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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A treasured textile tool

tool

My textile treasure from The Gambia, the gift of a former student. 

When unpacking after teaching at West Dean this week, I noticed one of my favourite tools hadn’t re-appeared from the boxes.  I began to realise how precious the tool was, and kicked myself for being sufficiently stupid to take it out of the studio and risk losing it. The tool is no bigger than a long paintbrush, it’s clearly home-made and would look insignificant to anyone finding it but not ‘in the know’ about what it was. It could have been binned, or slipped beneath a workbench. It might never re-appear.

The tool, used for applying wax, was given to me nearly ten years ago by an inspiring and enterprising young student who left us with very special memories of her. She was on a scholarship studying batik world-wide and she stayed with us for a few days while I showed her how I worked.  She later travelled to The Gambia, and sent me the tool on her return. It has a simply-shaped, graceful wooden handle around the tip of which is wound a casual-looking thick spiral of copper wire. The spiral forms into a tightly-twisted, spout-shaped ‘nib’.

The copper tool can be dipped into hot wax, and because copper is a good conductor of heat the entire wire quickly reaches equal temperature. The coils of the spiral hold a considerable cargo of hot wax, which flows down into the ‘nib’ allowing a controlled drawing to be made in hot wax. Experience has taught me not to start drawing until drip frequency is slow, or wax flows too fast and floods the fabric. The tool looks as though it shouldn’t work, but in fact it’s remarkably effective and one of my studio favourites.

Some time ago I tried to replicate the tool for students in my classes, using copper wire and a substantial twig, or an old paintbrush, for a handle. I have had surprising success with them and I’ve found, for instance, that a narrower gauge wire can form a finer nib. But none of my versions has the grace and integrity of the original, or carries its history. I instinctively choose the Gambia tool when working, even though my replicas work just as well.

The tool was created by people who own little and must labour extremely hard to produce their batik work: they have no electricity, gather wax from bee-hives, heat wax on a fire and carry all their water by hand. Only when I unpacked my boxes and contemplated the possible loss of my student’s gift did I acknowledge (for the first time) that the tool’s story was as important as its function.

Happily, I found it.

 

Link: This remarkable little book tells the story of Rushyan’s batik journey

Paths of Molten Wax: A Textile Odyssey

 

 

 

 


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Teaching News

raindrops

Wax resist and steam-fixed dyed scarf. Silk crêpe de Chine. Isabella Whitworth, 2016

I’ve just unpacked after teaching three one-day courses in Oxfordshire. This completes my teaching programme for the year. I teach regularly at only two venues: Ardington, south of Oxford, and West Dean, just north of Chichester.

Ardington School of Crafts is non-residential. My courses there are always one-day, although sometimes linked so that students studying, say, natural dyes can take a further course focusing on indigo. They are suitable for complete beginners. Ardington’s 2017 programme will shortly go ‘live’, and the six dates are on my teaching page here. There will be a variety of courses, all of them repeating popular subjects.

West Dean College is residential, although some students make their own accommodation arrangements. Courses stretch across a few days, have up to now taught resist techniques using synthetic dyes on silk, and have been for beginners and intermediate students.

Many students have attended several of my courses and have progressed very well. After discussions with the Short Course Organiser at West Dean, we have added a new course which will take place from July 20th – 23rd 2017*. Its title will be Handpainted Silk Scarves: Developing Design, Building Technique. This course is designed for those who have relevant experience gained with me or other tutors, but would like to study or practise techniques and ideas not viable on beginner / intermediate courses. Some of the focus will be on design and planning. The idea is to offer more experienced students a course of their own.

However, all students, of whatever experience or ability, continue to be welcome on my beginner / intermediate courses. Although I may be instructing beginners too, more experienced students know they can progress at their own pace within the structure of the course and I can assist them in new directions.

  • My apologies if you read this some weeks ago because I had entered the Advanced Course date in error. The April dates 24th – 27th  are for the Beginners’ Course. The more Advanced / experienced course will be in July, as above.

vat

Inside a vat made from Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria)

West Dean Summer School takes place over three weeks with a separate set of courses each week. I will be teaching a six-day Summer School course from August 5th – 12th 2017 titled Creative Dyeing for Scarves and Fabric. This course will be suitable for beginners, intermediate students and anyone who has studied with me before. My idea for Summer School is to broaden understanding of resist techniques, such as shibori and wax resist, by exploring some relationships between traditional and contemporary dyeing. The course will feature a natural indigo vat which can be used as well as (but not together with!) synthetic dyes. Indigo has a unique and beautiful affinity with resist techniques, and many contemporary resist processes are based on its traditional use. There will also be opportunities to discuss and develop designs for wax resist work. More details will appear on the West Dean website.

Teachers and technicians can apply for a 50% discount on a Summer School. Contact West Dean on 01243 818300 to register your interest, with the name of your school, college or university, and a 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice of Summer School course. 

Booking for 2017 is now open via West Dean (link below). 

