A whole extra pile of mail arrives before Christmas in many British households. This is the seasonal appearance of greetings cards from family, friends, neighbours, and sometimes local businesses. In my case, several cards represent the sole contact I have with ‘old’ friends and I actively anticipate their arrival to hear everyone’s news. News isn’t invariably happy, of course, and the saddest cards are those that don’t arrive at all.
Almost without exception this year’s cards express the anguish of the past months and the hope that 2021 will be better. Among my extended friends and family there have been job losses, health and financial crises, cancelled celebrations, stranded travellers and separated families. I also learnt of the cards that will not make an appearance.
It hasn’t all been bad. One of the better outcomes of the year’s crisis has been the communication enabled by such platforms as Zoom. I chat to student friends regularly, and have caught up with people who live abroad or far away, or I haven’t seen for several years. I’ve attended an online conference, several lectures, an AGM, a charity concert, various makers’ fairs, and yoga classes. I’ve ‘met’ longterm online correspondents – and liked them as much as I thought I would.
The beautiful summer weather assisted a stellar indigo crop to mature and I had enough left over from dyeing to make pigment, and contribute to a research project into Japanese indigo. In the last couple of weeks I delivered a batch of scarves (pictured above) to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, an organisation that has courageously fought for survival through 2020 and is attracting good sales now that it has been able to reopen. My studio output this year has been meagre because I have been occupied by the complicated business of everyday living, but it felt good to deliver a few new pieces of work at long last. Dr Denim, my contribution to the Guild’s annual Members’ Exhibition, won the People’s Choice Award in November. You can read about much of this work in previous posts.
Thank you for following, reading, contacting me, and commenting. May all your 2021s be an improvement on this stressful year.
Like many, I felt the urge to grow-our-own veg at the panicky beginning of lockdown. However, I decided that were food to run short, our veg patch wouldn’t sustain us for long. So I took a chance and grew indigo.
In this previous post you can read about how I grew three types of Japanese indigo over the summer and compared some dyed results. I worked on wool and silk.
With the fragrant assistance of 6 sacks of chicken poo I produced my best crop of indigo ever. It grew tall and bushy and cropped heavily in August and September, until flowers started to form. (The general view is that indigo content starts to wane after flowering starts). As the plants are frost sensitive and autumn is definitely here, I am swiftly using up part of the remaining crop to make pigment, preserving the most advanced flowering stems to produce seed. I am obtaining good strong blue from the extractions despite the presence of flowers. At this stage I am picking and mixing leaves from all the plants regardless of type.
Normally in late summer, groups of local friends plus grandchildren gather to help process each other’s leaves and have fun dyeing day together. It couldn’t happen this year, for obvious reasons. But my crop has been so successful that pigment making has been a very lengthy and solitary process – except when our useful collie intervenes with her personal views on processing.
Many rather more experienced dyers have written about preparing pigment and I have been specially reliant on the advice of Jenny Balfour Paul and Jane Deane, plus the book ‘Singing the Blues’ by John Marshall. Versions tend to differ slightly, but I have produced some respectable-looking pigment.
On the left above you can see stripped leaves in a stainless steel bucket. On the right the leaves are shown post-extraction. Note the blue bloom on the surface
Left above: squeezed out leaves can be composted. On the right, lime has been added and the mixture aerated
On the left above: mixture is being passed through a coffee filter. On the right the dried paste is being ground back into powder.
The pigment making process I used
Leaves are stripped from stems and placed in a stainless steel vessel with enough rainwater to cover. Mixture is heated to no higher than 60C (140 F) over about an hour, held for a further hour, then left to cool overnight. I pound the leaves gently with a wooden pole. Leaves are sieved out, and squeezed over the bucket. Squeezed leaves can be composted.
Hydrated lime is added to the mixture: I use a teaspoon in my 8 litre vat. I then aerate the mixture with a balloon whisk, or with the wooden pole, or by passing the mixture from one bucket to another. It becomes foamy at the top and the foam will slowly change to blue.
I usually transfer the bucket contents to several smaller vessels. Once the mixture settles it is possible to (carefully) pour off the clear liquid at the top of each vessel.
