Isabella Whitworth

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


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Learning the ropes: learning methods

One of my first posts on this blog included a reference to bellringing.  If you live outside the UK you may know nothing of the ancient tradition of church ringing which seems to have started in England at an uncertain date, but was well established by the 1600s. It spread to the English-speaking world, but not to continental Europe. Bells are rung in sequences of ‘changes’. They start in rounds (ringing down from the highest bell to the lowest). Then, bells swap places in the sequence. This can be done any number of ways, but always ends up in rounds. It requires control, co-ordination and concentration. The changes are normally called out for ringers to follow, so they are not feats of memory.

These ‘changes’ are what I have learned for about four years but recently we started to learn a different system, called ‘method ringing’. Bells are rung in a sequence but the patterns or order of ringing must be memorised and executed by the ringers – once they are experienced.

If you have followed some of my Leewood posts you’ll have read that I have problems with numbers and maths. I recognise the mathematics of patterns, but experience a debilitating sense of panic when urgently or publicly required to do a sum, follow a numerical sequence or hold a set of numbers in my head. Method ringing is therefore a real challenge. An entire community of over 1,000 people can hear my every mistake.  I have tried to take in the information I need in several ways and this involves learning a sequence of numbers (not so hard for me, but apparently not a good way to learn methods) or writing them out on paper. Then I found a method-teaching explanation describing the pattern changes as a kind of ‘plaiting’. Plaiting or braiding comes from a world I understand, so I thought I’d apply textile tech to bell tech and see where it got me.

It was very interesting. I used dyed string (prepared for braiding workshops I taught in Wales 13 years ago). There was a different colour for each of the six bells rung in learning a beginners’ sequence called ‘Plain Hunt.’ Here the bells move along one place in the sequence but more than one bell may be doing it concurrently. So it isn’t just a case of swapping to the next number in logical sequence because it too may have swapped…. Bring on the debilitating panic.

The image shows what I did with my string. In the right hand sample if you follow a particular colour it travels along one step at a time and remains on the outer edge for two rows, before travelling back the opposite way and returning to its starting position. On the left hand sample, ignore the thick yellow string on the outside right and just look at the sequence to its left.

I certainly find it easier to ‘see’ the ringing patterns by visualising it this way. Removing the scary numbers helps. But I take issue with the description of its being ‘plaiting’ or ‘braiding’ in the method-teaching instructions. To me, a plait or a braid has every change or sequence held in position by the previous one. In the samples above it is impossible to hold the sequence changes in place without the addition of a ‘weft thread’ in the form of a cocktail stick.

Merry postscript: I learned while checking bell facts that that when Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded in1587 the parish of St Margaret’s, Westminster, paid ringers 1 shilling per head to ring out in rejoicing. That is a mighty sum.

Following on from a Welsh mention, I am off to the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Summer School at Carmarthen next week. I am thoroughly looking forward to attending as a student rather than as a tutor for a change and to meeting  Journal colleagues, old friends and students from past years. I will be on Deb Bamford’s course (Deb is The Mulberry Dyer) called Turkey Red and all that Madder. Deb has asked us to take 5 litres of tap water, and to obtain a water analysis from our water supplier. I didn’t know, until she told us, that the water supplier is legally obliged to supply this without charge. Mine finally arrived last week.

I am hoping to blog from the Summer School and will now need to reacquaint myself with the Blogsy app I have on my iPad. It worked very well in Australia last year when we created our travelling blog.

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The simple reappears once the dyer’s quite exhausted

Dyeing at Leewood on Dartmoor continues next week and on 11th April Jane Deane and I will be working on the same five fleeces as last month (see here), but this time using madder. Visitors are welcome and it’s free, but please phone Leewood before you make the journey.

I can now announce that our historical dye  project has been granted financial support from the Worshipful Company of Dyers, one of the historic London Livery Companies. I have been grateful for their assistance with research into the Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive over the past years, but this is the first time I have requested support for a practical project. The Dyers Company has a long history of charitable giving which you can read about here.

Next weekend I’ll be in London for the AGM of the Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers followed, on the Sunday, by our quarterly Journal committee meeting. This whole weekend of meetings coincides with the major Huguenot of Spitalfields events and The Big Weave on the 13th, also in London. It’s most unlikely I will be able to bunk off meetings to inspect the Huguenots, however – it’s a shame there is so much on at once.

