Teaching has so long been off my radar I can’t quite believe that my first course for 18 months is rapidly approaching. I will be at RHS Rosemoor in North Devon on 25th and 26th September for a hands-on introduction to using natural dyes. With a bit of luck students will end up as bonkers as I am about natural colour and its ancient history – and will leave with a great set of dyed samples and a beautiful, individually-dyed scarf.
For overseas readers, RHS stands for the Royal Horticultural Society. The RHS is the UK’s leading gardening charity and owns five beautiful gardens across the country. RHS Rosemoor is one of them and it’s just up the road from me. I have visited it countless times since I moved to Devon nearly twenty years ago. On my visits I often noticed some of the plants that yield dye colour and thought it would be a wonderfully appropriate place to run a course.
In 2019 I contacted the Education and Learning Manager and found her to be very receptive to the idea. The Manager was the late Sarah Chesters, a bright, funny and delightful gardening expert who was also very knowledgeable about textiles and fibre. She was engagingly interested in all I told her about natural dyeing and came to my house on a memorable day when I was working with Jenny Balfour Paul: we showed her how my indigo crop was processed, shared lunch, and we all laughed a lot.
So I was very saddened to hear that Sarah died earlier this year, and I will actively remember her warmth and humour when I am teaching at Rosemoor.
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.
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.
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.
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
The work I’m briefly describing here is an offshoot from a joint project. I have been researching mordant pastes (as taught by Michel Garcia) with a dyer friend; eventually we will write up our work because it isn’t yet finished. But the work we have done has made me wonder if it wasn’t the key to finding a satisfying, creative way to use natural dyes in combination with wax resist. This has been an ambition of mine since I went to ISEND* in 2011. It’s there I first came across Michel Garcia, on whose generously-shared research our mordant paste work is based.
There are technical problems in trying to combine paste with wax resist. Wax melts in the vat if it’s taken above a certain temperature, and each dye needs at least some heat to fix it. Cold dyeing isn’t an option: it would all take too long. The dyes must take their place in an ordered sequence for colour. The pH of one vat can affect colour of dyes in another layer, the wax can begin to flake off, etc. If the indigo dips are included, there may be as many as 20 operations to create one scarf, as they did in the image below. So it’s time consuming and isn’t going to produce a low-cost item, but I feel I’m getting somewhere at last. The dyes used are weld (Reseda luteola) from a British source, and indigo (a mixture of Devon-grown Persicaria tinctoria and imported powder from Tamil Nadu). The different paste resists give different shades of yellow on the base layer, including the brownish colour visible in small, thin lines and spots which came from the iron in the mordant paste.
In my last blog A Purple Pursuit, I wrote about Browning’s Popularity, in which he referred to shellfish dye in a complex poem on inspiration, skill and genius. What I didn’t say, but others wisely pointed out, was the oddity of Browning referring to the dye as blue throughout the poem. Shellfish dye (from the ‘Tyrian shells’) is quite definitely purple and the colour, history and source of Imperial Purple were well known in Browning’s time. So, why blue?
Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes Whereof one drop worked miracles, And coloured like Astarte’s eyes Raw silk the merchant sells?
I scratched around many sources but failed to find a historical reference, or image, defining Astarte’s eyes as blue. Maybe I have missed something. But the Resident Poetry Advisor says that Browning was more than capable of implying non-existent references, or even inventing them. This seems most perverse, but Browning was a poet and that’s the kind of thing poets do.
Author’s indigo-dyed wool yarn, using increasing vat strength
Putting Browning firmly aside, I happened across a reference to William Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Gladstone (1809 – 1908) was a British Liberal politician, three times Prime Minister, living at a time when politicians digested more than soundbites.
Gladstone studied the Iliad page by page, and as he did so he recorded the occurrence of words for colour. What he noticed was rather remarkable. He came across much mention of black, some white, less red, very little yellow, tiny amounts of green…but no blue. Was Homer ‘colourblind’, or unable to perceive colours? Were all Greeks the same, and their perception of colours (and the words to describe them) inherited, building over several generations? It left me wondering whether Astarte’s eyes could have been blue if there wasn’t yet a word for it, which was a head-spinning prospect.
Lazarus Geiger (1829-1870), a philosopher and philologist, took Gladstone’s research further and studied other ancient texts (for instance, Icelandic sagas, Vedic literature, and the original Hebrew version of the Bible) finding that none of them contained a word for blue. Geiger concluded that across ancient cultures, words for colour developed in an oddly consistent order. Black was always first, followed by white, red, yellow, green. Blue came next, eventually.
If this intrigues you, I suggest you listen to the Radiolab broadcast linked below. It makes more sense of it than I can here, but still left me wondering what exactly was being said. One of the programme’s guests is linguist Guy Deutscher. Listen, particularly, to the account of his little daughter trying to name the colour of the sky.
Author’s watercolour from sketchbook, 1995, recording the many dyed colours and fading shades of Buddhist monks’ robes in Sikkim and North India
My head can’t get itself round the concept that without an object to attach it to, a colour didn’t ‘exist’ and didn’t acquire a name. But that’s partly what is being said and it leads me to dyeing, and the need to name colours. I was dyeing felt last week, trying to achieve a good range of reds. I used different amounts of mordant, varied the percentages of weld, cochineal and madder and overdyed in different sequences. Small variations occurred in the reds and I sought to describe these to a client in words. Colours need adjectives like ‘bright’, ‘dark’, ‘dull’ etc but one inevitably ends up with a comparison to a universally understood coloured object, such as a poppy, a pillarbox, a brick, a patch of rust, a rose. We take this for granted but it’s very sophisticated, relying on a well-established set of understandings. We often need an object when we describe colour.