The remaining contents are passed through a coffee filter resting in a plastic funnel over a coffee jar, or similar. If the liquid dripping through appears very blue I pass it through again. When the filter only contains blue paste I open it up on a tray and gently scrape off the paste with a spatula.
The paste is dried: I put more on the top of the boiler where it is kept gently warm all the time.
Mixture is ground in a pestle and mortar. I use a facemask for this stage: the powder easily becomes airborne.
UPDATE December 13th 2020. Every year, visitors to the Members’ exhibition at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen are invited to vote for their favourite piece. This year the invitation was extended to online visitors and I am delighted to announce that Dr Denim won the People’s Choice Award, 2020. My thanks to all who voted for the Doctor.
UODATEUPDATE December 13th UPDATE
One of the stranger items I’ve ever made is currently on exhibition nearby in Devon. Dr Denim is a full-sized cloaked ‘figure’ wearing a beaked mask, similar to those used by Plague Doctors of the past. The mask is made from a deconstructed pair of old denim jeans; the cloak uses my exhibition stand background felt over a dressmakers’ form and the ‘remedies’ strung on the unstitched waistband represent thoughts on the current pandemic.
I feel every artwork should speak without words, and I hope it does. But if it intrigues you and you want to know more, please read supplementary information below, or on the exhibition’s own website where you will also find additional images. The exhibition is called 2020 (it’s basically, the annual Members’ Show) and is being held at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen in Bovey Tracey until the end of this month. You can visit in person from Wednesdays to Saturdays. But you can also drop in online, from anywhere in the world.
The show was rigorously selected by a panel of Members and I was extremely happy to receive the ‘thumbs-up’ for Dr Denim. It is a particularly strong exhibition this year and contains fascinating and moving statements that Members have written about working during lockdown.
(this information is similar to that shown on the Devon Guild of Craftsmen 2020 exhibition website)
While making fabric masks during lockdown I looked into the historic use of masks during epidemics. An extraordinary 16thCentury Plague Mask is held at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin. The mask had glass coverings to the eye holes and a curved, bird-like beak. It was believed that plague, such as the Black Death, spread through bad smells known as ‘miasma’ and the beak, strapped close to the nose, held aromatic herbs, dried flowers and sometimes a vinegar-soaked sponge. Fragrant smells were thought to fight the pestilential miasma. Plague Doctors were hired by a community during an outbreak of the plague. They wore a beaked mask, long dense robes and a wide brimmed hat. Their key role was not to heal the sick, but to separate infected from well, to write and witness wills, arrange burials and count and record numbers of dead. Some doctors were renowned for their skills and even wrote treatises to assist others. But many took advantage of their proximity to the dead and dying to line their pockets.
We are now all familiar with manifestations of fear during an epidemic, and the universal desire to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Then as now, the medical profession offers hope, as does religious faith. Over the sewing machine making Covid masks, I considered remedies and ‘cures’ past and present, what they have in common, and I then made Doctor Denim.
‘Remedies’ are hung around the doctor’s neck in the manner of a Siberian shaman’s costume. The remedies reflect and blend contemporaneous knowledge of causes and transmission, anecdote, religious faith, folklore, superstition, fake news and conspiracy theories, the role of leaders and the state, racial or religious prejudices leading to ‘persecution as remedy’, duplicitous quackery, and the ever-present spur of money-making. Inequality of social circumstances could affect the likelihood of plague infection and death, as it does with Covid.
All materials used are recycled, ‘found’, or from existing studio stock. The only specially-bought items were the rainbow ribbons. The fabric elements are created from a partly deconstructed and entire pair of worn-out indigo-dyed (denim) jeans, a garment which has become iconic in our time. The black ‘robes’ are from my exhibition stand display.
Denim and indigo
Denim, from which jeans are made, is an indigo-dyed cotton twill suitable also for a Covid mask because its densely woven fabric will help to impede virus-carrying droplets from passing through it. Natural indigo-dyed fabric is revered by many for its healing properties; it coats fabric and offers a further layer of protection.
