Isabella Whitworth

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


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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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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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Pysanky and a kystka

On the recent Brilliant with Pattern course at West Dean one of my students had brought along something unusual. It was an Eastern European kystka. These small tools for applying hot wax are used, particularly in Ukraine, for the decoration of Easter eggs known as pysanky. I’d heard of a kystka but never seen one and until I started to research today’s post I knew nothing of the pysanky tradition. Wikipedia has a page on it here; it is a full and fascinating read which explains symbolism in the colours, the motifs and the actual giving of the eggs. It describes the ancient heritage of the craft, how patterns and methods were handed from mother to daughter, and the tools used. The list of pysanka recipients each Easter is especially interesting, revealing ‘life priorities’ of the givers. It includes a gift to the beehive, and eggs to the graves of deceased family members.

A list of natural dyes in traditional pysanky includes familiar names, such as alder buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Dyer’s Broom (Genista tinctoria) and green walnut husks from Juglans nigra. The Wiki article introduced me to two new words in the language of symbols: scevomorphic and cosmomorphic. To find out what they mean, follow those links to a website about pysanka tradition.

And in case you’re wondering how to pronounce pysanky, this is what the pysanky website says:

Despite what you may have heard on the Food Network or in a local class, ‘Pysanka’ is pronounced ‘PIH-sahn-kah’  (with the plural ‘pih-sahn-KIH’),  with all short vowels.  The term ‘pysanky’ is not, never was, nor will it ever be correctly pronounced ‘pie-SAN-kee’!!!!

 

My West Dean student (not the lady in the image above!) showed me how she uses her kystka on silk fabric. I was impressed because it was clear that the tool adapts well to applying fine lines to fabric and it doesn’t drip. I have never felt wholly at ease with a tjanting, although it produces beautiful fine lines in expert hands. The reservoir and spout of the kystka is made of brass but looks similar to the ‘rotring-style’ heads I used to use to apply spirit-based gutta resist in pre-wax days. The reservoir is small and the hot wax would soon run out, but one can adapt to this. I am wondering if I could improvise my old, now-unused gutta nibs into home-made kystkas. But brass may be a preferable metal with hot wax than steel ‘rotring’ nibs and I’ll have to try it out.

 


 

A greeting to Ukraine  This post sends a special greeting to L, a reader in Ukraine, who has been a regular visitor to my blog until all the current distractions. I send warmest spring and Easter wishes at a time of continuing anxiety.

Update: a reply from Ukraine I had a reply from my reader L, recalling their grandmother using onion skin dyes to make krashanky, which are one-colour-dyed eggs. The skins were collected well in advance of Easter so that there were enough to make deeper colours. In Ukraine, the kystka is called a pysachok.  My Ukrainian correspondent also recommended a great website here. Teresa Mihalko Harbert is The Real Thing when it comes to decorating eggs and the Trypillian culture, which provides some of her inspiration, a source of some superb patterns. Thank you L.


 

Acknowledgments: The image of Olga Kryway is by Robert L. Stone from the State Archives of Florida which allows reproduction for educational use. Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/108313

Thanks also to R for allowing me to reproduce an image of her family’s beautiful collection of decorated eggs and to A for the generous gift of a kystka.