In her book Tintes y Tintoreros de América, Ana Roquero records the many changes that took place in Central and South American textile practice during the Spanish colonial period. One of the imports from Spain to the New World was an entire vocabulary for textiles. As well as words for machinery, tools, technical terms and cloth and fabric, this included words for colour. These colour words are still alive in parts of Latin America amongst mestizo weavers and dyers, when their use in today’s Spain is long lost.
In this case it’s the itinerant word that has preserved the colour, and I find that fascinating.
No posting recently because I’ve had a month of intensive teaching followed by intensive feet-putting-up. I ran three courses at Ardington in Oxfordshire and then four days in Nether Stowey at the studio of Janet Phillips.
Several vats on the go
Cochineal and indigo
Cochineal and indigo
At Ardington School of Crafts I taught my synthetic dyes shibori day, plus two one-day (repeated) courses on natural dyes. The natural dye course is a taster to a fascinating subject with some practical work at the dyepots, but also intended as an eye-opener to textiles seen at a stately home, museum etc. It’s even relevant to looking at paintings: I often wonder what dyestuffs were used on garments represented (with pigments) in a historic portrait. We had to move fast, with all fibre and fabric pre-mordanted, and an indigo vat ready to go. Most students dyed a scarf using simple immersion methods. We used madder, weld, cochineal and two indigo vats (one weak, one strong).
At Nether Stowey, I taught a three-day-dye course to several of Janet’s graduates from her Masterclass. On day one they learned some shibori folds using steam-fixed dyes; day two gave them a taster of wax resist, and day three was a full day with indigo. At the same time as I taught dyes, Janet was teaching ‘shibori on the loom’ to students from the London Guild. In this technique, removable weft threads are incorporated into the weaving. They are later used to draw up the cloth tight. According to how the shibori threads are woven, patterns emerge after the piece is dyed, then opened up.
Students used coloured and plain warps, on different pieces. Some of this shibori work was put into my indigo vat on day four; others used Janet’s fibre-reactive dyes which were applied by placing woven pieces into a short length of gutter (brilliant idea) and painting by hand. I am used to folding, tying and clamping for indigo work and although I have seen loom shibori before, I haven’t watched the whole process from start to finish. A combination of enthusiastic and knowledgeable students, Janet’s teaching and the imaginative arrangements made by Janet and Nigel made for a very enjoyable week. Did I mention glorious weather?
Loom shibori gathered up for dyeing
Undyed loom shibori being opened
Indigo-dyed loom shibori
Fibre-reactive dyes applied to loom shibori
Indigo-dyed loom shibori
Many thanks to students at Ardington and Nether Stowey for permission to use images of their work.
Teaching in 2015
Dates of next years’ courses are accumulating. I will be tutoring two courses at the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Summer School in August 2015 at Moreton Morrell. Details of the entire event can be seen here and there are details on this page.
I am teaching a new one-day introductory course in wax-resist at Ardington School of Crafts in 2015 as well as days on shibori scarves, indigo dyeing. The Vibrant World of Natural Dyes proved very popular this year and I will be teaching it again in 2015: I have one course at West Dean scheduled for March. If you want to sign in, do so soon because my October course has been full since April.
Jars containing stock solution and pre-mordanted fleece
Samples from four dye sessions. Labelling and storing accurately is vital
June was my busiest month for a very long time. Work continued on the historical dye project at Leewood, I taught three courses including three sessions of 90 minute workshops plus demonstrating at West Dean over a weekend, sat on an exhibition selection committee and enjoyed a family visit. As a result I am so behind with blog posts that I need to tackle them in Blog-Bites (BBs) or I’ll give up before I start.
So. BB1 is about the final ‘public’ day of historical dyeing at Leewood which I have been working on with friend and colleague Jane Deane. If you want to see what it’s all been about, click here. After this exploratory phase we’ve concluded that we can focus on what we believe is affecting dyes and fleeces. There are certainly differences in dye take-up although they are so far unpredictable across the range of dyes and fleeces. We think we are onto something interesting, which came as a result of the intially frustrating and unpromising day using cochineal in May.
An effective and foolproof method of collating, labelling and notekeeping has developed as the project has progressed so that we can remember precisely what we did from one session to another and compare results. Each fibre sample is individually labelled and kept in a (similarly labelled) transparent bag. This allows the contents to be viewed without always needing to remove and handle them.
We had intended to run our last day using indigo or woad, but as a result of the cochineal experience decided to repeat three dyes on the same day, but using different water sources. To create conditions as near identical as possible, we made a stock dye solution and divided it equally into jars containing an equal weight of dry fibre. By putting the jars into a bain-marie we kept dyeing conditions the same for all jars.
Our public dye-days have run since March and we have welcomed a number of visitors. The work will now continue privately at Leewood and we’ll no longer suffer the humiliation of ‘maths in public’, at which neither of us excels. Our final day in June was the most busy, with eight visitors (we can count ok provided we have sufficient fingers between us) crammed into the studio workshop. We are grateful to all who braved the creative weather to visit, ask questions and learn about natural dyes.