Isabella Whitworth

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



Historical Dyeing days at Leewood in the Dartmoor National Park

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, when chemists devised the means to produce synthetic dyes, all textiles were dyed with natural materials such as plants, insects and shellfish.

Despite the convenience and colour consistency of synthetic dyes, many contemporary dyers in this country still prefer to use natural dyes. Why? Because incredibly beautiful and subtle shades of colour are achievable with natural dyes. Many dyers feel a commitment to use sustainable dyestuff, retain connections with the natural environment and the ancient tradition of English dyeing with its strong associations to the wool industry.

Isabella and Jane Deane both use natural dyes in their studio work. Jane lives near Tavistock and specialises in spinning, weaving and dyeing; Isabella works with various dye techniques on silk and wool and also researches the commercial dye trade in nineteenth century England. Both have taught textiles extensively for several years and share a fascination with traditional and historic methods of dyeing.

In discussion one day, they realised that no-one appeared to have studied possible variation occurring in the take-up of natural dyes across fleece types: this would appear relevant to conservators, restorers and contemporary natural dyers. There has been some work done on synthetic dye take-up (Lovick, E, (2012) Dyeing Different Breeds, Journal of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, 243).

In 2013 they began a set of detailed dye experiments using traditional dye recipes and several varieties of fleece. Using woad, indigo, cochineal, madder and weld they studied and compared amounts of dye absorbed by individual fleeces.  Initially the fleece choice was Cotswold, Ryeland, Portland, Leicester and Romney. Preliminary dye-work indicated that Ryeland and Cotswold showed the most variation, so these have been used for all further experiments. Isabella and Jane are grateful for the financial assistance granted by the Worshipful Company of Dyers.

The initial work was carried out at Leewood, a beautiful 30 acre smallholding in the Dartmoor National Park. Sustainability and creativity are high on the agenda in Leewood’s versatile environment, which offers a riverside event venue and rural classroom that benefits schools, colleges, the local community and visitors to Dartmoor.

The dye research work is continuing through 2014.

To contact Leewood, visit their website here 

To learn more about Jane and her work, see her website  here


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