Isabella Whitworth

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


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BB3: Teaching rewards: wax, dye and shibori

Blog-Bite 3 – and almost up to date

It’s great when a student lets me know if something from my course has helped them in their work or studies. Last week I heard from someone on my West Dean course last March . The ‘Brilliant with Pattern’ course introduces several techniques with an emphasis on scarf making, although the skills are useful for general fabric design as well as learning about dyes, wax and silk. The young student who contacted me had just completed a Foundation Course in Sussex. She has been awarded a distinction. She told me she had made her final major project based on what she learned at West Dean and sent me some images, which I have her permission to publish here. Thanks, PJ, and congratulations on your success.

She wrote, about the silk vest in the images: For my final major project I made from georgette silk , the middle panel is actually a print from a photograph I took, using this direct imagery I printed onto transfer paper, then heat pressed onto cotton with an overlay of white chiffon. Then made into a basic top to focus the attention on the print.

More recently I taught two students (J and R) at home. I normally enjoy this: everything is to hand and I don’t have to load the car, drive 200 miles, unload it, sleep in a strange bed with scary pillows and eat too much breakfast every day. There is but one but – and I know it’s something of a cliché.  When students come to me I have to tidy the studio. By the time cleaning operations are complete I don’t recognise the place. Acres of floor emerge, bin bags are filled with things I didn’t know I didn’t need, I am emotionally drained by the stress and I then can’t find a thing for weeks.

J and R had a professional interest in learning silk and steam-fixed dye technique. They were already ‘creatives’ which made technical input the most important part of their visit. To realise the designs and garments they planned through the use of wax, resist and dye, they need to experiment with equipment, materials, various dye techniques and resists and work on various weights of silk. Because they live abroad, heat and humidity will play a part in how they work, how dyes need to be stored etc. There was a lot to pack in, from dye basics to some studio safety, steaming, where to buy to buy silk and wax, even how best to label and market work. We discussed various technical issues, such as painting long lengths and supporting the fabric. We had  to improvise this to some extent using workbenches: I don’t have a set of shinshi sticks and these days do not paint fabric lengths.

We worked in the garage for the longer length as the studio isn’t big enough. The garage too had required a moderate tidy but the Maintenance Department (also Catering Department for two days) had already taken care of it.

I am hoping J and R keep in touch – I’d love to see how the two days with me translates and how they solve some of the technical difficulties we discussed.

And I now have a squeaky-tidy studio and am scared to go in.


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BB2 Teaching dyes, Fusion and Sewing a Boat

Blog-Bite 2: Ardington update

The shibori course I ran at Ardington School of Crafts at the beginning of last month will be repeated on Thursday May 1st and Friday 11th July 2014. There will also be an introductory ‘taster’ day on natural dyes on 10th July 2014 plus a day on shibori using indigo on May 2nd. Look out for the courses in Ardington’s forthcoming programme.

Fusion at West Dean

On June 22nd and 23rd I took part in a new outdoor event at West Dean called Fusion. On the first day I was demonstrating and selling my work, and on the second I led three 90-minute workshops designed to introduce students to working with wax and dyes. The evening before Fusion, I arrived at West Dean to set up and the weather was fine and sunny. It was only a day off midsummer night and I took a walk up onto the hills above West Dean to look down on the tented site. The moon was up and great fields of oxeye daisies caught the evening light. It was like walking on paths through moonlight. Marvellous stuff, but no time to go all romantic because we live in England and it was the last fine weather we saw until Sunday afternoon.

Hot waxpots, dyes and fourteen students confined in a tent taking off for Chichester, anyone?  Not a mix I would normally recommend. But  with a few precautions all seemed to go ok. I was pleased with what students achieved. The sessions were carefully pre-planned and timed, with a basic traced design already on the silk so no-one had to panic because they were expected to draw anything. With the assistance of heavy-drinking Devon friends, I had made a set of simple tools using wine corks and wire which could be dipped into wax to make textures and lines. I offered students small, cheap, bristle brushes which wouldn’t drip wax onto the silk. For sessions two and three we pre-stretched the silk to save time, but students could choose colours and some tools and textures. Without friend and helper Fiona it wouldn’t have worked half so well, and here is a huge and grateful cheer for her.

HOORAY FOR FIONA!!

