Isabella Whitworth

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


Shibori, sheep and the power of six

Last week I tutored a day-course in shibori techniques at Ardington School of Crafts. Ardington is a village on the edge of the Berkshire Downs. The venue is housed in a Victorian school, and its large windows ensure good light at all times. It has been imaginatively and calmly adapted for its current incarnation as a craft school and overlooks a traditional English landscape of farmland and trees. This week, with fine weather and leaves at the multiple-greens stage, everything looked at its best.

Students were introduced to the basic principles of shibori and how patterns will build in the fabric through what is a mathematical logic of repeating folds and layers. We worked principally with the equilateral triangular fold which creates hexagon-based patterns through its geometry of six equilateral triangles. I prepared a set of triangular card units showing how this repeat principle works. The positioning (and shape) of the clamped and identical wooden blocks either side of the folded fabric is represented by the white areas in my patterns. The clamping inhibits the flow of dye through the fabric. The wood blocks can be any shape – there is a pattern created by the green-painted triangular blocks below – and placed in any practical position. Block position will dictate the basics of the pattern. You can see from the image (below right) that the blocks do not necessarily prevent dye from entering the fabric beneath the clamped area. They just affect the character of the final pattern which is based on dye dilutions, deliberate drying of work, overdyeing etc.

Students ironed vertical folds in a scarf length and converted the strip to a stack of triangular folds. They checked the wood blocks and protected them with new clingfilm. This enables a clean start each time the blocks are used: wood absorbs dye readily and will mark  work that follows. I advise beginners to work with three colours only, plus dilutant, to avoid shades of mud. Some students admitted they had been sceptical that their seemingly random application of dye would create something so ordered and I think all were pleased with their results.

Below, you can see me opening up the steamer. This has to be done with considerable care, hence the somewhat stressed expression. You can see the roll of paper and scarves, which has been protected with foil at top and bottom to prevent drips entering the folds and spoiling the work. Note that the top piece of foil was dislodged as I lifted the chamber from the boiler.

Many thanks to the students for allowing me to post these pictures and to Faith at Ardington for taking the photos.

Other news: On Thursday 13th June, Jane Deane and I will be working on our dye research at Leewood for the final open-to-the-public time. We haven’t finished our research, but from Thursday on you can’t come to watch us. To check on details, see here.

With shearing time in Devon arriving, local flocks are looking cooler and in the summer-ish sun my nest of mason bees (Osmia) is hyperactive. The bees don’t make honeycombs (that’s another hexagon-based subject) but are laying eggs in the tubes and sealing them in various shades of Devon clay. We are lucky to have culm meadow locally which is filling with textured grasses in some summer sun. But tomorrow it is going to rain.


Shibori through the megaphone

Last Friday I packed my passport and left the county to travel up to Gloucestershire. On  Saturday I led a shibori workshop, and gave a talk to the Gloucester Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. Not concurrently; not even foreigners from Devon can do that.  But all on the same day.


Work from students of the Gloucester Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers

The group of ten students successfully produced a wide variety of scarves during the morning using concertina folds on the vertical, and a triangular fold down the length. They clamped across the triangular block of fabric using oblong wooden blocks. I gave a demonstration of  folding before setting students loose on ironing boards – and then my steam-fixed Kniazeff dyes. The frequent use of  hairdryers, to create harder-edged patterns and lines on the outer folds, was an essential part of the technique. As a result the room became hairdresser-hot and infernally  noisy. Any general verbal instructions required a megaphone. I wondered if I’d have a voice left to give the afternoon talk.

One of the problems / pleasures of my teaching technique for shibori is that results obtained are unpredictable – and unrepeatable. I can only go so far with my instructions, and then students’ work will go its own way. Results are reliant on how wet they allow the work to become, how much they use the driers, how much they dilute the dyes and even which dyes they use. Separate colours can have different interactions.

It’s also a forgiving medium. Students are often dismayed at their first attempts to create a perfectly aligned  block of fabric, but astonished when the result appears pleasing and coherent. One student produced a stunning result by not exactly following my instructions: I am now going to experiment to see if I can reproduce her  ‘Gloucester Effect’.

My talk  was called Dyeing to Connect and described some of  the inspiring ways in which natural dyes are currently being used in social and educational projects.  It went well, as far as I can tell, although a gremlin crept in to my ‘remote’ clicker and it wouldn’t move my slides forward. Maddening. I had to dart in and out of the sidelines like a demented bird to click the computer trackpad. When I returned from foreign parts last night, the clicker worked perfectly and the gremlin had departed to plague a speaker in some other distant hall. Or maybe it didn’t have a passport and they’d apprehended it at the Devon border.

