A whole extra pile of mail arrives before Christmas in many British households. This is the seasonal appearance of greetings cards from family, friends, neighbours, and sometimes local businesses. In my case, several cards represent the sole contact I have with ‘old’ friends and I actively anticipate their arrival to hear everyone’s news. News isn’t invariably happy, of course, and the saddest cards are those that don’t arrive at all.
Almost without exception this year’s cards express the anguish of the past months and the hope that 2021 will be better. Among my extended friends and family there have been job losses, health and financial crises, cancelled celebrations, stranded travellers and separated families. I also learnt of the cards that will not make an appearance.
It hasn’t all been bad. One of the better outcomes of the year’s crisis has been the communication enabled by such platforms as Zoom. I chat to student friends regularly, and have caught up with people who live abroad or far away, or I haven’t seen for several years. I’ve attended an online conference, several lectures, an AGM, a charity concert, various makers’ fairs, and yoga classes. I’ve ‘met’ longterm online correspondents – and liked them as much as I thought I would.
The beautiful summer weather assisted a stellar indigo crop to mature and I had enough left over from dyeing to make pigment, and contribute to a research project into Japanese indigo. In the last couple of weeks I delivered a batch of scarves (pictured above) to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, an organisation that has courageously fought for survival through 2020 and is attracting good sales now that it has been able to reopen. My studio output this year has been meagre because I have been occupied by the complicated business of everyday living, but it felt good to deliver a few new pieces of work at long last. Dr Denim, my contribution to the Guild’s annual Members’ Exhibition, won the People’s Choice Award in November. You can read about much of this work in previous posts.
Thank you for following, reading, contacting me, and commenting. May all your 2021s be an improvement on this stressful year.
There is a lot to say about Summer School and I’m short of time, so pictures will have to do their ‘thousand words’ thing. But here’s a quick summary. The Summer School of the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers (AGWSD) takes place every two years, in a different location. (If you want to know about the AGWSD, follow the link at the bottom of the post).
This year we convened at Moreton Morrell, at an agricultural college in Warwickshire not far from Stratford-upon-Avon. The arrangements for the 17 courses were immaculately prepared by the organisers, although some tutors and students faced various challenges in their allotted teaching spaces. In mine, for instance, wooden wall panels had been fitted to cover walls, and the holes in them had been cut too small to allow a plug into the sockets behind. As we were working in the joinery department, this caused considerable merriment, and resulted in creative arrangements of extension leads – the admiration of all knitters at Summer School. I should add that the department staff came to cut the panel holes larger and were more than helpful.
The intensely blue floor was an unexpectedly complicated colour distraction when working on sheer scarves stretched flat. It was hard to see the true colours of the dyes. Needing somewhere to hang drying work, I searched in vain in the workroom for suitable points to fix a line. Eventually a group of rebels set up a washing line, trespassing into the stables (no, no horses, just heaps of old chairs).
Our workroom at Moreton Morrell
Show-and-tell after opening the steamer
I taught two identical courses on wax resist which ran back-to-back, and lasted two-and-a-half days each. These short courses, taught by several of the tutors, were designed so that students could follow two sets of studies in the week, and allow the possibility of a shorter stay. I have to admit that as an ageing tutor I found the two-course arrangement tiring. It demanded two inputs of ‘startup’ energy in an already exhausting week: on the plus side it meant that I could teach 20 students, not just 10.
Students used a range of traditional tools such as Indonesian tjantings, Ukrainian kystkas, Japanese ro-fude brushes and a Gambian tool made of a handle wound with copper wire. I also brought a motley crew of household brushes, kitchen forks, tractor washers, odd bits of wire and wood which were used to dip into the wax to make marks on the fabric. Students then dyed the fabric surface and built up the work up layer by layer.
The students rose to all manner of challenges, whether creative, personal, age, or health-related, as I realised from the ‘thank you’ card given to me at the end. Their work was inspired and inspiring, many tackling creative dyeing for the first time and declaring themselves somewhat anxious at the beginning. Teaching a few students who already had some experience was good for the group, allowing beginners to see more developed work and to talk through techniques and ideas. I was delighted to re-meet one student I first taught 17 years ago, and see how her work has developed.
