Isabella Whitworth

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


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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I scratched around many sources but failed to find a historical reference, or image, defining Astarte’s eyes as blue.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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A Purple Pursuit

Orchil: For a few years I have been researching a (mostly) nineteenth century archive relating to a Leeds dye manufacturer. The early fortune and later success of this Leeds company were built on the manufacturers’ skill in the making of a dye called orchil. Orchil is an ancient dye, made from lichens of several varieties, and it dyes silk and wool various shades of purple. It does not need a mordant, a fact that was valuable to the historical dyer as it omitted the expense in the mordant process, and additionally avoided any harshening which mordanting can impose on silk. Purple could normally be achieved with natural dyes only with overdyes, such as indigo over cochineal, but orchil ‘got there in one’.

In its clearest and most beautiful form, orchil dye will give a glorious fuchsia colour and the clarity of this shade is assisted by the purity of the ammonia in which dyestuff is prepared. Historically, orchil was known to impart a freshness and bloom in ‘bottoming’ other dyes – e.g. when used as a base before overdyeing. Orchil was a much used and valuable dye throughout history, although its use is sometimes an enigma. It is often found in costly tapestries, which is surprising as orchil is not at all lightfast – a fact that was well-known.

With the advent of synthetic dyes in the later nineteenth century the use of orchil began to decline. Records in the Leeds archive indicate that large sums of money were still tied up in stocks of lichen in the 1870s and in trying to comprehend the place of orchil in the nineteenth century I found the archive inextricably linked to the history of the colour purple. We will publish in due course but an extract from the abstract of my co-authored paper with Professor Zvi Koren at DHA 32 offers a clue:

One of the more astounding discoveries associated with this archive was that it included a small envelope signed by Charles Samuel Bedford declaring the content of the packet to be ‘Tyrian Purple’. But what was really inside the envelope? Was it truly Tyrian Purple…?

Shellfish dyes: Much has been written on the history of the shellfish dye Tyrian Purple (Imperial Purple, The Purple of the Ancients, murex etc) and its association with wealth and status. There is a lot of utter rubbish online about Tyrian Purple, so beware if you are researching and look for reliable sources, such as those listed in Chris Cooksey’s Tyrian Purple Bibliography, linked below.

Nucella lapillus shells, Somerset

Nucella lapillus shells, Somerset

For the purposes of this particular post, it’s important to realise that long after the method of shellfish dyeing* was lost, probably around the fifteenth century, the reputation of purple as a high status colour lived on. Purple retained a kind of status independent of its original connections to shellfish dyes. There are contemporaneous references to shellfish dyeing (e.g. in Vitruvius, and Pliny the Elder in his Natural History) and something has always been known of the preparation process, although modern interpretations of commentaries vary.

Since the mid nineteenth century chemists, scholars and dyers have researched shellfish dyes and the ancient dye process has been patiently and painstakingly rediscovered. Shellfish dyeing can again be undertaken although it is only seriously done for research purposes: you will see how small some shells can be from the image and only the tiny hypobranchial gland yields dye. In the mid nineteenth century, no-one knew the full process, which is why I found Robert Browning’s poem Popularity (1850s) so interesting when I came across it this week.  Crucially within it is a several-verse reference to Tyrian Purple and shellfish dye. As I couldn’t fathom what the whole poem was about, this reference was a puzzle. I sought out the RPA (Resident Poetry Advisor) who explained it to me, along with some literary context which includes Browning’s life and work, a knowledge of Keats and the poets that imitated him. Popularity is dense and complicated.

Popularity: As I now understand it, and in simple terms, the poem is about inspiration and skill. Browning asks himself about genius, as he did when studying, say, the paintings of Old Masters.  What is genius? Where does it come from? When some ‘poets’ recognised genius in others, as in the work of Keats, they picked up superficial, outward facets of the verse and imitated them. They basked in their hollow cleverness. Browning describes the humbleness of the shells, or conches (‘Mere conchs!’) and celebrates the ‘cunning’ of those who learned how to refine this costliest ‘dye of dyes‘. What’s the humble origin of Keats’ unique genius, he wonders wittily in his last line:

What porridge had John Keats?

