Isabella Whitworth

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


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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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Installations, pasties and Turkey red

I’ve found a link between art installations and our family’s Pasty Evaluation Test. We live in the South West, the traditional home of the pasty. Most local bakers produce pasties and whole businesses are devoted to their making, including one of our favourites, The Original Pasty House in Tavistock. What is the Pasty Evaluation Test? Taste and healthy ingredients are part of it, but the initial stage is to check how many bites it takes before you achieve something other than pastry-coated air.

It’s the same with installations. I’ve seen many that beckon appealingly but prove increasingly unrewarding and wearisome post-first-bite. I don’t want to pre-read screeds of explanation telling me what to think, so if an installation doesn’t communicate after a decent period of interaction, then for me it’s a non-starter. 

I remember some good ones such as Jaume Plensa’s gongs at The Baltic in 2002. (Note: YouTube link shows them at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where they seem arranged in a different way). They glowed in changing light and there was a timeless, temple-like quality to the space where silence and sound defined each other. People sounded the gongs with great intensity and contemplated powerful reverberations. Others seemed embarrassed to hit the gongs, as if they needed permission. A further cohort transformed into delighted children, shattering reverence with indiscriminate boing-ing and restaging the experience as wicked fun. It ended up as much about watching people as listening to gongs.

Not quite on the same scale, but I did enjoy two installations at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen this week. The first was Tina Hill’s Excavating Babel, a striking, tall spiral of over 2000 once-discarded books set in dust on a dark plinth. The books had been stripped of their covers, and thus identity, revealing a structure of sections and linen stitches, showing that books are, or can be, sewn together.  Created with books set uniformly with spines outwards, the inner spiral could be entered. It enclosed, isolated and insulated the visitor with a dense paper barrier. One was aware of millions of pages of muffling, unknown stuff.  What was this no-longer-needed information? There were interesting supporting notes to read, which afterwards I did. But Excavating Babel worked on several  levels without explanation, and thus passed the equivalent of the Pasty Evaluation Test.  You can see more about it on Tina’s own site here. Excavating Babel is part of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen exhibition Narrative Remains and you can see it until 23 March.

In the Riverside Gallery, also at the Devon Guild, is another exhibition called Love, Loss and Laundry.  This can be seen until March 16th. Through stitch and fabric Jacqui Parkinson commemorates the lives of destitute women and girls who worked in Devon House, Bovey Tracey. Devon House was run by Anglican nuns of the Clew Sisterhood – the notes record that they were largely a kindly organisation.  The refuge they offered allowed some girls, at least, to obtain respectable jobs in service and even to marry and have families of their own.

Women and girls were mostly occupied with laundry and sewing. Dirty sheets were washed, torn clothing darned, linen patched. But many inmates of Devon House lived or were buried unnamed. If it were not for the 1911 census records, their lives might have left no trace.  Anne Liebermann’s embroidered linen squares record some of these lives in the delicate red cross-stitching of their names from the census. Jacqui has sewn these onto squares of an old bedspread where layers of old fabrics can be seen. The squares resemble the padded fabric the girls would have used to hold an iron and the names are haunting and moving.

I have just enjoyed reading ‘Colouring the Nation’, a book about the Turkey red industry which set up along the Clyde and Vale of Leven in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the fabrics in the installation (the one on the right, above, with the fan) looked very like a Turkey red or Turkey red derived pattern, and the dates fit.

Thanks to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen and the artists involved in the two exhibitions for permitting photography of their work.

book

Colouring the Nation: The Turkey Red Printed Cotton Industry in Scotland c1840-1940

by Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett. Published by National Museums Scotland

From Amazon here

There is an associated website which is well worth a visit for its text and searchable images. There are 501 available to see from the full 40,000 contained in the pattern books now held by National Museums Scotland.

http://www.nms.ac.uk/turkey_red/colouring_the_nation.aspx


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Some bits I like: shibori and wax

Extreme Ironing takes place at the start of making folded and clamped shibori and if I’m not in the mood, it can be tedious and exhausting. The next bit is great as it’s working with dyes, but the best is the Christmas Stocking moment of opening up each dyed scarf. That comes after the ironing, but before the steaming.