Making a wax sampler. This student is using a wooden block set with nails to make dots
Student sampler with dye layers
Drying work in the stable yards
Finishing touches on a crêpe de Chine scarf
Inspired by her sampler, this student made four related panels built in several layers
Related panels after several layers
A figurative piece
Great use of free painted dots and wax resisted circles
The Summer School organisers faced considerable challenges with the demands made on them by the premises and some of the students, dealing with them with patience and grace. They had set up a full après-teach programme to keep us all out of trouble when darkness fell. Our Monday evening talk was given by Association President Jenny Balfour Paul with characteristic enthusiasm and energy. She outlined her travels with indigo, and how it led to writing her recently-published book Deeper than Indigo. Jenny gave a further day of her time to visit all studios and courses the next day, engaging with students and their work.
Jenny Balfour Paul addresses students at the Summer School
There were tours (I went to RSC Stratford); a Silent Auction; barbecues; a hog roast; a fashion show, a Trade Fair; and a Fifties party to celebrate the Association’s 60th year. Students stayed up into the wee hours to make Fifties outfits and fascinators. I’m afraid I was too tired to join in the fun and went to bed unfascinatored.
My thanks to all hard-working Summer School organisers, particularly Chris, plus the support team whose names I do not necessarily know. And thanks to my students, for their trust, good humour, co-operation and enthusiasm. Please look at Katie’s blog, linked below, for a student’s view of my course (and the Rigid Heddle course taught by Dawn Willey) at this year’s Summer School. You can see Katie in the images above, painting the four panels. She based them on the Four Seasons.
Hilltop Katie’s blog about her experience of Summer School here
For an overview of Summer School plus a Storify read her account here
Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers website here
The Journal of the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers here
If you signed up to my blog solely on the basis of posts on natural dyes and history, I offer apologies. This is about neither. As well as researching the history of natural dyes (in particular, orchil), I still produce work as a textile artist. Some of this uses natural dyes, but I also work with synthetic dyes on silk for resist techniques such as wax and shibori.
The Devon Guild of Craftsmen is holding an exhibition called Life Illustrated from 2nd October – 15th November 2015. Sketchbooks are the theme of Life Illustrated, showing them both as source material and as part of the creative process. A number of Devon Guild members are contributing new work, plus their precious books.
My training as an illustrator in the late 1960s was drawing-based, and I have used sketchbooks as source material for over 50 years. For Life Illustrated I decided to revisit an ‘old’ design and see how it adapted to current techniques and materials. Back then I was using a simple gutta outliner to draw the design and control the dye. Now I prefer to use wax. The design was based on drawings I made of fritillary butterfly wings. Here are sketchbook studies from 17 years ago:
Drawing from image of butterfly: pencil and watercolour
Starting to work out a design in my sketchook. Second from top shows sections cut by a sinuous line. Shapes are either positive or negative either side
The design formula divided the scarf into about nine sections. A sinuous line bisected all sections, running down on the scarf’s vertical. You can see this drawn out in the sketchbook images above although the scarf is imagined from the side. Shapes either side of the sinuous line are either ‘positive’ (dark on a light ground) or ‘negative’ (light out of a dark ground). This polarity swapped from side to side and line to line. It was logical to look at, but entirely silly to explain. Below, you’ll find a sketch showing the basic structure.
Although I sometimes archive samples, I don’t have any of Fritillary. They were large, on very good quality silk and they sold well. So I was probably too money-grabbing to keep one, which I now regret. All I have left are sketches and a rather poor image rescued from my old website.
The only image I can find of the ‘Fritillary’ design. From 1997
The top pencil scribble shows the skeleton of the design
For the exhibition Life Illustrated I made new sketches to remind myself of what had inspired me. Then I stretched a scarf, dyed the background and outlined the design with wax – in much the same way as I remembered doing with gutta. I found I was able to reproduce the old design pretty well, although the quality of the outlining wax marks is looser than with gutta. That’s not a problem with this design. So I went ahead and made two or three scarves.
One of the reasons I became tired of gutta is that it is an outlining process. All design elements are drawn carefully with the gutta pen, and dye is filled in up to the gutta line. It’s a tight technique – even a bit tedious at times because one is often reproducing a pre-planned scheme. The reason I love wax is that spontaneous brush marks can create the shapes in a design (by instantly blocking out further application of dye). Of course, one can use wax tools such as tjantings or kystkas to draw outlines, just like gutta. But I find larger waxed marks more expressive and the design evolves in a more fluid way. So my next step was to try to adapt the old design to this preferred use of waxed marks instead of outlines.
I soon realised that ‘block-out’ marks needed more space around them than the simpler outlined shapes I used years ago. Large brush marks are often textured, oddly shaped and ‘whiskery’ at the edges. In the same nine-section format, my next waxed scarf looked crammed and overcrowded. I reduced the number of horizontal divisions to five and it works better, but that’s as far as I’ve got. I’m not done with it yet.