Visitors may rest assured that in the spirit of true quackery the potions are not precisely as they claim. Unicorn horn remains hard to obtain and is substituted by brown sugar. Urine is Yorkshire Tea, the crushed emeralds and arsenic are Indian Holi powder. The ‘Holy Relic’ is a sheep or goat’s bone from a Cretan beach, theriac contains neither opium nor viper’s flesh, but is made of blue and white twine pills. There were no leeches in the box when I last checked.
Construction of the piece has consciously reflected the raw quality of unpicked and chopped-up jeans.
Notes on the remedies
Blame is placed at both ends of the chain. The persecution by expulsion, fire or torture of marginalised minorities such as Jews, the disabled or gypsies, took place during times of plague. They were believed to be the source of the pestilence. Modern 21stcentury conspiracy theories about coronavirus continue to spread through the press and social media (for example, blaming a Chinese laboratory, the Freemasons, Bill Gates, G5 and even Norwegian Salmon).
The bone is mounted in a denim pouch, blinged up by gold ribbon from a chocolate box. The power of a holy relic was historically believed by Christians to effect a miraculous cure, or aid the intercession of a saint on the patient’s behalf. Belief in the power of prayer and intercession is still with us today.
Blue and white threads
The remedies are suspended from blue and white twine cords. I use the twine for tying shibori and once through the vat they are dyed blue with indigo. Some cords are made with reference to the knotted technique of tzitzit, or fringes, for the tallitor Jewish prayer shawl.
It was believed by Christians that the plague was divine punishment for human sin. Processions of flagellants would whip themselves and each other as penance, in the hope of avoiding the pestilence.
Pharmaceutical companies compete or co-operate to develop lucrative medications which may alleviate symptoms, cure, or prevent infection.
Disposable ‘gloves’are fronted by a cartoon by The Times cartoonist Peter Brookes.
Eyam (hung in isolation down the back of the Doctor)
During the Black Death there were no remedies, beyond quarantine, that made much difference to outcome. When the Black Death arrived in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1665, the rector and a minister introduced a number of measures, such as outdoor church services and burial of the dead by their own families. They further persuaded villagers voluntarily to quarantine themselves as a community, in an act of great sacrifice and selflessness, with the aim of not spreading the disease beyond the village.
Donald Trump’s ideas on preventative measures are covered in a brief treatise.
With no current cure or vaccine for Covid, a main course of action has been to avoid contracting and spreading the disease by means of quarantine and lockdown. Connection to locked-down friends and family through the internet has eased isolation for many: online contact has been a kind of remedy.
Flowers, herbs and incense
Bound up, dried fragrant herbs and flowers comprise a selection of scented remedies to ward off miasma. These include rosemary, mint, lemon balm, sage, lavender and meadowsweet. The Doctor’s beak is stuffed with lavender and rosemary. Incense is carried in a hanging pocket, together with Café Rouge matches. At exact time of writing, Café Rouge has announced that it too is a Covid casualty and is going into administration.
Medical knowledge: The Four Humours
Much medical knowledge during the Black Death was based on ancient theories of Hippocrates and Galen who described four bodily humours. This theory stated that the elements of earth, water, air, and fire are linked to bodily fluids of yellow bile (fire), blood (air), phlegm (water), black bile (earth). Remedies were prescribed to restore a natural balance which had been corrupted by the plague.
Deliberate bleeding of a vein, with leeches (expensive, but less painful) or a knife (cheaper, and it hurt) was believed to be an effective method to rid the body of undesirable ‘hot’ blood.
Theriac was a popular remedy among the wealthy and included many ingredients such as viper flesh and copious amounts of opium. Ingredients were mixed with honey or treacle and could be thickened and made into pills.
Crushed emeralds, arsenic, mercury (quicksilver)
Crushed precious minerals were made into concoctions to drink. Those who couldn’t afford them drank mercury or arsenic – which probably despatched them even more swiftly than the plague. It was thought that ‘like could be treated with like’, and one poison could cure another.