Despite a whole new bunch of lively committee members, there will be a sad  goodbye to Cally Booker (whose blog you can see here) and Belinda Rose , who have now completed their terms on the Journal committee. They have contributed hugely to a range of ever-changing Journal demands and I’ll really miss their intelligence, cheerfulness and good humour.

Plans for Fusion, West Dean’s summer event, proceed. This week I was asked for a ‘top tip’ by the organisers for a publicity campaign. I don’t have a practical one about dyeing dog hair or boiling sheep dung so I thought of a piece of Eastern philosophy I find revealing and useful. I first heard it when I read that Peter Collingwood had it fixed to his loom.

The simple only reappears once the complex is exhausted

It comes from Nigel Richmond’s Language of the Lines, written about the I Ching. The word I appreciate most is ‘reappears’. It’s because I recognise the simplicity of an idea in the inspiration stages, but endless, exhausting ‘stuff’ gets in the way and I struggle to pare everything down to try to find what I first saw. In so doing, I frequently take the wrong things out. It’s a process I often go through – in fact, I am doing it now, with work based on our trip to Australia last October.

Bookings for Fusion can be made through West Dean’s Fusion page here. I will be demonstrating wax resist on silk on Saturday 22 June and running three workshops on Sunday 23rd. These will be beginners’ workshops, but if you have done some work with wax before it should be equally enjoyable.


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Calculating cochineal: using Lanzarote dyestuff

The historical dye research Jane Deane and I are working on at Leewood (see previous post) involves comparing ‘like with like’. For the initial weld research we used a stock solution of weld extract and divided it equally into five separate jars to dye samples of five fleece types.

Last year I undertook a dye costing with a stock solution. It was for a Somerset-based company called The Woolly Shepherd which promotes the sustainable use of wool, particularly waste fleece that would normally be thrown away. It is producing  needle-felted insulation materials, horticultural products and acoustic panels and also sells a range of small items such as wine coolers and phone covers.

The Woolly Shepherd’s felt is a darkish grey overall, being a mixture of several fleece colours and thus far they had sold all their products undyed. The company asked me to find out if its felt could be natural-dyed to achieve a certain shade of dark pink. It had obtained a sample dyed pink with synthetic dyes and I offered to try to match it as nearly as possible using cochineal, and in such a way that a costing for natural dyes plus the dyeing process could be calculated.

Dye calculations are normally made on percentage of dyestuff to fibre, yarn or fabric, so I needed to work with a known weight of dry felt and a known weight of cochineal. By increasing the amount of measured dyestuff in a sequence of individual vats, I planned to dye a set of samples to calculate a percentage weight of dye to weight of felt. Cutting a precise weight of thick felt has ‘pound of flesh’ Merchant of Venice connotations. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. In the end I cut a piece that was slightly too heavy and then sliced pieces off the side so that I was working with a 200 g weight. I cut this into four so I could work with 50 g samples.

All the felt was mordanted in alum and cream of tartar. I used 12% alum and 8% cream of tartar – although I normally use less. The wool smelled so strongly of lanolin that I wasn’t sure if it had been sufficiently scoured for dyeing, so I erred on the side of a stronger mordant.

Because working with very small weights of ground cochineal is extremely fiddly I made a stock solution.

I used Lanzarote cochineal for The Woolly Shepherd project. Some time ago I undertook quality tests for the  Asociación Milana, found their cochineal to be excellent and I continue to use it.

I ground 50 g dried cochineal to fine powder and tied it firmly  into a silk gauze bag. This helped prevent cochineal fragments entering the dye and avoided the need to strain the dyestuff. The bag was put into a stainless steel vessel with about 500 ml water and heated to simmer point (80C) for about 10 minutes. The decocted liquor was decanted into a container. Repeats of this process followed until there was hardly any colour coming out of the bag. The series of decoctions made up a stock solution of 50 g cochineal in 4 litres of water.

I calculated that I could draw off the equivalent of 1 g cochineal in each 80 ml of water  – if I kept the solution swirling while decanting so that it would be well-mixed.