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Wax and dye course at West Dean

Two weekends ago I tutored a new course at West Dean called Silk Scarves: Brilliant with Pattern.  I taught a number of pattern-making ideas which combined various elements of wax resist work with shibori. Most students were new to both techniques and I was initially concerned that I had tried to squeeze too much material into too short a time; however they told me at the end of the course that they didn’t agree. As always, I tend to learn as much as I teach and it was fascinating to see different results achieved with the same information – but processed by different creative minds.

Below is a sequence I worked out for creating what I call a  double scarf. By working the scarf folded double, you automatically create a symmetrical design. It will only work effectively on a sheer or very light silk as the wax needs to penetrate through the double layers easily.

If you want to try it:

  • Press the scarf in half along its length
  • Pin the scarf to a frame. For the piece above I pinned the rolled edges of the blank to the frame edge. The fold was aligned down the open centre of the frame
  • Support the folded edge with clips and masking tape. Do not put pins through the centre fold or it will mark with holes. You can only see the clips in the final two images
  • Once the folded scarf is firmly attached you can work a wax design through both layers. Remember that you can work half a design element across the fold (in this case, a semi circle)
  • Work several layers of wax and dye. In the example above I gradually altered the dye colour for the background to work from one colour to another
  • When dry, de-wax and steam the scarf. Very important: do not attempt to open up the scarf until the de-wax process. The heat of the iron will allow you to peel the layers apart; otherwise you may irreparably damage the silk

West Dean will be hosting an entirely new creative event on June 22 – 23 called Fusion. Details and booking info here. There will be demos of craft and cookery, garden tours, a shed trail (the Poetry and Knitting Sheds sound intriguing), performance, music, a family area, visits to the internationally renowned Tapestry Studio, and so on. And there will be craft workshops. I will be demonstrating my wax resist work on the Saturday and offering three 90 minute workshops in wax resist on the Sunday. Bookings through West Dean, and there’s an Early Bird  advance discount. See you there?

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Of shibori and Eisenia fetida

Britain has embarrassingly ground to a halt under the assault of several frightening snowflakes. If you live in continental Europe, our annual impotence in the face of white stuff falling from the sky is the subject of tittering merriment from Montpellier to Munich.

If you live further afield I should explain that snow is not at all unknown in Britain. But gritters, snowploughs, de-icers etc are on the endangered list having been overfished, over-harvested or hunted to extinction. As a result schools close, public transport fails, there is panic buying in the shops and local news teams go searching for slopes covered in merry tobogganing children.

Last week’s accelerated endeavour to make shibori scarves for Friday turned out pointless; the morning meeting at which I was to hand them over was cancelled because of a large snowflake between Exeter and Bovey Tracey.  A major road was ‘too dangerous’ and we were all advised to stay in our homes wrapped in blankets and listen to our radios. Nevertheless, getting ahead and completing scarves did give me unexpected studio time and I have been working on a set of samples to demonstrate techniques for my March course Brilliant with Pattern at West Dean. I am combining shibori and wax resist with a new set of techniques that occurred to me in one of those middle-of-the night eureka! moments.

I occasionally think of useful things in the middle of the night but normally I lie awake beset by obsessional anxieties over pieces of paper I may or may not have lost, people I may not have upset and whether the worm composter needs emptying at 4 am before the entire population of Eisenia fetida drowns. And talking of the worm composter, it did a Boris Johnson last week and some seeds germinated inside to form an extraordinary growth of thatch. It was quite a picture inside, so I took one. And here are a couple of others of work from weather week.



I happened to mention to a friend that I only look tidy for an hour once every six weeks. This unusual sixty minutes occurs immediately after my haircut – and today was haircut day. Friend suggested that I astonish my blog readership with an image of me during tidy-hour, but I am a bit shy to do that. Instead you shall have a reflection of the svelte-for-a-moment-me in the cylinder of my fabric steamer. I loaded it up this morning with nine shibori scarves, and the three waxed ones which I completed since New Year. The image is wonderful, for in the reflection process I have lost three tons and almost look thin. Other images show the lead up to the steam with making the shibori scarves, removing wax from the waxed pieces and other bits and pieces.