With wax it’s the other way round. You do the evil stuff after the creative work with wax and dyes is complete. There’s a lengthy sequence of de-waxing, steaming, cleaning and washing out residual wax, etc before the scarves are ready.

despatch

Labels, lists, tissue paper and scarves for despatch this morning

But however they are made, all scarves need a sewn-in label, a personal label / swing tag and a price tag with a stock number. My personal tags were designed for me by Chameleon Studio, a local Devon company. We chose recycled card and vegetable-based inks for the two types of label. I have one for natural-dyed and another for synthetic-dyed work; they look different but the design is related. On the left, you can see the two types of label. The buff label with plummy-coloured ink is the one I use for natural-dyed work. The full-colour image on an individual label is actually a sticker which I attach one by one. It was a brilliant idea of the designer’s to reduce costs on printing because sheets of sticky labels are much cheaper than full-colour printing on card. Once everything is labelled and listed for despatch to a shop or gallery there is always a list to fill out and a package to make up, followed by a trek down the hill to the local post office. Post-dog usually helps with this part of the process.

The latest batch of work has gone down to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen whose Christmas Show ‘Make 2013’ begins at the end of this week. It’s open daily from 10 am – 5.30 pm.


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Blue routes – blue roots

As a schoolchild, my first and much-hated needlework project was to handsew a dirndl skirt. I was on the tubby side (not much has changed) and the skirt was red with white spots. My mother probably thought it would look charming but I knew I would look like a fat ladybird so, like Penelope and her shroud, I put off finishing it and learned to sew very slowly. Dirndl skirts and I have not crossed paths again for over 50 years.

We have just been to Bavaria to attend a family event. Many guests wore traditional clothes which, for the women, meant a dirndl costume. Now I have seen what it ought to look like, I must admit that the full dirndl costume can look good on old and young – and even the tubby. It isn’t just a skirt. There is a bodice, a blouse, a full skirt and an apron. Contemporary and expensive dirndl costumes are superbly tailored and very expensive.  They can be made from silks, cottons, linen, velvet or wool depending on the season, or the event at which they are worn.

A wedding dirndl. An apron knotted at the front means the wearer is unmarried

A dirndl worn at a wedding. An apron knotted at the front means the wearer is unmarried

A characteristic of the traditional dirndl is the printed cotton from which skirt and bodice are sometimes cut. The repeat patterns are small and delicate. At one time they would have been block-printed, and the blue and white fabrics would probably have been paste-resist-printed and indigo-dyed. This fabric is increasingly rare although there are still workshops in Hungary and Austria. Eastern Europe was a strong centre for these fabrics.

Last year the Devon Guild of Craftsmen held an exhibition called Tracing the Blueprint. The exhibition told the story of ‘Blauwdruk’ fabric from Eastern Europe which made its way to South Africa via trade,  European settlers and Manchester printers. Blue and white 100% cotton fabric is now printed in South Africa, although not using a traditional process. It is known as shweshwe and the Three Cats trademark of Da Gama Textiles is famous. Shweshwe used to be transported by sea and was heavily starched to help it survive the long journey. Although this is no longer necessary, heavy starching is still used to denote its status as true shweshwe. I have a pack of shweshwe by me as I write and the smell is strong and ‘inky’, but not unpleasant.

Last year I visited the studio of Martina Gistl near Gmünd in Bavaria. Martina screenprints traditional patterns onto cotton and linen at her studio. She has a beautiful workspace and you can look down on the printing process as she passes the ink-loaded squeegee across the fabric, forcing the ink down onto the stretched fabric. After the fabric dries it is heat-fixed (but I don’t think it’s a steam process).

There is such fascination in the journeys these strongly related patterns and designs have made, their natural dye origins and their contemporary uses and interpretations.


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Bees, baskets, beasts and the bull’s-eye rash

Because the wax I use for resist work contains a proportion of beeswax, my enthusiasm for a world of healthy bees extends to work materials. I don’t have beehives but I have several nests of bee-tubes and last year they were occupied for the first time. The bees that use the tubes are Osmia rufa, also known as the Red Mason Bee. They aren’t wax producers, but they are excellent pollinators and in the recent warmer weather we watched several of them hatching. You can see the red and yellow clay plugs that the bees make to seal the tubes. Both clay colours are local (obviously, unless bees use the bus) and typical of this area of West Devon. Some of the tubes in the image weren’t occupied last year but where you see a hole in the clay, the bees have emerged. There is an interesting download here if you want to know more about these bees.

