Isabella Whitworth

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


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New book: dye lakes and recipes

Since I started teaching natural dyes at West Dean College, I have had a problem. How could I save, transport and use litres of expensive dye not fully exhausted on the course? I travel with two large beer-making flagons containing indigo, but transporting additional containers of weld, madder and cochineal isn’t feasible – and I hate waste.

For some years I have been working with my friend and colleague Yuli Sømme, who commissions me to dye different shades of wool felt for her company Bellacouche, in Moretonhampstead (see link below). If I have pieces of mordanted and wetted-out felt ready, I can dunk it into the vats on the final night at the College, and by the next morning much of the used dye is exhausted and the felts dyed. I can rinse out the felts and take them home in empty buckets. The exhausted dye can be discarded.

But if students need the vats on the final day, or I am travelling home the day I finish teaching, I don’t have the option of using Yuli’s felt and the leftover dyes.

The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: by Catharine Ellis and Joy Boutrop

A newly-published book by Catharine Ellis and Joy Boutrop has encouraged me to experiment with making lake pigments from the leftover dyes at West Dean. Their suggested process greatly reduces the volume to be transported and involves binding the leftover dye to the alum mordant, thus turning it into a concentrated lake pigment. The pigment is precipitated using alum and soda ash and sinks to the bottom of the vessel, leaving the water on the surface, which can be poured off.

Madderlake2

Making a madder lake. You can see the dye beginning to precipitate and separate from the water

The resulting substance is strained through cloth and when this process is complete, a gooey, paste-y mixture like thick custard remains.

filtering

Straining the madder pigment through a cloth

By reversing the chemical process at home, again using the instructions in the book,  I can dye pieces of wetted-out felted wool – which do not require a mordant.

It is typical of this book, which in its entirety covers a very wide range of natural dye processes, that methods are well-explained, options or alternatives outlined, and reasons given for certain instructions. Recipes are clear and easy to follow and I would have greatly valued the book in my library when I started natural dyeing because of its comprehensive treatment of the subject and a thoroughly researched, straightforward approach. I will write more in future posts because I am still learning so much from the work of these two authors.

Since my West Dean course last month I have made pigments from madder and weld lakes, and tried mixing them with indigo and earth pigments.

pigments

Madder and weld pigments (pink and yellow) and overpaints of earth pigments sienna and ochre (rusts and red-brown) from Roussillon in France. Painted on soya-sized cotton

Links

The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: Principles, Experiments and Results

At time of writing, this book isn’t readily available in the UK. Check this link on the Blackwell’s site to see if it is in stock.

Bellacouche

Yuli Sømme’s company in Moretonhampstead, Devon

West Dean College Short Courses

My next natural dye course at West Dean is March 27 – 29th 2020.

 

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Dyeing Reds in Amsterdam

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Safflower petals before washing

I recently took part in a two-day workshop in Amsterdam, dyeing historical reds on silk at the Rijksmuseum’s Department of Conservation and Restoration. The event was organised by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. Selection for the workshop was by application, and the organisers chose eight international participants known for the variety and extent of their expertise in natural dyeing, and / or their interests in historical dye recipes.

A range of 26 samples was produced using American cochineal, kermes, annatto, brazilwood, madder, safflower and lac. Participants worked in pairs dyeing different sets of dyes: my partner was Paula Hohti of Aalto University, Helsinki, where she is Assistant Professor of History of Art and Culture. We dyed three recipes in total: one for lac and two for safflower. Demineralised water was used throughout.

Lac Our lac recipe was adapted from Edelstein’s translation of the 1548 edition of The Plictho of Gioanventura Rosetti. We prepared and used an alum mordant on Day 1, in which the silk rested overnight. The stick lac we were to use had been extracted over the previous three days. On Day 2 we sieved the lac solution and heated it, adding 25% (to weight of dry fabric) cream of tartar. It was dyed for an hour.

lac

Lac-dyed silk being lifted from the beaker to check for colour. On the right is the beaker containing yellow safflower dye and silk

Safflower We dyed two versions of safflower: yellow and red. Our recipes were adapted from various sources, including Macquer’s Art de la Teinture en Soie. To obtain yellow, safflower florets were washed once and drained, and then soaked again for 30 minutes. After sieving, the resulting extract was used to dye unmordanted silk.

safflower

First washing-out of the safflower florets for yellow dyeing

To obtain red, safflower florets were pre-washed for two weeks to remove all traces of the yellow extract – this process had been completed in advance of the workshop.  We undertook a further sequence of washings until the yellow stopped running and the water was clear. The water was sieved out. Potash was added to obtain pH 10, and the florets squeezed by hand until they appeared pink and transparent and the liquor looked pinky red. This took about half an hour to achieve.