Large waxed marks create shapes by blocking further applications of dye
The dark purple and crimson shapes are created by surrounding wax marks holding in the dye
Positive and negative: To make the ‘negative’ marks (lighter on a dark ground) I make a large waxed shape with a brush that blocks out the background. Then the background is dyed around that mark. To make ‘positive’ marks (darker on a light ground) I create an island of unwaxed silk surrounded by a sea of freely waxed marks.
Teaching: On Sunday I’m off to Warwickshire to teach at the Summer School of the Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. I’ll be running two courses back-to-back introducing wax resist on silk.
I will be teaching three times at West Dean next year (March, May and July) but if you want a place, please book early. The March course already has a waiting list.
I’m also running a one-day introduction to wax resist on silk at Ardington School of Crafts next month (September). Please contact these venues for information (links below) and see my courses page.
There can’t be many households in agricultural areas which don’t have some baler twine in their house. It’s used by farmers principally for the binding of hay or straw bales. Wikipedia states: Baling twine or baler twine is a small diameter sisal or synthetic twine used to bind a quantity of fibrous material (notably hay or straw) into a more compact and easily stacked form. Tensile strengths of single-ply baling twine range from 95 psi (0.66 MPa) to 325 psi (2.24 MPa).
Synthetic baler twine: dropped by roadside ready-wound into a length to be used for an as yet unknown task
Down here you can find useful discarded lengths of it in the hedgerows, on the moors and in the fields. I’ve seen the multitude of uses to which it is put: holding a fence together; as a temporary gate-hinge; keeping a car-boot lid closed; as an improvised dog-lead; in birds’ nests and more crucially, holding up a farmer’s trousers. People collect it where it drops, saving it for a multitude of future unknown tasks. There is a kind of simple human optimism in this.
Here in Devon, local farmers have been completing the harvest, which includes baling and the generous distribution of baler twine to keep errant boot-lids down and trousers up. Recently they have been cutting moor grassland to use for animal bedding. The grass is cut and allowed to dry before being baled into cylinders for storage and I recently noticed a group of these, bound up in what looked like black and white stripes of baler twine. Only they weren’t, and it wasn’t.
I had a look up close to discover the ‘twine’ was actually a wide plastic mesh. It contracts widthwise when wound onto the bales under tension. I was intrigued by its structure and complexity, wondered who sat and designed it, where it is made, and whether its structure was solely suited to this one baling process. I started to research it online – and found it’s called bale netwrap and is sold by suppliers of agricultural bindings, such as good old baler twine. Not so useful in the trouser department, I suspect, and might be hazardous for birds that become caught up in it.
Close-up of binding
The cylindrical bale
Bales on the moor
The mesh itself
I have been moderately unfit for purpose myself recently, hence my lack of posts. Now I’m better and I have just completed teaching my final course of the year at West Dean, only to return with a heavy cold. Unfortunately I can think of no way in which baler twine will alleviate the symptoms.
My March 27th – 30th 2015 course Rhythm and Pattern is nearly full so if you want a place, contact West Dean as soon as possible. I will be teaching a further course from 17th – 19th July 2015.
Work laid out during dyeing with individual twists held in position
A recent picture posted on Twitter gained me more re-tweets, follows and favourites than I’ve ever had. I’d been excited to share a caterpillar-shaped tying-and-dyeing which emerged like a butterfly into unpicked daylight. I was using a new set of folds, twists and ties and had a feeling it was going to be successful. While working the piece (and others like it, as left) my studio dyeing area looked like an operating theatre, with clips and ties keeping twists weighted down, or held out of the way so that nothing bled together. Dyeing took me a long time, adding colours one-by-one with an eye-dropper. I then had to wait until it was completely dry before unpicking, which was like eyeing up an interesting-looking present under the Christmas Tree.
Unpicking was a forensic job where a seam-picker and total concentration was essential so I didn’t make an accidental hole in the fabric. I unpicked before steam-fixing, so I also had to keep the work bone dry.
Tied and dyed
Detail of ties
Caterpillar to Butterfly
After the work was unpicked, I had, with regret, to iron out the beautiful bumps and wrinkles. Work must go into the steamer rolled flat. Although steaming will help set wrinkles, it isn’t really an option for me. Strong wrinkles last only as long as the work remains dry and I plan to sell these pieces as wearable and washable scarves.
The silk was a georgette 8 (I tried using a 10, but the increased density left me with less interesting dye ‘migrations’). I use dental floss or tape for tying and the metal clips were from shopfitting suppliers Morplan. I think they are used for displaying pairs of socks…. but I use them for endless studio jobs. Morplan don’t still stock the ones I show at the top, above, but there is s similar design online. They are especially suited to work with dyes as the grips can be wiped clean.