Contemporary knowledge in the 1850s

Considering the knowledge that Browning appears to have of dye preparation:

Till cunning come to pound and squeeze
And clarify,—refine to proof
The liquor filtered by degrees

it could be that he knew a little more about the process than was available through classic texts. Henri de Lucaze Duthiers was working on shellfish dyes in the 1850s, but not for dyeing. He was demonstrating the potential to use the molluscs for a photographic printing process. I don’t see enough evidence to draw any conclusions about what Browning knew, but it’s been fun speculating, and a reminder of the magic we dyers experience liberating colour from simple, natural materials.

To read the whole poem Popularity, you can go here, but two key verses are below.

VI.

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?

XI.

Mere conchs! not fit for warp or woof!
Till cunning come to pound and squeeze
And clarify,—refine to proof
The liquor filtered by degrees,
While the world stands aloof.

 

NOTE: *Dyeing, as opposed to smearing. Traditional use of shellfish to colour threads and cloth, such as in Oaxaca, Mexico, is not true vat dyeing, but more akin to  surface smearing.


Links about my research, on this blog

Overview  Dyes, History and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

About orchil: Talking Orchil

My research information: Historical Dye studies


Bibliography

Cooksey, Chris (2013) Tyrian Purple: the first four thousand years, Science Progress, 96(2), p 171 – 186

Jordan, Maria (2012) Recreating the life of a tapestry: Fading dyes and the impact on the tapestry image available online from The Institute of Conservation here

Chris Cooksey’s Tyrian Purple Bibliography

Wikipedia on Tyrian Purple


Thanks

With thanks to Dr Maurizio Aceto for some input on dates, Nigel Phillips for giving me the Nucella lapillus shells in Somerset last summer, and especially to the RPA.

 


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Harvesting Japanese indigo

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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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Oddments

photo

Packs of indigo and Rubia cordifolia, (Indian madder) shown with Phytosanitary Certificate

My latest excitement is today’s arrival of a parcel from India, containing indigo and Indian madder (Rubia cordifolia) from the excellent KMA Exports. I am sharing the consignment with a friend because the freight is expensive and costs more than the dyestuff, but it took just one day to arrive from Tamil Nadu. Sometimes a parcel takes longer from Okehampton. It would have been here earlier but import regulations into the UK now require fumigation which takes a bit longer; the Phytosanitary Certificate confirms that my consignment is free of Khapra beetle (Trogoderna granarium) and other quarantine pests.

Having tried Rubia cordifolia with Deb Bamford at Summer School last year I can’t wait to have another go. It produced the most astonishing colour on wool.

A highspot of recent weeks was a short trip to Finistère in Brittany, in the glorious weather also enjoyed in the UK that week. I enjoyed seeing fine examples of Breton embroidery, something about which I knew nothing, in the Musée Bigouden, Pont l’Abbé. There is an informative page about traditional Breton costume here from which I’ve learned a lot. You can see a photo of the embroiderers of Pont l’Abbé at the top of the page. Until I studied the caption I thought it was a very old photo, but it is dated to 1976, when I was about the age of some women in the picture. Perhaps that does make it a very old photo, come to think of it.

Several walks along the coast west of Douarnenez offered stunning views over the sea and as always, I was on the lookout for lichen. I don’t collect it, but I like to find it; my views on actually using lichen for dyeing are here. A knowledgeable colleague has told me that one of my images probably shows an orchil lichen, one of the Roccellae, which cheers me up now I’m back and the weather has changed.

The historic cork floats and netting tools, which I found rather beautiful, were in the window of shop selling fish in Audièrne. Without a given explanation, I must assume the carved names once indicated owners of nets. When I lived on the west coast of Scotland I remember several vitriolic exchanges over ownership of creels, buoys and nets. This appears to be a simple way of marking equipment.

 

I’m teaching three courses at Ardington School of Crafts from Wednesday. Natural dyes on Wednesday 9th and Thursday 10th, and shibori with synthetic dyes on Friday 11th. If you’re coming, I look forward to seeing you there.


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Made Not Manufactured: Steve Kenward

Back in 2011 photographer Steve Kenward started on a mission. It was to be an unfunded personal project, of more or less infinite scope, which he called Made Not Manufactured. His idea was to travel the British Isles to photograph ‘people that use traditional crafts to make something that still has relevance today.’ Steve’s paid work as a freelance photographer would fund the entire project which includes his travel, accommodation, and any other personal expenses.

