Isabella Whitworth

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


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Lockdown: orchil and masks

A 5mm square of silk mousseline showing typical orchil colour

My last post featured some purple orchil or cudbear dust detached from stained paper. I attempted to convert it back to dye and soaked it in water for several days. I didn’t know if it would dye fibre after 167 years but after several weeks’ cold-dyeing a fragment of silk with the purple liquid, it has taken on a typical orchil fuschia purple – see above. I don’t know what that proves, but it’s wickedly, super-nerdily satisfying.

And now to Covid-19 masks. In the early 1990s I completed a number of publishing commissions to design textile craft projects. I accumulated boxes of fabric scraps in vibrant designs which I have failed to part with because ‘one day they might have a use’. Translated into stash language, that means I couldn’t bear to part with them. But their day has finally come and I have made masks for family and friends during the pandemic. After some online research I settled on the Olson design for adults which has a pocket into which a HEPA filter can be slipped. Research suggested that high thread count natural fabrics made the most effective mask and my 90s fabrics were ideal, being quilting cottons, cotton lawns, or fine weaves. It seems a suitable way to let these fabrics go. I made children’s masks but found the scaled-down Olson unsuitable since I couldn’t approach individual children to adjust the fit and instead used one of the many pleated designs on the internet. To supply designs that children would actually wear I bought a few new fabrics. All the girls wanted pink masks, and being Devon, small boys chose tractors and I’m unapologetic about this apparent stereotyping. I made fabric ties but advised parents to change to elastic if they weren’t efficient. There’s no point wearing them if the masks slip down all the time.

Four masks in the Olson pattern design (see link below). There are three layers of fabric in the centre where the pocket sits and if a HEPA filter is inserted a further layer is added. I fed a copper nose-wire into a channel along the top centre which shapes the mask to fit the face as closely as possible

Although appearing simple, I found mask-making fiddly because of the curves, layers of fabric, nose-wires etc. and the labour rapidly became tedious. I’m full of admiration for the army of makers who have made so many masks and scrubs over the past few months.

Children’s masks with a pleated design. Two layers of fabric overall

Olson Pattern Links

https://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-Cloth-Face-Mask/

Olson Pattern


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Purple stains

stain

A very obvious spill of orchil left this 1853 letter stained, with loose deposits of a powdery purple substance on the surface

This is my 38th day in coronavirus lockdown. Like many, I have a diary full of scratched-out teaching, appointments, celebration parties and anticipated trips. I haven’t felt particularly creative for the past few weeks and admire the achievements of those who use their daily exercise to draw and paint and record their experiences visually, or translate their time into the positivity of making work. I feel as though that particular tap ran dry for me a few weeks back. It’s a bit weird but I don’t feel bad about it, it just is. I have found other things to do.

When I’ve not been gardening, or training the new puppy, or learning to make videos,   I’ve been working on family history links with England, USA, Ireland and Ecuador. And with no other distractions or excuses I have finally managed to get my teeth back into the Leeds-related archiving I’ve been undertaking for some years. You can find other blogs about this research in the ‘word cloud’ on the right, under the search titles Wood & Bedford, orchil, and Yorkshire Chemicals.

Over these weeks of lockdown the archived boxes of labelled documents are growing, the unsorted papers are diminishing.  Most nights when I turn out the light and go to wash my hands (in a non-coronavirus way) there is a trace of pink or purple in the dirty, soapy water. I know it’s from orchil. The earlier papers, dating  between 1833 and 1855, came from a time when many of the working spaces of Wood & Bedford adjoined. The Fire Insurance document of 1855 describes these workspaces and some of the equipment. Orchil lichen was ground into powder with stones before manufacturing into dye, after which it was reduced back into powder (cudbear), or sometimes paste. Orchil dust would have hovered permanently, coating surfaces and settling on any uncovered papers. I have sorted papers with heavy purple stains, as if spills took place where they were stored, and there’s even a purple thumbprint on the back of an invoice for glass and earthenware. This gave me a real archival shiver because at that time (1850) there was just one person, James Bedford (1824 – 1903), who would have been working on orchil at the Hunslet address: the move to Kirkstall Road was imminent but had yet to take place. I have developed a very healthy respect for James and I like to think it is his thumbprint on the paper. It feels like a kind of handshake.

