Isabella Whitworth

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


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Talking Orchil

Canterbury graveyard, 1960s sketchbook

Lichens in a Canterbury graveyard: from my 1960s sketchbook

In my last post I started to write about orchil, and how I became fascinated by its story through my researches on an eighteenth / nineteenth century Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive.

To start at the beginning, orchil (pronounced or-kil) comes from lichens. It has been used for millennia to dye wool and silk a purple colour. There is some confusion over ancient recipes for purple. It isn’t always possible to decipher which recipes refer to lichen and which to shellfish dyes. Both dyestuffs produce a remarkably similar colour, were to be found in the same areas (e.g. the Mediterranean coast) and descriptions of lichen are often a little vague. For instance, dyestuff might be referred to as a plant, or a moss, or a seaweed.

There is evidence (Pliny, Theophrastus, Dioscorides) that orchil was used in conjunction with shellfish purple and it’s a ready assumption that this was done  to defraud – which of course it may have been. The processing of orchil would have been significantly cheaper than for shellfish dye. But the combination was also undertaken to produce a legitimately cheaper alternative to pure shellfish-dyed cloth. Nevertheless, orchil and shellfish-dyed cloth seems regarded with disdain because of the great and unique reputation of shellfish purple, and orchil’s tendency to fade.

The beauty of fresh orchil on woollen yarn

The beauty of fresh orchil on woollen yarn

Orchil dye is extremely beautiful in its first, fresh bloom of colour but it normally proceeds to fade fast. It is therefore interesting to read a 2012 paper (link below) in which Casselman and Terada demonstrated that a combination of orchil and shellfish dye may in certain circumstances, stabilise the orchil. They also reported that the  use of orchil as a base dye would to some extent neutralise the intensely unpleasant odour of shellfish-dyed cloth. Those facts cast an entirely different light on the historic combination of orchil and shellfish dye.

It occurs to me that in more recent days, far from being ‘poor man’s purple’, orchil could have been considered a great luxury. If you could afford the rich glories of orchil-dyed silk, and these would be obvious to all by the colour, it might indicate one’s financial indifference to fading and the realities of a soon-spoiled garment.

Dye lichens

Not all lichens will dye, not all dye lichens will make orchil. Orchil-producing lichens (and there are innumerable species) contain precursors of the dye and to make this available the dyestuff must be crushed in ammonia or stale urine and water and then kept well-oxygenated. It undergoes a type of fermentation, and the purple colour develops over several weeks.

Orchil is very sensitive to changes in pH and by adjusting vat strength and acidity, a wide variety of colours can be achieved, ranging from browny reds to reds, pinks and purples.

Crotal / crottles

There are lichens that will dye rusty reds, browns and golds. They are often referred to as ‘crotal’, (a Gaelic word) or crottle, lichen. These require no fermentation and are normally boiled up together with fibre, yarn or cloth. They have been in traditional use in Scotland for centuries and the warm, earthy smell of crotal-dyed yarn is also a moth deterrent. But crotals are not orchils!

Mordants

Neither orchil nor crotal requires a mordant although some historical recipes recommend an alum mordant for orchil.

 

The Wood & Bedford Orchil Story

I found a vast number of items in the archive which related to the nineteenth and twentieth century trade in orchil. A couple of them can be seen in the previous post. The records defined several sources of orchil lichen. Around 1830 these included Scandinavia, Sardinia, the Azores, Madeira,  the Canary Islands and Cape Verde. Political changes and colonial interests affected trading in the later 1800s, as did the slave trade and, eventually, its abolition. A picture emerged of a voracious trade that reached an industrial and even global scale by the mid nineteenth century. There is a certain irony in the fact that stocks of what, in effect, is a non-renewable product were saved by the synthesis of mauveine by Perkin in 1856. The demand for lichen then dropped. Nevertheless, Wood & Bedford,  later the Yorkshire Dyeware and Chemical Company, continued to buy and process orchil lichen well into the twentieth century. I understand that the last unused lichen stocks went to Johnsons of Hendon who presumably used lichen to make their indicator papers.

Lichen ethics

You will see that I have learned to make orchil and to dye samples for research purposes but I don’t use it in my studio work. You can read some of my thoughts on lichen use here. I am extremely grateful to all those who taught me about making orchil and how to dye with it.