Sewing a Boat

In my last post I mentioned a family visit. My brother, who is well known for his epic perambulations in rather a small boat (see here)  has been visiting from Australia. In mid June we made a trip down to Falmouth, where several of his voyages have ended and begun and went to the National Maritime Museum. We saw the replica of the Bronze Age boat Morgawr which was built by a team of volunteers led by master boat-builder Brian Curnby. Paul Harry has made a brilliant time-lapse film of the building: see here.

Section of the boat showing sections sewn with yew withies

Section of the boat showing sections sewn with yew withies

One of the things that  fascinated me about the oak boat was that it was sewn together using yew withies. These appear to have been twisted into a kind of rope and pulled up very tight, probably assisted by shrinkage. From the Bronze Age onwards, English longbows were made using one stave of yew (Taxus baccata). The wood is very springy, and the sapwood and heartwood together combine to resist tension and compression. I don’t know all the techie stuff, but I ‘did’ Shakespeare’s Henry V for O Level.  I remember being not in the least interested in his tedious French wife, but far more intrigued by the English longbows used at Agincourt. There is more here about the history and the wood relating to bow making. Wikipedia has a page on yew trees with images of ancient examples from Northern Europe.

Possibly, the same qualities that made yew effective for longbows also worked well for sewing boats together, but I don’t know how the structure of the withies would differ from larger staves of yew used in bowmaking.  The most ancient trees in the British Isles are yew, with the oldest surviving wooden artifact from these shores being a spearhead an astonishing 400,000 years old – see link below.

White, T.S.; Boreham, S.; Bridgland, D. R.; Gdaniec, K.; White, M. J. (2008). “The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of Cambridgeshire”. English Heritage Project. 


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The simple reappears once the dyer’s quite exhausted

Dyeing at Leewood on Dartmoor continues next week and on 11th April Jane Deane and I will be working on the same five fleeces as last month (see here), but this time using madder. Visitors are welcome and it’s free, but please phone Leewood before you make the journey.

I can now announce that our historical dye  project has been granted financial support from the Worshipful Company of Dyers, one of the historic London Livery Companies. I have been grateful for their assistance with research into the Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive over the past years, but this is the first time I have requested support for a practical project. The Dyers Company has a long history of charitable giving which you can read about here.

Next weekend I’ll be in London for the AGM of the Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers followed, on the Sunday, by our quarterly Journal committee meeting. This whole weekend of meetings coincides with the major Huguenot of Spitalfields events and The Big Weave on the 13th, also in London. It’s most unlikely I will be able to bunk off meetings to inspect the Huguenots, however – it’s a shame there is so much on at once.

Despite a whole new bunch of lively committee members, there will be a sad  goodbye to Cally Booker (whose blog you can see here) and Belinda Rose , who have now completed their terms on the Journal committee. They have contributed hugely to a range of ever-changing Journal demands and I’ll really miss their intelligence, cheerfulness and good humour.

Plans for Fusion, West Dean’s summer event, proceed. This week I was asked for a ‘top tip’ by the organisers for a publicity campaign. I don’t have a practical one about dyeing dog hair or boiling sheep dung so I thought of a piece of Eastern philosophy I find revealing and useful. I first heard it when I read that Peter Collingwood had it fixed to his loom.

The simple only reappears once the complex is exhausted

It comes from Nigel Richmond’s Language of the Lines, written about the I Ching. The word I appreciate most is ‘reappears’. It’s because I recognise the simplicity of an idea in the inspiration stages, but endless, exhausting ‘stuff’ gets in the way and I struggle to pare everything down to try to find what I first saw. In so doing, I frequently take the wrong things out. It’s a process I often go through – in fact, I am doing it now, with work based on our trip to Australia last October.

Bookings for Fusion can be made through West Dean’s Fusion page here. I will be demonstrating wax resist on silk on Saturday 22 June and running three workshops on Sunday 23rd. These will be beginners’ workshops, but if you have done some work with wax before it should be equally enjoyable.


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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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Natural dye extracts with wax

There’s a lot going on. A deadline for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers meant last-minute articles had to be reviewed and proof-read. This coming weekend I am teaching at West Dean in West Sussex, the course is full,  and there is a lot to do in advance. Immediately after getting back from West Dean I start a series of structured historical dyeing experiments at Leewood with colleague Jane Deane – more about the project on this page. The house smells of hot sheep at the moment as I have been scouring fleece. Next week I deliver new work for the spring exhibition at Redearth Gallery… and so it goes on.