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Back of an 1850 invoice showing a purple thumbprint

I also found an 1853 letter stained with a large spill, which had resulted in several crusty deposits of a loose and powdery purple (see top image). I am neither equipped nor funded to conserve these papers and have stored the heavily stained ones separately so that at some time in the future there is the potential for them to be studied further. But while I was working a tiny deposit loosened off and I rescued it, putting it in a container with a little water. I checked it impatiently, and slowly, over several hours, the powder began to release its colour. It shows a typical fresh purple orchil pink. Amazing to see, and a rewarding moment that joins several other highlights in many years’ work on this archive. I will drop a few silk fibres in once I think all the colour has been released, and see if it will still dye.

IMG_9520

Orchil dye reconstituted from the 167-year-old orchil spill. The colour is typical of orchil

It’s intended that my section of the archive will finally join the main Yorkshire Chemicals collection already in the curation of the West Yorkshire Archive Service facility at Morley, Leeds. Wood & Bedford became the lead company of the Yorkshire Dyeware and Chemical Company in 1900, which was renamed Yorkshire Chemicals from 1974 – 2004 when it went into administration. The work on the Morley archive was completed by Dr Howard Varley who had been an employee of Yorkshire Chemicals until its demise. The complete set of archives will give a rare insight into the lifespan of a dye manufacturing company whose work spanned the transition from natural to synthetic dyes.

 

 

 

 


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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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French Connections

I’m back from a trip to the DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) Conference in La Rochelle. La Rochelle hosted the ISEND Conference in 2011 and so I was already familiar with the conference venue – a former fishmarket, now the exhibition and conference centre  L’espace Encan.

This is a text-heavy post, so here’s a picture of La Rochelle to keep you going.

LaRochelle

La Rochelle

A DHA conference annually attracts a wide variety of delegates from various disciplines. This year there were about 90 of us. Our number included chemists, conservators, artists, historians, researchers working with natural dyes, and students at various academic levels. At a DHA conference you can find yourself sitting next to someone from the British Museum, the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum, or an independent scholar who is simply passionate about parchment. It is a friendly assembly and all are welcome. Even if, as a non-chemist, you sometimes sit boggle-eyed through muscular technical papers full of graphs, analysis and molecular data, there is always something to be learned. I’m told that in early DHA days (this was the 32nd meeting!) there was a heavy bias towards these more scientific analytical papers but that nowadays the balance is more even, with a good mix of historic /scientific presentations. The selection committee who choose proposed papers must have an intensely hard job. Of the 24 or so papers accepted, several intrigued me but as none have yet been published this handful of comments remains general.

Purple Parchments

One paper involved the analysis of  purple-dyed parchments. Very little work has been done to analyse the source of the purple colour in such codices and as far as I understand, there is currently no scientific evidence that shellfish dyes were used on the parchments. Non-invasive methods are normally used in their analysis, essential if precious manuscripts are to be studied without damage, and these methods can make it more difficult to identify dyestuffs. (With a parchment it isn’t so easy to remove a physical sample as it can be from a textile, where a loose fibre may be available).

There was a mention of dyeing parchment with orchil, and my ears twitched. Last year I was asked to dye some parchment samples with orchil – and dye they certainly did. But it was apparent that the temperatures and immersion involved in dyeing with orchil stiffened and damaged the parchment quality. I felt that this method wasn’t viable. Cold-dyeing seemed to yield a more sympathetic result but I have no idea to what extent the parchment quality was affected as I was only sent miniscule pieces of parchment to dye.