The feather: the Vicary Method (after inventor and doctor Thomas Vicary)
A live chicken had its back and rear plucked. The chicken’s bare skin was then applied to the swollen area of the body, and strapped on to ‘draw the disease’ from the patient. The chicken died, or the patient died, or both.
Drinking a potion comprising ground unicorn horn was thought to be an effective remedy for many sicknesses including the plague, and, not surprisingly, was very rare and expensive. To obtain any horn, the unicorn had first to be lulled into submission by a young female virgin.
Bathing in urine or smearing oneself in faeces was a cost-free remedy open to the poor.
The hope pocket
Our hopes for a Covid solution centre on the research to find an effective vaccine and the pocket contains part of a syringe. I’m happy for people to write their hopes on slips of paper and put them in the pocket.
With the sun shining last week I enjoyed a socially-distanced dye-day with friend and colleague, Jane Deane. We wanted to test and compare three sets of indigo dye plants, grown from seed here in Devon, by making small dye vats and dyeing different fibres.
In the image above you will see A on the left: an elongated leaf, white flowered indigo. B, in the centre, has elongated leaves and pink-flowers. On the right is C: a broadleaf indigo with pink flowers
The seeds were generously supplied to me by Nature’s Rainbow in the spring, and they have published their own blog on the identification and source of these seeds to be read along with this one. You can read it by following the links at the base of the page. Because we only have a small plot to grow dye plants, the three sets of seedlings were of necessity planted out side by side in blocks as shown above, which meant that the growing conditions were the same for each plant. I planted them out in late May, just after a very late set of frosts which would have killed them. Using identical quantities of leaves and the same dye procedures should give a reasonably good comparison for my soil, the English climate and our summer.
For each plant type, I used 125 grams of stripped leaves and did a 1 hour extraction in a litre of rainwater, heating the leaves slowly to just under 60 C. Leaves were crushed with a pole and the mixture allowed to cool overnight. In the morning Jane joined me and we squeezed out the leaves, sieved the sherry-coloured mixtures, adjusted the pH to 9 and oxygenated each by pouring from one container to another. Containers (Kilner jars) were heated to just below 60 C. We used a commercial reduction chemical (thiourea dioxide) because we needed to complete the tests in one day.
We used identical samples of wool, silk and cotton for each ‘vat’. All samples for each individual vat were put in together.
After one dip (see above) there were several differences in hue and intensity although the accuracy of colour here isn’t perfect. B appears to have dyed less well overall and this shows particularly on wool. The silk of C is more intense than either A or B, and the cotton in A appears the strongest.
We gave all samples 4 dips of ten minutes each.
Please note that I placed the silks on the left and cottons right in the image above, so they aren’t in the same order as the one-dip image. Sorry about that. The colour, again, isn’t as accurate as I’d like but shows the very real difference in wool dyeings. The cottons at A and C were more similar after four dips. The silk at C is beautiful and has a more turquoise cast than the other two.
You’ll have to take my word for it, but in real life the samples of C, the broadleaf, appear more intense and samples of B least intense.
I intend to repeat the dyeings with more leaf material next time and do a longer sequence of dips. I will also weigh fibre samples to make sure they are identical because the wool would have been heavier in this test, and therefore ‘grabbing’ more of the available indigo.
Ashley Walker of Nature’s Rainbow has kindly annotated my top image with his initial interpretations of the Japanese names for the three sets of plants (see below), but please read his very interesting and informative blog post here
My last post featured some purple orchil or cudbear dust detached from stained paper. I attempted to convert it back to dye and soaked it in water for several days. I didn’t know if it would dye fibre after 167 years but after several weeks’ cold-dyeing a fragment of silk with the purple liquid, it has taken on a typical orchil fuschia purple – see above. I don’t know what that proves, but it’s wickedly, super-nerdily satisfying.