I’ve been working on a set of scarves in which the first layer of dye is more than usually vital. In layered wax-resist one works by blocking out, or outlining, existing dyed areas. This effectively ‘leaves them out’. One then adds more dye for the next layer of the design. This sequence of dye – wax – dye – wax can go on more or less indefinitely until there is no room left on the fabric, or the silk is saturated with dye and will take no more.
In this way the first layer of dye, if applied in a lively and varied way, can still work its magic when the silk is covered with several more layers. If wax outlines are used in a design, these, or the areas they define, will appear as interesting as the layer of dye they cover or isolate. This new design, which I’m calling Fish and Fowl, relies on lines, outlines and areas of lighter and dark tone.
Two frames with first-layer dye plus finished scarf
First layer wax on first layer dye
Work in progress: second layer dye
Detail, finished work
I was teaching the principle last week at West Dean on my Brilliant with Pattern course: it’s hard to explain to students verbally and far easier by means of examples, demonstration and encouraging them to ‘have a go’ on experimental sample silk pieces.
Student’s work, showing colour shift of under-dye from pink to yellow.
Student’s work showing build up of dye and wax
My October course at West Dean is already full, but if you would like to learn the wax and dye technique along with some basic shibori, it’s worth adding your name to the waiting list. A further course is sometimes arranged if there are several people waiting.
Otherwise, I will be teaching Brilliant with Pattern at West Dean again at the end of March 2015.
If you want to book, look out for the Winter short courses programme which will be available from the West Dean website.
I’ve recently been up to London to the first Journal meeting of 2014. Whatever time of the year, this long day trip involves a very early start to drive to the station and travel up to London. We start at 11 am and the whole day, even lunch, forms a meeting to discuss Journal matters and plan forthcoming issues. On the chime of 4 pm the meeting ends and the room empties so swiftly you’d think we were all going to turn into pumpkins. Members disappear to catch their trains – and occasionally, their planes. There is a great intensity to Journal meeting days, quite a few biscuits are eaten and sometimes it’s a bit frustrating. One has the day-long company of interesting textile-y people with whom one exchanges no more than a sentence or two of nothing-to-do-with-Journal conversation. But that’s the way it is. We are all volunteers giving time for a registered charity / organisation and we keep our expenses to a minimum: most of us are able to complete our round-trip to London within the day. If you don’t know the Journal, have a look at the website.
Australian Journey: Leaves at Katherine
Back at home I have been working on a new piece of wax-resist work which started off with one idea in mind but was intruded on, in a most impolite and insistent way, by the shapes of eucalyptus leaves. The direction of the work (and my hand) changed totally. It’s weird when this happens and is, I assume, a luxury not open to certain types of craft work such as weaving, which require more advance planning.
I’m not sure whether the bossy leaves idea will work, but I have dewaxed the silk and it will go into the steamer this week, along with several shibori scarves of a – thankfully – more compliant nature. Then I will creep up on the leaf-piece and see if it’s any good.
This new work is part of the series I call Australian Journey because the designs are based on colours, shapes and ideas from our trip to Western Australia in 2012. There is a bit more about it here and you can find other posts and images by clicking the Australian Journey link in the tag cloud.
I am a devoted fan of the Burton Gallery and Museum. I urge anyone visiting Bideford to go. I happen to love the ceramics of North Devon; they have an excellent permanent display from the RJ Lloyd Collection and I never tire of looking at it. Related to the collection is a brick-built bottle-kiln adjacent to the Gallery in Victoria Park and wood firings regularly take place there. In the images above you can see a sherd of pottery I found in our vegetable patch. There is an entire plate with almost the same pattern in the RJ Lloyd collection, dated to the 16th century, so my find is rather special and I keep looking for more of it under the carrots and chard. The historic Devon pottery tradition carries on today with the work of many local potters, including that of Clive Bowen. We have several pieces of his work at home.
The Burton has a permanent collection of watercolours and drawings containing evocative marine and local scenes but also shows touring art exhibitions of international standard. It also has rather a good and child-friendly French café…
Australian Journey series: Night: detail
Australian Journey series: Night: detail
Australian Journey series: Night: detail
Australian Journey series: Night: detail
Australian Journey series: Night: detail
Wax resist work
The images of the scarf in progress show the final layer of dye applied over about five layers of wax and dye. You will see that in two images there are beads of dye on the wax surface. On other images they have been removed. This is because if they dry on the wax surface, they will eventually deposit themselves on the silk when the wax melts out and I don’t like the often fuzzy, mottled effect this produces. So I wipe it off, carefully. Minute quantities of residual dye attach themselves to the textured surface of waxed shapes which produces unpredictable but often subtle textures. These I do like. The wiping-up process is rather like cleaning an etching plate before printing: I do it in a whizzy, upwards, circular motion. Thank you Mr Sellars, who taught me how to do this fifty years ago.