In the post-presentation question session it emerged that the term ‘dyeing’ means different things to different people. Some delegates considered ‘dyeing’ could be the layered painting on of dye and not dyeing by immersion, as working dyers think of it. Now, I should say that I tried painting orchil on too, but soon lost the will to live. It would be immensely protracted to paint on sufficient orchil to build up a good colour. That’s not to say it would be impossible, I just didn’t have the time or the resources to continue.

It will be interesting to learn more about this research. Maybe at Glasgow and DHA 33 next year? The dates are October 30th – 31st 2014.

Shearings and Clippings

Magnified images had been studied by the presenters which showed lumpy-looking particles in the red lake used in several medieval paintings. These indicated that they were reclaimed dyes from red-dyed wool, made into lakes for painting. The reclaiming of red lake pigment dyestuffs from clippings of dyed wool revealed that it made good economic sense to extract the dyes and to reuse them as painting materials. The dyeing of red, from whichever dye source, was expensive and thus waste material might be reprocessed. Again, I encountered problems with a mutual understanding. Initially I was confused by the words ‘shearings and clippings’ which were used by the presenters. I associate these words primarily with sheep-shearing!  In the paper the words referred to waste dyed cloth after cutting woven material – or yarn.

The finding of these ‘reclaimed reds’ isn’t in itself new. A 1996 paper by Jo Kirby and Raymond White goes into great detail (find it here) and also lists a  number of paintings in which red lake pigment dyestuffs have been found. Have a look. You may be amazed.

Networking

A couple of years ago, at DHA in Lisbon, I presented a paper about the trade in dye lichens from Angola through Lisbon. I have yet to publish this, for several complicated reasons. But I had an interesting conversation with another delegate which led me to sending a very small quantity of dye lichen and a recipe to the University of Évora. I heard no more, and forgot all about it. At La Rochelle my Portuguese colleague and  her team presented a paper in which they had measured and tracked the breakdown of the depsides and depsidones (the dye precursors) in the orchil preparation process until purple chromophores formed. Chromophores are the part of the molecule responsible for colour. The chemistry was patiently explained to me in a coffee break and I now understand rather more about the process that before – although I wouldn’t like to take an exam just yet. DHA is great for this kind of contact and co-operation.

DHA=GFZ: A Gremlin Free Zone

If you read the previous post you will now that I was co-presenting a paper at DHA 32  and I wrote about the snaggly-toothed IT gremlins that lurk for unprepared presenters. I am pleased to report that my eminent co-author, Zvi Koren, had done an admirable job on gremlin-bashing (he’s ace at puns too) and everything loaded and presented totally as expected. So did everyone else’s, and we all benefited from calm, unobtrusive technical expertise delivered by Florent Glatard of ARRDH- CRITT Horticole. Our presentation was really well-received but I will not be writing about it until formal publication.

Thanks to DHA 32 organisers Anne de la Sayette and Dominique Cardon

Anne de la Sayette is the Directrice of ARRDHOR – CRITT Horticole, a ‘centre of research, innovation and technology transfer in horticulture’. Dominique Cardon is well known to most natural dyers as author of Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science. She is also Emerita Senior Researcher at CNRS, the French national centre of scientific research. CIHAM UMR 5648 CNRS  (an institution, not a mathematical  equation..)  is one of the most important research centres in France for history, literature and archaeology of the Middle Ages. A new book by Dominique is about to be published but I don’t have the details: as soon as I do I will add them to a post.

Carnac

If you have got this far you deserve a pictorial prize. Using photos from DHA is tricky as I feel I should ask people’s permission before posting their images on a blog, so here is something rather special from the trip home.

I had never been to Carnac in Brittany until last week and I had no idea of the scale and breadth of the entire site. But it seemed most serendipitous to discover, on some stones of the alignments, a quantity of orchil lichen. Naturally, I did not touch it. But here are some images to reward stalwart readers. The orchil lichen is in the left hand image only.