And now to Covid-19 masks. In the early 1990s I completed a number of publishing commissions to design textile craft projects. I accumulated boxes of fabric scraps in vibrant designs which I have failed to part with because ‘one day they might have a use’. Translated into stash language, that means I couldn’t bear to part with them. But their day has finally come and I have made masks for family and friends during the pandemic. After some online research I settled on the Olson design for adults which has a pocket into which a HEPA filter can be slipped. Research suggested that high thread count natural fabrics made the most effective mask and my 90s fabrics were ideal, being quilting cottons, cotton lawns, or fine weaves. It seems a suitable way to let these fabrics go. I made children’s masks but found the scaled-down Olson unsuitable since I couldn’t approach individual children to adjust the fit and instead used one of the many pleated designs on the internet. To supply designs that children would actually wear I bought a few new fabrics. All the girls wanted pink masks, and being Devon, small boys chose tractors and I’m unapologetic about this apparent stereotyping. I made fabric ties but advised parents to change to elastic if they weren’t efficient. There’s no point wearing them if the masks slip down all the time.
Although appearing simple, I found mask-making fiddly because of the curves, layers of fabric, nose-wires etc. and the labour rapidly became tedious. I’m full of admiration for the army of makers who have made so many masks and scrubs over the past few months.
A very obvious spill of orchil left this 1853 letter stained, with loose deposits of a powdery purple substance on the surface
This is my 38th day in coronavirus lockdown. Like many, I have a diary full of scratched-out teaching, appointments, celebration parties and anticipated trips. I haven’t felt particularly creative for the past few weeks and admire the achievements of those who use their daily exercise to draw and paint and record their experiences visually, or translate their time into the positivity of making work. I feel as though that particular tap ran dry for me a few weeks back. It’s a bit weird but I don’t feel bad about it, it just is. I have found other things to do.
When I’ve not been gardening, or training the new puppy, or learning to make videos, I’ve been working on family history links with England, USA, Ireland and Ecuador. And with no other distractions or excuses I have finally managed to get my teeth back into the Leeds-related archiving I’ve been undertaking for some years. You can find other blogs about this research in the ‘word cloud’ on the right, under the search titles Wood & Bedford, orchil, and Yorkshire Chemicals.
Over these weeks of lockdown the archived boxes of labelled documents are growing, the unsorted papers are diminishing. Most nights when I turn out the light and go to wash my hands (in a non-coronavirus way) there is a trace of pink or purple in the dirty, soapy water. I know it’s from orchil. The earlier papers, dating between 1833 and 1855, came from a time when many of the working spaces of Wood & Bedford adjoined. The Fire Insurance document of 1855 describes these workspaces and some of the equipment. Orchil lichen was ground into powder with stones before manufacturing into dye, after which it was reduced back into powder (cudbear), or sometimes paste. Orchil dust would have hovered permanently, coating surfaces and settling on any uncovered papers. I have sorted papers with heavy purple stains, as if spills took place where they were stored, and there’s even a purple thumbprint on the back of an invoice for glass and earthenware. This gave me a real archival shiver because at that time (1850) there was just one person, James Bedford (1824 – 1903), who would have been working on orchil at the Hunslet address: the move to Kirkstall Road was imminent but had yet to take place. I have developed a very healthy respect for James and I like to think it is his thumbprint on the paper. It feels like a kind of handshake.
Back of an 1850 invoice showing a purple thumbprint
I also found an 1853 letter stained with a large spill, which had resulted in several crusty deposits of a loose and powdery purple (see top image). I am neither equipped nor funded to conserve these papers and have stored the heavily stained ones separately so that at some time in the future there is the potential for them to be studied further. But while I was working a tiny deposit loosened off and I rescued it, putting it in a container with a little water. I checked it impatiently, and slowly, over several hours, the powder began to release its colour. It shows a typical fresh purple orchil pink. Amazing to see, and a rewarding moment that joins several other highlights in many years’ work on this archive. I will drop a few silk fibres in once I think all the colour has been released, and see if it will still dye.
Orchil dye reconstituted from the 167-year-old orchil spill. The colour is typical of orchil
It’s intended that my section of the archive will finally join the main Yorkshire Chemicals collection already in the curation of the West Yorkshire Archive Service facility at Morley, Leeds. Wood & Bedford became the lead company of the Yorkshire Dyeware and Chemical Company in 1900, which was renamed Yorkshire Chemicals from 1974 – 2004 when it went into administration. The work on the Morley archive was completed by Dr Howard Varley who had been an employee of Yorkshire Chemicals until its demise. The complete set of archives will give a rare insight into the lifespan of a dye manufacturing company whose work spanned the transition from natural to synthetic dyes.