* Apologies to those reading this whose mother tongue isn’t English. Poly-heading is meant to be a joke – a pun – because ‘Polly’ is the name people often give to pet parrots, and as we all know parrots always sit on old-fashioned Long John Silver-type pirates’ shoulders saying ‘Pieces of Eight’. A pirate might want to knock its head off if it went on and on…
The other thing we all know is that when one attempts to explain a joke, it ceases to be in any way amusing…
Extreme Ironing takes place at the start of making folded and clamped shibori and if I’m not in the mood, it can be tedious and exhausting. The next bit is great as it’s working with dyes, but the best is the Christmas Stocking moment of opening up each dyed scarf. That comes after the ironing, but before the steaming.
With wax it’s the other way round. You do the evil stuff after the creative work with wax and dyes is complete. There’s a lengthy sequence of de-waxing, steaming, cleaning and washing out residual wax, etc before the scarves are ready.
Flight of Birds: red
Shibori: clamped resist with steam-fixed dyes
Australian Journey: Pilbara
Shibori: clamped resist with steam-fixed dyes
Labels, lists, tissue paper and scarves for despatch this morning
But however they are made, all scarves need a sewn-in label, a personal label / swing tag and a price tag with a stock number. My personal tags were designed for me by Chameleon Studio, a local Devon company. We chose recycled card and vegetable-based inks for the two types of label. I have one for natural-dyed and another for synthetic-dyed work; they look different but the design is related. On the left, you can see the two types of label. The buff label with plummy-coloured ink is the one I use for natural-dyed work. The full-colour image on an individual label is actually a sticker which I attach one by one. It was a brilliant idea of the designer’s to reduce costs on printing because sheets of sticky labels are much cheaper than full-colour printing on card. Once everything is labelled and listed for despatch to a shop or gallery there is always a list to fill out and a package to make up, followed by a trek down the hill to the local post office. Post-dog usually helps with this part of the process.
The latest batch of work has gone down to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen whose Christmas Show ‘Make 2013’ begins at the end of this week. It’s open daily from 10 am – 5.30 pm.
I’m crunching a lot of words these days. As a voluntary editor for the Journal of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers I normally spend at least part of my day reading and commenting on articles, corresponding with authors, checking facts and figures, proofreading or generally nitpicking. I happen to care about commas, colons and how to spell practise. (If it’s a verb, use an ‘s’. That’s if you’re British).
Writing up part of the co-authored DHA paper from La Rochelle (see previous post) is also a priority and it’s a lengthy task which may stretch to several thousand words.
My main computer is in the studio and it’s here that Journal, editorial and some research work happens. The studio is also where I keep dyes, brushes, wax pots, frames and silks. Theoretically it’s the place I make things too – but studio work has suffered heavily over the past months from the quantity of research and editorial commitments. I consider everything I do absorbing, but there is only one of me. And there’s the question of changing heads.
From art college training I realised, and perhaps learned, the intense concentration needed to draw or paint. If I have to interrupt work on a drawing or experimental textile, creative thought-trains chuff-chuff deep into irretrievable tunnels by the time I get back, and I lose the metaphorical plot, as has this sentence. Essentially, I find it intensely frustrating to be interrupted when I’m working on something new.
With an established design, it isn’t so difficult as it’s only half new. Sometimes I can change heads from the particular analytical demands of editing, and work on a textile. I know what I’m aiming at, and although each textile is unique it’s like being guided by written music. Instructions have been established; technique and interpretation are what matter.
This week I’ve been constantly switching heads. I’ve been editing articles on shipwreck dye cargoes, medieval woad vats, or working on the history of a Leeds dye manufacturer: then I migrate two metres to wax pot, silk, frames, dyes and an established design theme. In three paces I unscrew Nitpick Ed-Head and replace it with Agent Zig-Zag. Zig-Zag, because that’s the design I’m working on this week.
I can’t always do this head-switching lark. I can’t always manage to ban the activity I’m not doing from my thoughts, and then nothing works at all. But this week it’s going OK.
A variety of wax application tools. The wax granules are still melting out