Isabella Whitworth

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


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My National Archives blog: in pursuit of lichen dyes

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Specimen page from lichen collection found in Leeds archive, now held in the Economic Botany Collections, Kew. The botanist was J.M. Despréaux.

‘Connecting Collections’ is a series of National Archives blogs by academic researchers, exploring the connections between archives across the UK and around the world Last year The National Archives held a competition inviting researchers to submit guest blogs. When I thought about it, I realised just how many such connections had been made in my early research into the lichen dye trade. My blog just made it on the closing day and I was delighted it it was accepted for publication – on 18th May. The title was A Purple Pursuit and you can read it here:

http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/purple-pursuit/

It is about my research into the history of a Leeds dye manufacturer whose early fortunes were based on a lichen-sourced dye called orchil.

Links

There are several other interesting blogs available at the Connecting Collections page on National Archives site

More on my Wood and Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals research on this blog:

Tyrian Purple – from a Leeds archive?

Tyrian Treasure: Part One

Tyrian Treasure: Part Two

Dyes, history, and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

A Purple Pursuit


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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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Thinking Positive

If you signed up to my blog solely on the basis of posts on natural dyes and history, I offer apologies. This is about neither.  As well as researching the history of natural dyes (in particular, orchil), I still produce work as a textile artist. Some of this uses natural dyes, but I also work with synthetic dyes on silk for resist techniques such as wax and shibori.

The Devon Guild of Craftsmen is holding an exhibition called Life Illustrated from 2nd October – 15th November 2015. Sketchbooks are the theme of Life Illustrated, showing them both as source material and as part of the creative process. A number of Devon Guild members are contributing new work, plus their precious books.

My training as an illustrator in the late 1960s was drawing-based, and I have used sketchbooks as source material for over 50 years. For Life Illustrated I decided to revisit an ‘old’ design and see how it adapted to current techniques and materials.  Back then I was using a simple gutta outliner to draw the design and control the dye. Now I prefer to use wax. The design was based on drawings I made of fritillary butterfly wings. Here are sketchbook studies from 17 years ago:

The design formula divided the scarf into about nine sections. A sinuous line bisected all sections, running down on the scarf’s vertical. You can see this drawn out in the sketchbook images above although the scarf is imagined from the side. Shapes either side of the sinuous line are either ‘positive’ (dark on a light ground) or ‘negative’ (light out of a dark ground). This polarity swapped from side to side and line to line. It was logical to look at, but entirely silly to explain. Below, you’ll find a sketch showing the basic structure.

Although I sometimes archive samples, I don’t have any of Fritillary. They were large, on very good quality silk and they sold well. So I was probably too money-grabbing to keep one, which I now regret. All I have left are sketches and a rather poor image rescued from my old website.

For the exhibition Life Illustrated I made new sketches to remind myself of what had inspired me. Then I stretched a scarf, dyed the background and outlined the design with wax – in much the same way as I remembered doing with gutta. I found I was able to reproduce the old design pretty well, although the quality of the outlining wax marks is looser than with gutta. That’s not a problem with this design. So I went ahead and made two or three scarves.

One of the reasons I became tired of gutta is that it is an outlining process. All design elements are drawn carefully with the gutta pen, and dye is filled in up to the gutta line. It’s a tight technique – even a bit tedious at times because one is often reproducing a pre-planned scheme. The reason I love wax is that spontaneous brush marks can create the shapes in a design (by instantly blocking out further application of dye). Of course, one can use wax tools such as tjantings or kystkas to draw outlines, just like gutta. But I find larger waxed marks more expressive and the design evolves in a more fluid way. So my next step was to try to adapt the old design to this preferred use of waxed marks instead of outlines.

I soon realised that ‘block-out’ marks needed more space around them than the simpler outlined shapes I used years ago. Large brush marks are often textured, oddly shaped and  ‘whiskery’ at the edges. In the same nine-section format, my next waxed scarf looked crammed and overcrowded. I reduced the number of horizontal divisions to five and it works better, but that’s as far as I’ve got. I’m not done with it yet.

Positive and negative: To make the ‘negative’ marks (lighter on a dark ground) I make a large waxed shape with a brush that blocks out the background. Then the background is dyed around that mark.  To make ‘positive’ marks (darker on a light ground) I create an island of unwaxed silk surrounded by a sea of freely waxed marks.