After sieving into a new beaker, unmordanted silk was added and the pH checked (it was around 7). We then added fermented beer (bierken) little by little, continually monitoring pH, until the pH dropped to a crucial pH 5. This threshold pH has a term ‘virer le bain‘ or ‘turn the bath’. We were required not to allow the pH to drop lower or it would damage the silk. The silk then rested in the dye for 10 minutes after which it was washed in Marseilles soap, and water.

Both safflower baths produced strong colours, with the pink having an especially bright ‘pop’. The colour is very light fugitive.

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Safflower red (left), lac (centre) safflower yellow (right

Everyone, including the three organisers, gave short presentations on their work and research interests. I showed some samples of my orchil dyeing as well as a few pieces of my studio work in natural dyes. Many participants were involved in education, some of us were artists and dyers, others were textile researchers or art historians. These absorbing presentations illustrated what a privilege it was to attend the workshop.

The results of the workshop were recently published at the Spring Symposium of the Textiel Commissie.

assort

Participants were able to take away a sample of each recipe dyed: a total of 26 samples

Participants took home a complete set of all the silks dyed. The organisers also retained a set, which will be catalogued and stored as historical reproductions on reference sheets, together with supporting information on the recipes and preparations. The sheets will eventually be published online through the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE) website, for the benefit of other researchers.


Thanks With many thanks to organisers Drs. Ana Serrano, Jenny Boulboullé and Art Proaño Gaibor; to the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands; the Ateliergebouw of the Rijksmuseum; and to all fellow participants at the workshop for their unique and specialist contributions.


Links

Rijksmuseum Conservation and Research

Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands

Textiel Commissie

Paula Hohti has recently been awarded a European Research Council grant for a five year project Re-fashioning the Renaissance: Popular Groups, Fashion and the Material and Cultural Significance of Clothing in Europe 1550 – 1650


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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.

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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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My National Archives blog: in pursuit of lichen dyes

lichen_edited-1

Specimen page from lichen collection found in Leeds archive, now held in the Economic Botany Collections, Kew. The botanist was J.M. Despréaux.

‘Connecting Collections’ is a series of National Archives blogs by academic researchers, exploring the connections between archives across the UK and around the world Last year The National Archives held a competition inviting researchers to submit guest blogs. When I thought about it, I realised just how many such connections had been made in my early research into the lichen dye trade. My blog just made it on the closing day and I was delighted it it was accepted for publication – on 18th May. The title was A Purple Pursuit and you can read it here:

http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/purple-pursuit/

It is about my research into the history of a Leeds dye manufacturer whose early fortunes were based on a lichen-sourced dye called orchil.

Links

There are several other interesting blogs available at the Connecting Collections page on National Archives site

More on my Wood and Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals research on this blog:

Tyrian Purple – from a Leeds archive?

Tyrian Treasure: Part One

Tyrian Treasure: Part Two

Dyes, history, and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

A Purple Pursuit


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Testing Times 1 & 2

Testing One

I have many friends who take an interest in my pots of goo and occasionally they send me things. One such friend returning from Essaouira sent me pigment she had been sold as ‘shellfish purple’. Historically, the Moroccan coast was an area much involved in the making of this fabled dye (also known as Imperial Purple and Tyrian Purple) but I expressed doubt that what she had sent was ‘the real thing’ because it is fabulously expensive to produce even a small quantity. Just 5 grams costs around £450.00. But I thought it would be fun to try dyeing with it.

grains

Green grains and finished colour on silk

I took advice from a specialist colleague, Professor Zvi Koren of the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artefacts (link below). He advised that shellfish pigment is not water-soluble, so that by adding just water I would not get a true solution: I’d get a reddish coloured mixture with the pigments dispersed but not dissolved. I added water and the grains went bright pink. Very bright indeed, as you can see below.

pH

The colour of the grains in solution: testing pH

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Reduced liquid with lumps of dye matter

Following my colleague’s advice, I reduced grains in a hydrosulfite / dithionite bath in an alkaline solution, at about 60 C. The liquid went completely clear, with the dye matter gathered in lumps. This didn’t look right at all for shellfish purple, which should change to a greenish colour (as with indigo).  Nevertheless, I dipped silk into the clear mixture and it came out a bright pink – which does not wash out. So it’s certainly a dye, but certainly not shellfish purple.