My February 2017 course is full.

Links:

Ardington School of Crafts

West Dean College


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AGWSD Summer School 2015

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).

The course

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.

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

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.

Links

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

Deeper than Indigo website here


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All in the Background

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.

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.

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.

 


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Brilliant with Pattern

Brilliant with Pattern is the title of a course I teach at West Dean College, and I’m off again tomorrow. The course always runs under this title, but I never tutor it the same way. It’s partly because I’d get bored teaching an identical course and so I take different ideas along, but also because the creativity of individual students infuses the group, making each outcome entirely different.

Preparation for these intense weekends is extensive, in terms of assembling boxes and general ‘stuff’, but also in the thinking about how I will approach them. This week I completed two days’ teaching at Ardington School of Crafts (see some images on Facebook here) and finished up with a visit to a friend in Oxford. She took me to see the recently completed courtyard of the Mathematical Institute.

There I saw the work of someone truly ‘brilliant with pattern’. Professor Sir Roger Penrose, mathematician and physicist, works at the Mathematical Institute and his brilliance shines on fields beyond my understanding. But his work on non-periodic tiling  (yes, I had to look it up too: try here for some assistance) is exhibited in the form of a pavement outside the entrance to the Mathematical Institute. It’s pattern: constructed, mathematical, non repeating, and compellingly beautiful. The steel, mirrored sections work especially well, reflecting sky, birds, or passers by.

 

On the same day I was able to spend a short time in the Pitt Rivers Museum, perhaps my favourite museum in the world. The newly-cleaned and restored glass roof of the Natural History Museum lit a path to the Pitt Rivers, which has no external public entrance. I know I will always discover something new in the Pitt Rivers: going there is like Christmas. This time it was a collection of resist-dyed eggs, the kind I wrote about in my previous post. The Pitt Rivers collection of these eggs was made at the turn of the 20th century in Galicia – not Spanish Galicia, but the one that is now part of  Poland and Ukraine.


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A foreign country

Everything there is to be said about memory has been said before, and very much better than I’ll manage here. We build all kinds of structures with memories, but if we start serious archaeology these structures often teeter: fallen material is merely the start of a new construction.

I’m at an age when I have more past than future. So I am curious about probably unstable structures on which my memories (and assumptions) are built. I like revisiting once-familiar places, and finding out what happened to people I once knew well. It’s a kind of nosiness, but it’s mainly a need to clarify connections, identify patterns across time and events and reorganise a continuous construction programme.

Sometimes a more infinite past is tangibly and intriguingly revealed. In the last months, British coasts have been lashed by sequences of ferocious storms. At several coastal locations traces of ancient forests appeared when raging seas scoured out layers of sand and stones above them. Some of the 4,500-year-old stumps and roots are astonishing, such as those in Cardigan Bay – see here. Ancient forests also appeared in the South West.

We found the the ones at Daymer Bay, emerging from slabs of dark compressed soil-like material threaded by a network of roots and embedded with land snail shells. The submerged trees only appear every hundred years or so and may by now have been re-covered by sand and rocks. They look ordinary, just like any old tree stumps, which of course, they are – and aren’t. My imagination was fired and I noticed other visitors were approaching the stumps with something like reverence. By my calculation (and construction), the unknown but important person buried in the Dartmoor White Horse Hill cist  might have walked in the forest at Daymer Bay, although it’s a bit of a Bronze Age bus ride.

Last weekend I was teaching at West Dean and en route home diverted to the New Forest, a once familiar place. Starting with a clear picture of what I was looking for, and where, I soon found that memories weren’t particularly accurate. In ‘deconstructing’ I found that paths were longer, or shorter, or just somewhere else. Buildings that had clearly been in place forty years ago took me by surprise, as if I’d never seen them before. In ‘reconstructing’ a new visual memory, old versions were revised by new observations, both being perceptions which can, at least for the moment, be separately accessed. Most curious.

I was named after a great-aunt. Her grave is in a churchyard in the New Forest and my headstone would be the same as hers – were I to be buried, which I probably won’t. I don’t find it spooky or morbid visiting the grave with (almost) my full name on it; I like to go because there will be few people that now remember who she was.  I have her to thank for my love of textiles because her house was full of beautiful fabrics.  As a small child I loved to poke about in her mothballed chests of drawers where I plunged my hands into heaps of beautiful embroidered shawls and scarves. She made patchwork quilts, and beautifully executed decorative dolls from pipe-cleaners and precious fabric scraps. She tatted long scarves like nets for herself and her friends.

grave

I still have some of her clothes. As an art student in the late 1960s I used to wear the reversible brown and cream silk jacket with the fleur-de-lys type motif (shown above) when I went in to college. It looked great over a black polo neck and jeans, which would have horrified my great-aunt. The jacket was much admired and if I wore it, I felt totally-far-out-cool.

All her clothes are in the style of the 1920s and 30s and are handmade: there are no designer labels.