Teaching: On Sunday I’m off to Warwickshire to teach at the Summer School of the Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. I’ll be running two courses back-to-back introducing wax resist on silk.

I will be teaching three times at West Dean next year (March, May and July) but if you want a place, please book early. The March course already has a waiting list.

I’m also running a one-day introduction to wax resist on silk at Ardington School of Crafts next month (September). Please contact these venues for information (links below) and see my courses page.

Links

Devon Guild of Craftsmen

West Dean College

Ardington School of Crafts

Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers


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Fit – for some kind of purpose

There can’t be many households in agricultural areas which don’t have some baler twine in their house.  It’s used by farmers principally for the binding of hay or straw bales. Wikipedia states: Baling twine or baler twine is a small diameter sisal or synthetic twine used to bind a quantity of fibrous material (notably hay or straw) into a more compact and easily stacked form. Tensile strengths of single-ply baling twine range from 95 psi (0.66 MPa) to 325 psi (2.24 MPa).

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Synthetic baler twine: dropped by roadside ready-wound into a length to be used for an as yet unknown task

Down here you can find useful discarded lengths of it in the hedgerows, on the moors and in the fields. I’ve seen the multitude of uses to which it is put: holding a fence together; as a temporary gate-hinge; keeping a car-boot lid closed; as an improvised dog-lead; in birds’ nests and more crucially, holding up a farmer’s trousers. People collect it where it drops, saving it for a multitude of future unknown tasks. There is a kind of simple human optimism in this.

Here in Devon, local farmers have been completing the harvest, which includes baling and the generous distribution of baler twine to keep errant boot-lids down and trousers up. Recently they have been cutting moor grassland to use for animal bedding. The grass is cut and allowed to dry before being baled into cylinders for storage and I recently noticed a group of these, bound up in what looked like black and white stripes of baler twine. Only they weren’t, and it wasn’t.

I had a look up close to discover the ‘twine’ was actually a wide plastic mesh. It contracts widthwise when wound onto the bales under tension. I was intrigued by its structure and complexity, wondered who sat and designed it, where it is made, and whether its structure was solely suited to this one baling process. I started to research it online – and found it’s called bale netwrap and is sold by suppliers of agricultural bindings, such as good old baler twine. Not so useful in the trouser department, I suspect, and might be hazardous for birds that become caught up in it.

I have been moderately unfit for purpose myself recently, hence my lack of posts. Now I’m better and I have just completed teaching my final course of the year at West Dean, only to return with a heavy cold. Unfortunately I can think of no way in which baler twine will alleviate the symptoms.

My March 27th – 30th  2015  course Rhythm and Pattern is nearly full so if you want a place, contact West Dean as soon as possible. I will be teaching a further course from 17th – 19th July 2015.

 


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Summer schools…

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.

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?

 

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.


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Follow-up on gall ink

Gall ink

Just before Christmas I wrote about my experiment making ink from oak galls. Read it here. I tried using the mixture as an ink fairly early on in the experiment, using recipes found on the internet, with disappointing results. It came out very pale and did not darken with exposure to light as I had read that it would. That could be for many reasons.  I maybe didn’t use enough galls, or fresh ones, or I hadn’t left it all to soak enough; maybe the mixture was insufficiently concentrated; maybe I hadn’t added enough iron. I also learned that ink would flow better with the addition of gum arabic. I couldn’t find my stock of gum arabic, so I sent off for some (in powder form).

When the gum arabic arrived I decanted some of the gall liquid, added an iron mixture (made from rusty nails and vinegar) and allowed it to reduce naturally by leaving the jar in a warm dry place. I hoped to concentrate the pigment. I then added a small quantity of powdered gum arabic and made some drawings and scribbles using sharpened twigs: a proper quill pen would have been great, but I was short of a goose.  The second ink result was somewhat better than the first, but having looked at some manuscripts written in gall ink, I think it could be a more intense brown/black. I’m leaving the galls to continue soaking and will try again later in the year – as well as looking for more samples in late summer when they will be fresh.

Time will tell if I have used too much iron and my ink rots through the paper – definitely a problem with ‘over-ironed’ dyes of the past which ate their way through wools and silk.