Pronunciation

How do you pronounce lichens? I say it to rhyme with kitchens. Most people and academics (ok, sorry, academics are also people)  say ‘likens’. The OED pronunciation makes it official: you can say it either way:
/ˈlʌɪk(ə)n, ˈlɪtʃ(ə)n/

References:

The Politics of Purple: Dyes from Shellfish and Lichens Karen Diadick Casselman and Takako Terada

Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science; Dominique Cardon, Archetype Publications

The Colourful Past: Origins, Chemistry and Identification of Natural Dyestuffs; Judith H. Hofenk de Graaff, Archetype Publications

Lichen Dyes: The New Sourcebook and Craft of the Dyer by Karen Diadick / Leigh Casselman

 

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More-or-less-Ethel and the Mairet madder method

Several years ago I was fortunate to buy a small out-of-print hardback book in the collection of an Oxfordshire dyer. It was Ethel Mairet’s Vegetable Dyes. Originally published in 1916, the book is something of a classic and my 1952 edition represents its eleventh reprinting. I normally don’t like finding handwritten marks and notes in books but this one has been well-used, and I enjoy thinking of (at least) two dyers before me making use of it.

Ethel Mairet, née Partridge, was born in 1872  in Barnstaple, North Devon, which isn’t far from where I live. Her life was extraordinary on many levels as an influential figure in arts, crafts and education. She was married for a time to a Ceylonese called Ananda Coomaraswamy and travelled to Ceylon with him, studying and documenting weaving, spinning and dyeing techniques. She divorced in 1912 and married Philippe Mairet in 1913. At ‘Gospels’, her house at Ditchling, she set up a workshop and taught students who themselves became influential in the textile world. These include Marianne Straub and Elizabeth Peacock. Elizabeth Peacock has an association with Dartington, also here in Devon, for whom she wove a set of banners in 1938. There is an image of one of them here.

In 1931 Elizabeth Peacock co-founded the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers (AGWSD). With others, she organised the first AGWSD Summer Schools and if you have been reading previous blogs about madder and Turkey Red, you’ll know that Summer Schools are still held biennially by the Association.  Ethel Mairet taught on these first Schools, so I’m glad her madder recipe emerged with such success at Carmarthen. Opinions change over the years, however, and nowadays dyers tend to use much less alum mordant than the 25% her 1916 recipe recommends. It’s certainly a large percentage for me.

Blessed with some summer sun, I have been drying out the wet madder chips I brought back from Wales. I was surprised at how much the heap shrank as the chips contracted. With the liquid madder exhaust I have used a More-or-Less-Ethel (call it MOLE?) method to dye scarves. It’s ‘more-or-less’ because the exhaust is an amalgam of numerous dyebaths from Summer School and isn’t consistent with Mairet’s recipe. I have also dyed silk with it, and her recipe specifies it’s for wool. But I worked the Mairet long mordant (resting it damp for several days) and the 25% alum and also brought the dyebath to the boil for the recommended ten minutes. Boiling madder is very controversial as many recipes (such as Jill Goodwin’s) advise that raising the heat of the dye bath above a certain point will make the madder go nasty and brown. This is clearly not necessarily the case because our experiments included recipes where we boiled, and those where we didn’t, and Deliberately Boiled Brown became something of a Holy Grail.

If you read my blog regularly you will also know I am a voluntary editor on the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers which is the magazine of the AGWSD.  A new issue (247) will shortly be plopping onto doormats for the attention of international sets of dog-teeth; we are also approaching the copydate for a future issue. So it has been a frantically busy week. All the reports from the recent Summer School are included in 247, as well as regular articles and features.

The Journal is also announcing the appointment of the new AGWSD President, Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul, but this will be in Journal 248. Jenny is best known for her research work into indigo but is passionate about education and the passing on of our skills.  I owe my own passion for natural dyes to her: I attended a series of lectures on Japanese crafts at the Crafts Council in the early 1990s (Marianne Straub was another attendee!) and was infected by Jenny’s enthusiasm for natural dyes. She taught me to dye with indigo, and the rest is history.

Links

Ethel Mairet:

University of Brighton biography of Ethel Mairet here

vads online resource here. There are also images of her woven cloth

You can read Ethel Mairet’s book, which is out of copyright, online here 

An image of Ethel (then) Coomaraswamy weaving at Broad Campden here

Elizabeth Peacock:

vads online resource here

Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul

Jenny’s website (under construction) here

Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, here

Jenny’s work with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Connect here

Books here