Next weekend there is a festival of basketry at Dartington in south Devon. It’s called Basketry and Beyond and it focuses on the themes of fishing, farming and fashion. The festival features several workshops and demonstrations given by international makers, a parade, residencies, etc. A beautiful exhibition of baskets called From Bare Stems is currently showing at High Cross House, Dartington, as part of the festival. It has been curated by fellow Devon Guild of Craftsmen member Hilary Burns. We went to see it this week on a thoroughly wet day, the dripping woodland surrounding High Cross House smelling intensely of wild garlic. The two baskets shown above were loaned to the exhibition by Jenny Balfour Paul. Many thanks to her for supplying captions.

The little stone beast is not connected to anything on this page except that I like it and beast begins with B. Like the baskets, I went to visit it this week. It’s from a tiny, ancient church called Honeychurch; the building has hardly been touched since it was built in the 12th Century.

One final B. The bull’s-eye rash that sometimes develops with Lyme Disease can be seen in this link . If you walk your dog in the country (particularly where there are deer), work with sheep, or live where GP’s aren’t clued up on the disease, please read it. I noticed a bull’s-eye rash some years ago from an infected tickbite and had to go to considerable lengths to be prescribed the correct antibiotic. The incorrect antibiotic won’t clobber Lyme Disease. If I hadn’t once seen an image of this rash, I wouldn’t have known to persist and might have suffered long-term consequences.


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Ten things I learned about blogging

What do I have in common with two new-road-protesters, a writer seeking a publisher, a foster-carer, a few craftspeople and a family history researcher ? We all met last night at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, attending a beginners’ workshop called ‘Writing an engaging blog.’ The workshop was given by Cosmic ethical IT, a local social enterprise company.

The presenter faced a diverse group. Many of us were familiar with material she had prepared, but to others it was new and puzzling. Some of us operated blogs; others would like to, but didn’t know where to start. Few understood the full potential of interaction with other social media or the best use of tags, categories, search engine optimisation (SEO) and Rich Titles (which are nothing to do with last week’s bones in the car park).

I have distilled the evening into my own LIST of 10 useful / interesting pieces of information:

  • Over a glass of Rioja or similar, identify 15 words or phrases that anyone would need to find your blog, and use them regularly in posts, tags, categories. Do this before too much of the Rioja disappears 
  • Decide who you are, and who your audience is, and always speak to that audience
  • Words in titles of posts carry more ‘weight’ for search engines than the body of the post. Making ‘rich titles’ means including key words or phrases in the titles as well as the post
  • Google spiders, which regularly trawl the internet, take sophisticated  ‘snapshots’ of sites and compare them next visit, giving greater weight to updated content. Updating regularly is vital
  • Having links from more prominent organisations into your site will carry more search engine weight than the other way round. Spiders can, and do, cancel out reciprocal links in their calculations!
  • Pinterest is becoming a particularly important social media tool in the US. Workshop participants commented on how time-consuming it can be to maintain a Pinterest board
  • The Facebook business page can be used to generate very useful statistics on the traffic into a site or blog
  • You can search Google specifically for blogs with the content you want
  • Using YouTube is considered very valuable and it is easy to add (properly attributed) video content to your site
  • Certain types and formats of post are very popular with readers. One of these formats is THE LIST.

This is cheating, as it will make 11. But the other thing I learned was that when you wrap text around an image in WordPress, you can set a border so that the text doesn’t crowd in on it. I have disliked this but haven’t known how to avoid it. I learned how to rectify it last night by using the ‘Advanced’ settings for images. You can set the border to be white as below, not the default black. Warning: In the ‘dashboard’ stage my version looks awful, with the photo overlapping the text. But when uploaded it comes right.

studio

Studio scene complete with empty Rioja bottles

The evening left me wondering who exactly I am in this blog, in terms of my 15 useful words or phrases. Natural dyes, history of natural dyes, dyeing, synthetic dyes, wax resist, shibori, orchil, orchil research, silk painting, indigo, Devon, teaching, workshops, lectures, talks makes 15, and I’ve used them, and it is all the serious stuff.

But it leaves no room at all for nonsense, which will surely creep in amongst the worthy natural dye and shibori. For instance, take a look at the Guardian comment generator, found via the Twitter feed of the admirable  @SimonNRicketts. Press the buttons and you will generate some gems, such as this one from Gwyn Trig-Hampsteath of St Andrews:

After spending three years in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, I find that I am able to see much more clearly the interconnections between today’s geo-political imbalances and many of our social predicaments – for instance: Isn’t it amazing that we can find £30bn to spend on Trident but we can’t afford even basic woodwind lessons for all Primary school pupils?

You see? There is currently no danger of me joining Facebook and going viral.

Thanks to Fiona of Cosmic, and to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen for organising this event.