Isabella Whitworth

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


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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

reduced

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

 


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Blue and Black

Indigo pigment

I’m trying to use my Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) before frost hits and kills it, and it won’t be long. I planted it late this year and have only managed 5 ‘picks’ which were made around 15 days apart, to allow for regrowth. I had enough prepared work to dye in the first vats, but for the last two ‘picks’ there was nothing ready. Not wanting to waste the precious crop I have endeavoured to make pigment, which basically involves reducing (by evaporating) the indigo, in its alkaline, oxygenated state, down to a thick paste, and then powder. This can be reconstituted into a dye vat at a later date.

A friend helped me with basic instructions but mostly I had to experiment. I probably wasted some indigo because I didn’t find a way of filtering efficiently. There also seems to be more leaf material in it than I hoped as it looked greeny-blue at paste stage. In a hot, dry climate like India shallow containers of liquid evaporate fast but here it took days, even on the top of the central heating boiler. It was a race to evaporate the goo before it went mouldy. I forgot to weigh the leaves but I think there was about 1 kg, which reduced to 5.3 grams of indigo pigment. There is a full explanation of the way I process Japanese indigo before the evaporation stage here so I won’t repeat the method.

Bideford Black

With pigment-making on my mind, I went to see the new exhibition at the Burton Art Gallery and Museum at Bideford. It’s called Bideford Black: The Next Generation and it centres on a rare and beautiful black earth pigment which emerges from the North Devon cliffs. In the past ‘Biddiblack’ (as it was known), has been used in paint manufacture, for making mascara, camouflaging military vehicles, in boatbuilding etc., and commercial mining for it continued until 1969. Artists working in a traditional manner, or with traditional materials, have valued its velvety dark strength and subtle tones. I had a chance to try it in the Burton Gallery last week, as can all visitors to the show. Bideford Black: The Next Generation is an unusual and unconventional exhibition and it’s certainly not traditional: participating artists responded to the pigment in diverse and often thought-provoking ways. Links below.

I wanted to find out if the pigment could be painted onto sized cloth and the exhibition organisers offered me some Bideford Black to take home and try out. Using a rare pigment 300 million years old was moderately inhibiting and my efforts also felt stuffy and old-hat after seeing the exhibition. Nevertheless, stuffy and old-hat is what I do, so I got on with it.

Using the soya milk recipe generously published online by John Marshall (see link below) I stretched and sized silk and cotton and worked experimental pieces. I wasn’t trying to make anything, just seeing what the pigment would do. The black was initially ground in a pestle and mortar and then mixed with more soya milk as a binder. I found that a small amount of gum arabic assisted in holding it together, stopping moisture bleeding outwards from painted shapes. The fabrics now need to cure.

Finally in this tale of blue and black, I was lucky to book a place on a monoprint workshop run at The Burton by Grizel Luttman-Johnson. We inked up perspex plates with Bideford Black printing pigment, which Grizel had prepared by grinding and mixing the Black with a binder and linseed oil. We then placed paper on the inked plate and made drawings on the reverse of the paper. Pressure caused ink to be picked up and an impression made on the front of the paper. The plate could be used again to pick up a ‘ghost print’, which created a kind of negative image. It was a very enjoyable day, well-led by Grizel.

Some links to the Blog for Bideford Black: The Next Generation 

The Geology of Bideford Black

The Nature of Black

Next Generation: Artists Selected

Launch and work information

Related links

Teachers’ Resource on North Devon Minerals

Grizel Luttman-Johnson

I am indebted to Michel Garcia and John Marshall for their freely published information:

Information on Michel Garcia’s DVD on natural dyes here

John Marshall instructions for making soy milk here

 


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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.