Two other pointers to its not being shellfish purple: the Essaouira grains are green, and they shouldn’t be. There’s no snail pigment that colour, according to my colleague. It’s usually dark, blackish, brownish, purplish or violetish, but never green. And on top of that, the grains should have a yukky fishy smell. The Essaouira grains smelled vaguely of incense.

So this was a fascinating experiment, a story echoing many historical tales of dyes that were not as they claimed.

My thanks to Professor Zvi Koren of the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts for his input and advice on testing the Essaouira grains.

Friends: please don’t stop sending me interesting things. But as an H&S caveat, pigments and grains bought in faraway places may be toxic or otherwise harmful so you need to be aware of handling and storing them. They are not necessarily what they say on the tin.

Testing the Other

At a recent course at West Dean my Old Geyser of a fabric steamer developed a problem. The thirty-year old steamer assembly consists of a standard water boiler (the sort to be found in every village hall), a custom-made stainless steel chamber, lid, and perforated base plate. Silks are rolled in paper and stacked upright inside the steel chamber. Water is heated in the boiler, the steam circulates and the combination of heat and damp sets the dyes. The water isn’t held at a constant boil but needs to come up to the boil – and hold it – every two or three minutes, for around two-and-a-half hours.

Only, at West Dean, it didn’t. The boil was less frequent than usual, and was held for shorter periods. I was concerned that dyes were insufficiently fixed and suspected a problem with the thermostat. (I should add that West Dean supply a professional Uhlig steamer, but I have always used mine, which holds more silk).

Back home, phone calls revealed that a new ‘simmerstat’ is what I required. But during the time since I bought the boiler, Brussels has dictated that EU citizens are insufficiently responsible to handle dangerous pieces of equipment that boil water. (Those in favour of Brexit might enjoy the link at the bottom of the page). A catering boiler will no longer come to a full, constant boil. My new simmerstat was fitted by the technical department, but the gaps between boils seemed longer than I remembered…. or was I just being twitchy?

I then discovered that a secondhand Uhlig steamer was on sale, owned by an ex-student. I couldn’t believe this piece of luck – and bought it. It is a solid, stable and well designed piece of equipment, although as with the West Dean one, it does not hold as much yardage as Old Geyser. In the Uhlig I tested several pieces of silk, including three blues which have a tendency to run if steamed sufficiently. No run-off.

runoff

Some runoff may be expected in initial rinses after steaming if heavily concentrated dye is used. Thereafter the water should run clear

samplessteam

Samples of identically dyed silks steamed in two steamers to compare colour and runoff

I tested identical blues in the mended Old Geyser. It now appears to be working well too – so I now have two working steamers. No recycling tip for Old Geyser: he threw a steamy party.

LINKS

Where to buy shellfish purple in 2016? Here

Brexit? Pulling the plug on high speed kettles here

The Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts here

 

 


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Mordant pastes

The work I’m briefly describing here is an offshoot from a joint project. I have been researching mordant pastes (as taught by Michel Garcia) with a dyer friend; eventually we will write up our work because it isn’t yet finished. But the work we have done has made me wonder if it wasn’t the key to finding a satisfying, creative way to use natural dyes in combination with wax resist. This has been an ambition of mine since I went to ISEND* in 2011. It’s there I first came across Michel Garcia, on whose generously-shared research our mordant paste work is based.

There are technical problems in trying to combine paste with wax resist. Wax melts in the vat if it’s taken above a certain temperature, and each dye needs at least some heat to fix it. Cold dyeing isn’t an option: it would all take too long. The dyes must take their place in an ordered sequence for colour. The pH of one vat can affect colour of dyes in another layer, the wax can begin to flake off, etc. If the indigo dips are included, there may be as many as 20 operations to create one scarf, as they did in the image below. So it’s time consuming and isn’t going to produce a low-cost item, but I feel I’m getting somewhere at last. The dyes used are weld (Reseda luteola) from a British source, and indigo (a mixture of Devon-grown Persicaria tinctoria and imported powder from Tamil Nadu). The different paste resists give different shades of yellow on the base layer, including the brownish colour visible in small, thin lines and spots which came from the iron in the mordant paste.

Follow up post in July 2016: see here.

pastes

Mordant pastes (iron, alum and titanium) on silk crêpe de Chine. Weld immersion-dyed; wax resist, indigo-dyed, wax resist and multiple indigo dips

* ISEND: International Symposium and Exhibition on Natural Dyes, La Rochelle, 2011. You can download information about this here

A little about Michel Garcia’s technique here