He put the word out for craftspeople / participants through the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) and soon found that makers of objects such as baskets, boats, rakes, bowls, knives and clocks began to contact him. You can see the results of this committed photographic portrait of British craftsmanship on Steve’s website here.  I contacted him as a dyer, and feeling that natural rather than synthetic dyes were more relevant to his ‘traditional’ aims, I made an indigo vat from my crop of Persicaria tinctoria for his day in my dyeroom. Up in my studio I worked with a beeswax resist on the beginning stages of a silk scarf. With Steve’s permission I am including some of his images below.

Steve has photographed 43 craftspeople (plus 13 dogs, including mine) and travelled 5,300 miles – at the last count. Until yesterday, I believed his arrangement to exhibit the complete body of work at the Weald and Dowland Museum in Sussex in August was still going ahead. It seemed the ideal venue to celebrate the work of so many makers, some of whom were prepared to demonstrate their craft, and show Steve’s unique collection of photographs. But something has gone seriously amiss; it seems there is no funding to support the exhibition project and the arrangement has been cancelled.

_MG_5484

Craftsperson’s dog. Now my  iPhone screensaver  © Steve Kenward

I feel disappointed for Steve who has worked extremely hard to achieve his aims. He is an unobtrusive but enquiring observer as his photographs demonstrate but also a delightful guest: even the dog approved, although she took exception to having a tripod in the house.

Steve is now looking for another exhibition venue for this body of work. If you know of somewhere suitable, please contact Steve through his website and while you’re there view other images of his impressive project.

Footnote: I resolved that my dog would never appear on this blog, but here she is, as seen by Steve Kenward. As today is her 100th birthday in doggy years, I think there is something to celebrate.


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Blue routes – blue roots

As a schoolchild, my first and much-hated needlework project was to handsew a dirndl skirt. I was on the tubby side (not much has changed) and the skirt was red with white spots. My mother probably thought it would look charming but I knew I would look like a fat ladybird so, like Penelope and her shroud, I put off finishing it and learned to sew very slowly. Dirndl skirts and I have not crossed paths again for over 50 years.

We have just been to Bavaria to attend a family event. Many guests wore traditional clothes which, for the women, meant a dirndl costume. Now I have seen what it ought to look like, I must admit that the full dirndl costume can look good on old and young – and even the tubby. It isn’t just a skirt. There is a bodice, a blouse, a full skirt and an apron. Contemporary and expensive dirndl costumes are superbly tailored and very expensive.  They can be made from silks, cottons, linen, velvet or wool depending on the season, or the event at which they are worn.

A wedding dirndl. An apron knotted at the front means the wearer is unmarried

A dirndl worn at a wedding. An apron knotted at the front means the wearer is unmarried

A characteristic of the traditional dirndl is the printed cotton from which skirt and bodice are sometimes cut. The repeat patterns are small and delicate. At one time they would have been block-printed, and the blue and white fabrics would probably have been paste-resist-printed and indigo-dyed. This fabric is increasingly rare although there are still workshops in Hungary and Austria. Eastern Europe was a strong centre for these fabrics.

Last year the Devon Guild of Craftsmen held an exhibition called Tracing the Blueprint. The exhibition told the story of ‘Blauwdruk’ fabric from Eastern Europe which made its way to South Africa via trade,  European settlers and Manchester printers. Blue and white 100% cotton fabric is now printed in South Africa, although not using a traditional process. It is known as shweshwe and the Three Cats trademark of Da Gama Textiles is famous. Shweshwe used to be transported by sea and was heavily starched to help it survive the long journey. Although this is no longer necessary, heavy starching is still used to denote its status as true shweshwe. I have a pack of shweshwe by me as I write and the smell is strong and ‘inky’, but not unpleasant.

Last year I visited the studio of Martina Gistl near Gmünd in Bavaria. Martina screenprints traditional patterns onto cotton and linen at her studio. She has a beautiful workspace and you can look down on the printing process as she passes the ink-loaded squeegee across the fabric, forcing the ink down onto the stretched fabric. After the fabric dries it is heat-fixed (but I don’t think it’s a steam process).

There is such fascination in the journeys these strongly related patterns and designs have made, their natural dye origins and their contemporary uses and interpretations.