The dyeing was fairly straightforward although I had an initial panic with the first sample: it appeared that the dye was not ‘taking’. Was the wool too greasy? But after the first half hour I saw the felt begin to turn pink. I slowly raised the temperature to 80C and held it for an hour, then allowed it to cool and sit overnight before rinsing. The colour was nearly exhausted in the vat after the long soak. I prepared three samples starting with a 4% proportion of dye to fibre and then increasing the percentage. With the felt being grey, the dye was always having to work against the base colour and in the end the percentage of dyestuff required for the dark pink was higher than I anticipated.

In a spirit of pessimistic self-knowledge I noted precise quantities, weights, times and individual calculations in my dye notebook. If my actual calculations were later found to be faulty (not uncommon with my maths), I could still make sense of the dyed samples because the maths could be reworked.

When undertaking my research into orchil I’ve studied historical dye notebooks, invoices, orders and the occasional sniffy nineteenth century letter of complaint. A high standard of colour accuracy was expected of past dyemakers by their clients. My exercise with cochineal gave me a small insight into how consistent results, competitive purchase and selling prices were achieved, using natural materials which can vary in quality.

Then as now, good results would depend on careful note-taking, accurate calculations, rigorously consistent dyeing and efficient retention of standard dyed samples.

The Woolly Shepherd: http://www.woollyshepherd.co.uk/

Asociación Milana http://www.tinamala.com

A version of this article was first published in the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, Issue 242, Summer 2012, pp 24 – 25


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Natural dye extracts with wax

There’s a lot going on. A deadline for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers meant last-minute articles had to be reviewed and proof-read. This coming weekend I am teaching at West Dean in West Sussex, the course is full,  and there is a lot to do in advance. Immediately after getting back from West Dean I start a series of structured historical dyeing experiments at Leewood with colleague Jane Deane – more about the project on this page. The house smells of hot sheep at the moment as I have been scouring fleece. Next week I deliver new work for the spring exhibition at Redearth Gallery… and so it goes on.

Reading that lot, I am not quite sure how I found time to do a little work with Aquarelle liquid extract natural dyes (see my blog post on them here). But I used spare hours to paint the extracts directly onto mordanted silk, using wax as a resist between the layers of dye. The instructions for Aquarelle give details on heated dye baths for fixation but this is not an option with wax resist, because the heat of the dye bath would melt the wax. My plan has been to place dye-painted and partially dewaxed work in the fabric steamer to replicate the heat and damp of a dye-bath. To start with I just used two of the dyes: the liquid indigo ‘Saxon Blue’ and the Himalayan Rhubarb.

NOTE: My comments on the outcome must be read as they stand: they are emphatically not a comment on the effectiveness of the dyes themselves but on the dyes used in this unconventional way.  There is a lot more work I need to do having seen the results.

My working method was as follows:

  • Silk scarf blanks mordanted in 8% alum 2% cream of tartar
  • Dried scarves stretched on a frame
  • Wax applied – in this case and in each layer simple stripes and lines across the scarf
  • Different dilutions of Himalayan Rhubarb (HR) and Liquid Indigo Saxon Blue (SB)  applied to create variations of blue – green
  • After several layers using a similar technique, wax partially removed by ironing cloth between newspapers
  • Work rolled in paper and steamed for one hour (note: I don’t have a thermometer in the steamer. It is brought to the boil every two minutes and turns off for about two minutes)
  • Work dipped in White Spirit to remove residual wax, and rinsed several times

Observations:

The good news is that the dyes have set in the steaming process. Repeated rinses after the White Spirit dip run entirely clear. I lost some of the SB in the first rinses, but this was almost certainly because I notched up the SB concentration to extremely high levels in some areas and probably overdid it. I always think of dyes and dye-sites like a game of Musical Chairs. When the chairs run out, the dye has nowhere to sit, molecularly speaking. It’s more to do with the fibre than the dye.

This experiment shows that it is possible to build quite dark tones by increasing the concentration of dye in selected areas. There are some deep greens. I had wondered if this would be possible, and it looks as though it is.

However, the HR has lost its lovely golden hue (see the original colour centre top) and has dulled to ochre. If you look at the images you can see some in which the steaming paper has picked up a lots of pink from the HR painted areas. The dyed steaming paper is lovely in itself: the red component of the dye has leached into the paper and didn’t fix to the silk. I have no idea why. It could be the mordanting. It could be the paper. It could be that I steamed too long, or steamed too hot. It could be that it would always happen, whatever the steam-time and heat. I now need to  dye silk with all the Aquarelle colours, using their recommended dye bath, to evaluate their ‘true’ colours.

