical analysis. Paul Friedländer, who first identified the chemistry of shellfish purple in 1909, left no known samples.  But Zvi’s a good sport and was clearly intrigued. He suggested I send a small sample of the threads to him for analysis at the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts, in Israel. So I did.

The research Zvi has described his astonishment when his analysis found the dyeing to be genuine shellfish purple, and he suggested we write a paper together. The work we undertook mapped a possible scenario for how the dyeing came about, why, and at what date. It involved parallel investigations based on Zvi’s scientific analysis of the threads through photomicrographic images and instrumental chromatography. We also studied classical and biblical texts; 19th century literature; the history of science and scientific connections; and the remarkable Bedford family of Leeds.  Zvi was extremely patient with my lack of chemical knowledge and I continue to be grateful for his clear explanations, and the general good humour which illuminated the science I frequently failed to grasp.

Significance of our research So is this a big deal? We definitely think so. It’s huge!  Firstly, before the Tyrian Purple dyed threads I found, no other dyeings have been confirmed since around the 15th century. That’s of considerable interest to researchers. Additionally, their very existence superbly illustrates the activities, interests and connections of an industrious Leeds family in the late 19th and early 20th century. More of that in Part Two – which will follow in the next fortnight.

If you are interested in knowing more about any aspect of this research please contact me through the blog. 


Thanks Many thanks to colleague and friend Zvi Koren for his knowledge, diligence and support, and for his comments and additions to this and the following blog. And not forgetting the puns.


Links and bibliography

Whitworth and Koren paper published in Ambix. Available from Taylor & Francis Online here.

Ancient shellfish used for purple dye vanishes from eastern Med  Guardian article , December 5th 2016


Related posts  on this blog

Testing Times 1 & 2

Getting to Blue

A Purple Pursuit

French Connections

Reasons to be Stressful

Talking Orchil

Dyes, History, and a Chilly Trip to Yorkshire


Inge Boesken Kanold artist researching and working with shellfish pigment

The Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts


John Edmonds’ book: Tyrian or Imperial Purple Dye: The Mystery of Imperial Purple Dye, Historic Dye series no. 7, Little Chalfont, 2000. Published by the author.


Smearing process of dyeing