I spent my childhood in the New Forest and have enjoyed following artist Stephen Turner’s blog about his year in the ‘Exbury Egg’. I know the area he is writing about intimately. Coincidentally, Stephen has undertaken a similar experiment with gall ink and you might like to look at two of his posts. He describes collecting galls here, and his ink results here. Stephen’s observations on the Turkey oak (Quercus cerris) were completely new to me: apparently this species was reintroduced into the British Isles in the eighteenth century and there were concerns that acorn production, vital for the local feeding of pigs, was affected by the arrival of the Turkey oak and its attendant galls. The Oak Marble Gall Wasp (Andricus kollari), for which a Turkey oak is vital, is responsible for the marble galls Stephen used.

The galls I collected in Devon are not the same thing as Stephen’s New Forest marble galls. They were found on a different type of oak and produced by a different wasp. But as far as I know all galls are tannin-rich and can be used to produce ink. So I’ll keep try-ink. Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.

 

Breaking news.. extra course at West Dean: Brilliant with Pattern

Because my West Dean course in March has a waiting list double the size of the course itself, the organisers have scheduled an extra course from 9th – 11th  May. See the West Dean programme here. You can also download the full West Dean College Course programme here.


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Learning the ropes: learning methods

One of my first posts on this blog included a reference to bellringing.  If you live outside the UK you may know nothing of the ancient tradition of church ringing which seems to have started in England at an uncertain date, but was well established by the 1600s. It spread to the English-speaking world, but not to continental Europe. Bells are rung in sequences of ‘changes’. They start in rounds (ringing down from the highest bell to the lowest). Then, bells swap places in the sequence. This can be done any number of ways, but always ends up in rounds. It requires control, co-ordination and concentration. The changes are normally called out for ringers to follow, so they are not feats of memory.

These ‘changes’ are what I have learned for about four years but recently we started to learn a different system, called ‘method ringing’. Bells are rung in a sequence but the patterns or order of ringing must be memorised and executed by the ringers – once they are experienced.

If you have followed some of my Leewood posts you’ll have read that I have problems with numbers and maths. I recognise the mathematics of patterns, but experience a debilitating sense of panic when urgently or publicly required to do a sum, follow a numerical sequence or hold a set of numbers in my head. Method ringing is therefore a real challenge. An entire community of over 1,000 people can hear my every mistake.  I have tried to take in the information I need in several ways and this involves learning a sequence of numbers (not so hard for me, but apparently not a good way to learn methods) or writing them out on paper. Then I found a method-teaching explanation describing the pattern changes as a kind of ‘plaiting’. Plaiting or braiding comes from a world I understand, so I thought I’d apply textile tech to bell tech and see where it got me.

It was very interesting. I used dyed string (prepared for braiding workshops I taught in Wales 13 years ago). There was a different colour for each of the six bells rung in learning a beginners’ sequence called ‘Plain Hunt.’ Here the bells move along one place in the sequence but more than one bell may be doing it concurrently. So it isn’t just a case of swapping to the next number in logical sequence because it too may have swapped…. Bring on the debilitating panic.

The image shows what I did with my string. In the right hand sample if you follow a particular colour it travels along one step at a time and remains on the outer edge for two rows, before travelling back the opposite way and returning to its starting position. On the left hand sample, ignore the thick yellow string on the outside right and just look at the sequence to its left.

I certainly find it easier to ‘see’ the ringing patterns by visualising it this way. Removing the scary numbers helps. But I take issue with the description of its being ‘plaiting’ or ‘braiding’ in the method-teaching instructions. To me, a plait or a braid has every change or sequence held in position by the previous one. In the samples above it is impossible to hold the sequence changes in place without the addition of a ‘weft thread’ in the form of a cocktail stick.

Merry postscript: I learned while checking bell facts that that when Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded in1587 the parish of St Margaret’s, Westminster, paid ringers 1 shilling per head to ring out in rejoicing. That is a mighty sum.

Following on from a Welsh mention, I am off to the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Summer School at Carmarthen next week. I am thoroughly looking forward to attending as a student rather than as a tutor for a change and to meeting  Journal colleagues, old friends and students from past years. I will be on Deb Bamford’s course (Deb is The Mulberry Dyer) called Turkey Red and all that Madder. Deb has asked us to take 5 litres of tap water, and to obtain a water analysis from our water supplier. I didn’t know, until she told us, that the water supplier is legally obliged to supply this without charge. Mine finally arrived last week.

I am hoping to blog from the Summer School and will now need to reacquaint myself with the Blogsy app I have on my iPad. It worked very well in Australia last year when we created our travelling blog.