The centre image shows small blotches on a brownish area. These are created by small spots of dye on a wax surface which I failed to wipe off. These are travelling through to the silk surface as remaining wax melts in the steamer, and they then fix. In this case it is not too big a blemish, but it can look smudgy and ruin a design.

On the centre right image there are ugly blue splashes. These weren’t present when the fabric went into the steamer. I think loose dye may have travelled all the way through the steaming paper and I shall use two layers next time.

More puzzling is the bleeding of the SB into areas that had been waxed onto white. You can see these top right and centre left in the images. This can happen with synthetic dyes if the work has been placed too close to the outside of the paper roll. If you imagine the rolled paper in the steamer (see here for an idea of how it looks) there is more moisture reaching the roll on the outer surface when it is in the steamer. If the steamer isn’t up to heat, work on the outer part of the roll receives a lot of moisture, doesn’t begin to fix and starts to wander around – playing Musical Chairs. The solution is to wrap additional paper around the outside of a steaming roll. I didn’t do it this time. I am not sure whether the bleeding is a result of the steaming process or an issue to do with the dyes themselves. This didn’t seem to happen with dyes on the inner part of the roll, so I tend to blame my lack of foresight.

Conclusion

There is a lot to do but I am enthusiastic about the potential for working with Aquarelle with wax. The colours I achieved aren’t particularly exciting because of the dullness of the HR after steaming, and I need to research this aspect. But they have fixed efficiently via the steamer, it does seem possible to use wax as a resist, and to achieve some strong, dark tones. So I am optimistic; I just need a 36 hour day.


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In the second post…

It’s time to open the blogdoor and let the first visitors into the studio. Actually, I haven’t been in the studio much today because the red pen is out, which means it’s proofreading time for Journal issue number 245. On Saturday there is a Journal committee meeting in London – always a long and packed day with a trip from rural Devon to buzzing central London and back again. But it’s mentally stimulating, it’s fun and I enjoy seeing friends from far-flung places and eating too many biscuits. We always fight the clock but our chairman wields her claymore and we normally finish the agenda on time.

In the studio I have wax-resist / steam-fixed dye work on the frame in a new series called Between Worlds. I am working on a silk crêpe de Chine and the finished scarf will be 134 cm x 20 cm, or 8″ x 54″ in English. The image on the right above is a scarf that was selected for the National Exhibition of the Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers last July; on the left, the detail shows a new scarf in early stages of making. I have been using different-shaped wax brushes to create the marks. The design is worked freehand except for a light pencil mark, just visible, which I need to follow in order to define the shapes of the dark pools (or are they shadows?)  beneath the trees.


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Starting afresh

I first designed and managed my own website over ten years ago.  I set it up with certain aims in view at a time when silk painting was often poorly regarded. There was an abundance of salt-flinging at wet dyes on cheap silk, poorly-drawn scarves using clumsy water-based resists that bled dye, and derivative design. The medium developed a bad name and it wasn’t always wise to introduce yourself to a gallery as a silk painter. At that time I hoped to illustrate some of the medium’s potential on my website.

Since then, my working priorities have developed, as have teaching venues and the technology to write and publish online. These days I still work with wax-resist on silk but I also produce natural-dyed silk and wool scarves and grow some of my own dyestuff. With colleagues and friends I have been researching methods of using natural dyes with wax resist, which has proved a very complex problem.

 

For four years I have been researching historical dyes in a more academic form, which can involve intense and concentrated writing; I also assist with the editing of  the Journal of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. The old site is no longer relevant to my wider aims. The final straw for my website camel was that the Dreamweaver program I used is no longer compatible with my computer system. It’s now incredibly tedious to update and I find all sorts of excuses not to get around to it.

During a seven week trip to Australia in autumn 2012, we set up and maintained a blog (from some very unlikely upload locations) and I realised that the format of a blog plus a few static pages would probably work well for a new site.

I’ve launched this new site in the last hours of 2012 – in the spirit of optimism we are expected to adopt at this time of year – before the Talisker properly takes hold.