Detail of the Exeter cloth dispatch book shows several wool samples and their associated bale-mark. Image courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives. For full reference to this document please see link at foot of page
Late last year I was contacted by a friend with a very interesting proposal. She had been invited to write a chapter on dyes and dyeing for a ‘book about a book’ and asked if I would be interested in co-authoring. A very rare, cloth merchant’s dispatch book had been found in the London Metropolitan Archives by Todd Gray, a well-known Exeter-based historian, and as yet – amazingly – no-one had made a study of it.
Todd was editing a book (Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book 1763 – 5) about his find, to be published by the Devon and Cornwall Record Society (DCRS) this autumn. He was assembling specialist authors to write chapters giving a wide context to the dispatch book. These were to include a history of Exeter’s cloth merchants, the archaeology of the cloth industry in Exeter, fulling mills, Exeter’s dyers, lead cloth merchants’ seals, and tillet blocks (look them up, they’re fascinating). And, of course, a chapter on dyes and dyeing.
A dispatch book is neither a ‘sales‘ book to show potential customers, nor a dyer’s book recording dyestuffs and recipes. It records dyed cloth sold, in this case exported, between 1763 and 1765, and relates to the South West. There are bale-marks drawn on many pages. It is a collection of wool cloth samples (all 2,475 of them) and was the one-time property of a wealthy Swiss émigré of Huguenot descent, named Claude Passavant. Passavant had strong connections to the city of Exeter and in the 1750s established a factory producing high quality Gobelin-style carpets there; he was also a cloth merchant.
The friend who invited me to co-author is Jenny Balfour Paul, a world authority on indigo. In the early 1990s I attended one of her lectures at the Crafts Council in London and her knowledge and enthusiasm for indigo pushed me in the entirely new direction of natural dyes, and we also became friends. So I wasn’t going to say no, was I?
Four figured fabrics from the Exeter cloth dispatch book. The bale mark from the page reverse can be seen in mirror image, bottom centre. Image courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives. For full reference to this document please see link at foot of page
Colours are hard to describe, but in my vocabulary the range covered in the dispatch book includes scarlets, dusty and dark salmon pinks, russets, golden browns, tans, beiges, and all manner of blues. There are soft watery-blue-greens, olive and grassy greens and there are blacks and greys. There are several figured weaves among the samples. We have no dye analysis for these cloths but we could make educated guesses about how they were dyed by studying contemporary sources, and literature. Together with Dominique Cardon and Anita Quye, Jenny has been researching the Crutchley Archive, an important set of pattern, recipe and account books from the eighteenth century Crutchley dyeing business in Southwark. This source, and Jenny’s knowledge of it, was a vital part of our interpreting the likely dyes and chemicals used in the dispatch book. We also researched Standerwick’s Somerset Pattern Book (c 1760) located in the Somerset Heritage Centre, maps and journals held at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter and other papers located by Todd Gray in Devon archives.
The publication of this book, originally scheduled for Autumn 2020, was postponed as a result of the pandemic. It is now scheduled for release on 19th February 2021 and can be ordered from the publishers Boydell and Brewer here
Crutchley Archive: Anita Quye, Dominique Cardon and Jenny Balfour Paul, ‘The Crutchley Archive: red colours on wool fabrics from master dyers in Southwark, London 1716-1744’ in Textile History (forthcoming 2020)
By Dominique Cardon: Mémoires de teinture: Voyage dans le temps chez un maître des couleurs (Paris, 2013); The Dyer’s Handbook: Memoirs of an 18th Century Master Colourist (Oxford and Philadelphia, 2016); Des couleurs pour les Lumières: Antoine Janot, teinturier occitan 1700-1778 (Paris, 2019); Le Cahier de Couleurs d’Antoine Janot /Workbook, Antoine Janot’s Colours (Paris, 2020).