Reading that lot, I am not quite sure how I found time to do a little work with Aquarelle liquid extract natural dyes (see my blog post on them here). But I used spare hours to paint the extracts directly onto mordanted silk, using wax as a resist between the layers of dye. The instructions for Aquarelle give details on heated dye baths for fixation but this is not an option with wax resist, because the heat of the dye bath would melt the wax. My plan has been to place dye-painted and partially dewaxed work in the fabric steamer to replicate the heat and damp of a dye-bath. To start with I just used two of the dyes: the liquid indigo ‘Saxon Blue’ and the Himalayan Rhubarb.

NOTE: My comments on the outcome must be read as they stand: they are emphatically not a comment on the effectiveness of the dyes themselves but on the dyes used in this unconventional way.  There is a lot more work I need to do having seen the results.

My working method was as follows:

  • Silk scarf blanks mordanted in 8% alum 2% cream of tartar
  • Dried scarves stretched on a frame
  • Wax applied – in this case and in each layer simple stripes and lines across the scarf
  • Different dilutions of Himalayan Rhubarb (HR) and Liquid Indigo Saxon Blue (SB)  applied to create variations of blue – green
  • After several layers using a similar technique, wax partially removed by ironing cloth between newspapers
  • Work rolled in paper and steamed for one hour (note: I don’t have a thermometer in the steamer. It is brought to the boil every two minutes and turns off for about two minutes)
  • Work dipped in White Spirit to remove residual wax, and rinsed several times

Observations:

The good news is that the dyes have set in the steaming process. Repeated rinses after the White Spirit dip run entirely clear. I lost some of the SB in the first rinses, but this was almost certainly because I notched up the SB concentration to extremely high levels in some areas and probably overdid it. I always think of dyes and dye-sites like a game of Musical Chairs. When the chairs run out, the dye has nowhere to sit, molecularly speaking. It’s more to do with the fibre than the dye.

This experiment shows that it is possible to build quite dark tones by increasing the concentration of dye in selected areas. There are some deep greens. I had wondered if this would be possible, and it looks as though it is.

However, the HR has lost its lovely golden hue (see the original colour centre top) and has dulled to ochre. If you look at the images you can see some in which the steaming paper has picked up a lots of pink from the HR painted areas. The dyed steaming paper is lovely in itself: the red component of the dye has leached into the paper and didn’t fix to the silk. I have no idea why. It could be the mordanting. It could be the paper. It could be that I steamed too long, or steamed too hot. It could be that it would always happen, whatever the steam-time and heat. I now need to  dye silk with all the Aquarelle colours, using their recommended dye bath, to evaluate their ‘true’ colours.

The centre image shows small blotches on a brownish area. These are created by small spots of dye on a wax surface which I failed to wipe off. These are travelling through to the silk surface as remaining wax melts in the steamer, and they then fix. In this case it is not too big a blemish, but it can look smudgy and ruin a design.

On the centre right image there are ugly blue splashes. These weren’t present when the fabric went into the steamer. I think loose dye may have travelled all the way through the steaming paper and I shall use two layers next time.

More puzzling is the bleeding of the SB into areas that had been waxed onto white. You can see these top right and centre left in the images. This can happen with synthetic dyes if the work has been placed too close to the outside of the paper roll. If you imagine the rolled paper in the steamer (see here for an idea of how it looks) there is more moisture reaching the roll on the outer surface when it is in the steamer. If the steamer isn’t up to heat, work on the outer part of the roll receives a lot of moisture, doesn’t begin to fix and starts to wander around – playing Musical Chairs. The solution is to wrap additional paper around the outside of a steaming roll. I didn’t do it this time. I am not sure whether the bleeding is a result of the steaming process or an issue to do with the dyes themselves. This didn’t seem to happen with dyes on the inner part of the roll, so I tend to blame my lack of foresight.

Conclusion

There is a lot to do but I am enthusiastic about the potential for working with Aquarelle with wax. The colours I achieved aren’t particularly exciting because of the dullness of the HR after steaming, and I need to research this aspect. But they have fixed efficiently via the steamer, it does seem possible to use wax as a resist, and to achieve some strong, dark tones. So I am optimistic; I just need a 36 hour day.