William Partridge: A Practical Treatise on the Dying of Woollen Cloth, Cotton and Skein Silk (New York, 1823)
Carolyn Griffiths, ‘Woad to This’ and the Cloth Trade of Frome (Frome, 2017)
My two presentations at last month’s World Textile Day were something of a sensation. During the first talk there was an unfortunate medical emergency requiring an ambulance, and in the second the projector plug dislodged and the screen went blank, just as I started waving my arms in excitement over an image of Imperial Purple. That’ll teach me.
I had been invited to talk about inspiration, and how I started to work with textiles after a graphic design training and several years in industry. I directly attribute my career change to travels in India, Indonesia and Australia in the 1980s where I observed unfamiliar textiles being created, used or worn. For the first time I properly understood how textiles can hold significance and meaning and became absorbed in the ways that dye can be controlled. I bought many examples of cloths and textiles on my travels which I displayed at the World Textiles Day talk, and amongst them were samples of Balinese polèng cloth. Of all the cloths I came across, polèng is the one that most changed my way of thinking.
Polèng cloth from Bali, purchased in market
Polèng is not technically complex. It’s formed of equal strips of warp and weft in black and white set up to intersect and create black, white and grey squares. In the West we often see similar, coloured checked cloth used for tablecloths, children’s dresses, casual shirts and curtains. We call it gingham. It has a homely feel to my eyes, and when on my first trip to Bali in the ’80s I noticed it draped around trees, shrines, altars and statues I was puzzled by the meaning and usage of this unmissable cloth.
Next to where I stayed in Ubud was the home of a remarkable Italian dancer called Cristina Formaggia. Cristina was a most extraordinary woman (she died, too young, in 2008) and I include several links about her below. She had lived on the island for some years and through her kindness friendship and humour I learned much about Balinese life, belief, ritual and dance. Her insights and knowledge were offered from a dual perspective as both Westerner and deeply-embedded student of Balinese tradition. Only when planning the Word Textiles Day talk did I realise how much I owed to her, which included an explanation of polèng.
If you seek an academic explanation of polèng, please stop here as I can’t give you one. My simplified version is that for everything, there is an opposite. For good, there is evil. For sickness, there is health. For heat there is cold, and so on: no element exists without its opposite and through its opposite each element acquires its meaning and purpose. So it is with the equal black and white squares, and with spiritual awareness comes the grey, the point at which elements blend and stand in balance. The need to maintain these opposite elements in balance seemed to me to be what polèng symbolises, and what every Balinese knows as elemental when they see the cloth.
‘..polèng is an expression of the community of existence: being in its totality, which is made up of black and white, in the world of both the visible and the invisible.’
Brigitta Hauser- Schäublin, quoted from the book linked below
On October 5th I’ll be presenting Deeper than Dyeing at World Textiles Day, Saltford, near Bristol. I’ll outline the influence of World Textiles on my work, and bring a varied selection of textiles (of all kinds) to stop everyone falling asleep.
Evening jacket from 1920s – 30s, that belonged to a great-aunt
Some examples go way back to my childhood, such as this gold-and-black-woven evening jacket that belonged to a great-aunt. Others reflect a growing interest in textiles and techniques and tools, acquired not at art college (I studied graphic design), but on travels in India, Indonesia and Australia.
Batik collected in Jogjakarta when travelling in the 1980s
Turban length collected in Rajasthan. It is printed but appears to mimic leheria and mothara techniques
A selection of traditional (or local) tools, used to apply wax
When I originally agreed to speak I had to scratch my head a bit. I’ve never actively thought through, or publicly acknowledged, the influence that travels and observations have wrought on past and current work, and my diverse interests. On finally deciding the talk’s direction I needed a title, and kept circling Deeper than Indigo, the title of an extraordinary book by Jenny Balfour-Paul.I asked Jenny if she minded my adapting her title – and she was kind enough not to – which is just as well. Once I arrived at Deeper than Dyeing as a title I couldn’t imagine anything that worked better.
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