Isabella Whitworth

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


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A Purple Pursuit

Orchil: For a few years I have been researching a (mostly) nineteenth century archive relating to a Leeds dye manufacturer. The early fortune and later success of this Leeds company were built on the manufacturers’ skill in the making of a dye called orchil. Orchil is an ancient dye, made from lichens of several varieties, and it dyes silk and wool various shades of purple. It does not need a mordant, a fact that was valuable to the historical dyer as it omitted the expense in the mordant process, and additionally avoided any harshening which mordanting can impose on silk. Purple could normally be achieved with natural dyes only with overdyes, such as indigo over cochineal, but orchil ‘got there in one’.

In its clearest and most beautiful form, orchil dye will give a glorious fuchsia colour and the clarity of this shade is assisted by the purity of the ammonia in which dyestuff is prepared. Historically, orchil was known to impart a freshness and bloom in ‘bottoming’ other dyes – e.g. when used as a base before overdyeing. Orchil was a much used and valuable dye throughout history, although its use is sometimes an enigma. It is often found in costly tapestries, which is surprising as orchil is not at all lightfast – a fact that was well-known.

With the advent of synthetic dyes in the later nineteenth century the use of orchil began to decline. Records in the Leeds archive indicate that large sums of money were still tied up in stocks of lichen in the 1870s and in trying to comprehend the place of orchil in the nineteenth century I found the archive inextricably linked to the history of the colour purple. We will publish in due course but an extract from the abstract of my co-authored paper with Professor Zvi Koren at DHA 32 offers a clue:

One of the more astounding discoveries associated with this archive was that it included a small envelope signed by Charles Samuel Bedford declaring the content of the packet to be ‘Tyrian Purple’. But what was really inside the envelope? Was it truly Tyrian Purple…?

Shellfish dyes: Much has been written on the history of the shellfish dye Tyrian Purple (Imperial Purple, The Purple of the Ancients, murex etc) and its association with wealth and status. There is a lot of utter rubbish online about Tyrian Purple, so beware if you are researching and look for reliable sources, such as those listed in Chris Cooksey’s Tyrian Purple Bibliography, linked below.

Nucella lapillus shells, Somerset

Nucella lapillus shells, Somerset

For the purposes of this particular post, it’s important to realise that long after the method of shellfish dyeing* was lost, probably around the fifteenth century, the reputation of purple as a high status colour lived on. Purple retained a kind of status independent of its original connections to shellfish dyes. There are contemporaneous references to shellfish dyeing (e.g. in Vitruvius, and Pliny the Elder in his Natural History) and something has always been known of the preparation process, although modern interpretations of commentaries vary.

Since the mid nineteenth century chemists, scholars and dyers have researched shellfish dyes and the ancient dye process has been patiently and painstakingly rediscovered. Shellfish dyeing can again be undertaken although it is only seriously done for research purposes: you will see how small some shells can be from the image and only the tiny hypobranchial gland yields dye. In the mid nineteenth century, no-one knew the full process, which is why I found Robert Browning’s poem Popularity (1850s) so interesting when I came across it this week.  Crucially within it is a several-verse reference to Tyrian Purple and shellfish dye. As I couldn’t fathom what the whole poem was about, this reference was a puzzle. I sought out the RPA (Resident Poetry Advisor) who explained it to me, along with some literary context which includes Browning’s life and work, a knowledge of Keats and the poets that imitated him. Popularity is dense and complicated.

Popularity: As I now understand it, and in simple terms, the poem is about inspiration and skill. Browning asks himself about genius, as he did when studying, say, the paintings of Old Masters.  What is genius? Where does it come from? When some ‘poets’ recognised genius in others, as in the work of Keats, they picked up superficial, outward facets of the verse and imitated them. They basked in their hollow cleverness. Browning describes the humbleness of the shells, or conches (‘Mere conchs!’) and celebrates the ‘cunning’ of those who learned how to refine this costliest ‘dye of dyes‘. What’s the humble origin of Keats’ unique genius, he wonders wittily in his last line:

What porridge had John Keats?

Contemporary knowledge in the 1850s

Considering the knowledge that Browning appears to have of dye preparation:

Till cunning come to pound and squeeze
And clarify,—refine to proof
The liquor filtered by degrees

it could be that he knew a little more about the process than was available through classic texts. Henri de Lucaze Duthiers was working on shellfish dyes in the 1850s, but not for dyeing. He was demonstrating the potential to use the molluscs for a photographic printing process. I don’t see enough evidence to draw any conclusions about what Browning knew, but it’s been fun speculating, and a reminder of the magic we dyers experience liberating colour from simple, natural materials.

To read the whole poem Popularity, you can go here, but two key verses are below.

VI.

Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes
Whereof one drop worked miracles,
And coloured like Astarte’s eyes
Raw silk the merchant sells?

XI.

Mere conchs! not fit for warp or woof!
Till cunning come to pound and squeeze
And clarify,—refine to proof
The liquor filtered by degrees,
While the world stands aloof.

 

NOTE: *Dyeing, as opposed to smearing. Traditional use of shellfish to colour threads and cloth, such as in Oaxaca, Mexico, is not true vat dyeing, but more akin to  surface smearing.


Links about my research, on this blog

Overview  Dyes, History and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

About orchil: Talking Orchil

My research information: Historical Dye studies


Bibliography

Cooksey, Chris (2013) Tyrian Purple: the first four thousand years, Science Progress, 96(2), p 171 – 186

Jordan, Maria (2012) Recreating the life of a tapestry: Fading dyes and the impact on the tapestry image available online from The Institute of Conservation here

Chris Cooksey’s Tyrian Purple Bibliography

Wikipedia on Tyrian Purple


Thanks

With thanks to Dr Maurizio Aceto for some input on dates, Nigel Phillips for giving me the Nucella lapillus shells in Somerset last summer, and especially to the RPA.

 

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A Scottish Post

I’m just home after a fortnight in Scotland, which started at the annual DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) conference at the University of Glasgow. I tend to know people by their research – and that’s how they know me. Someone at DHA greeted me as Mrs Orchil: she could also have hailed a Dr Indigo, a Ms Madder and Professor Purple. It’s a friendly conference attended by many world experts in the fields of dyes and pigments, but it welcomes independent scholars like me as well as dyers and textile makers.

I wasn’t giving a paper this year so it was an entirely stress-free conference and I sat back and enjoyed it, or at least, all the bits I understood. There are always some technical papers at DHA concerning dye analysis; the ones packed with acronyms, graphs and molecular structures streak comet-like above my head. But factual gems can lurk amongst figures and statistics, so it’s worth not totally tuning out.

I took a small ‘suitcase’ exhibition with me about orchil and my research studies; most delegates came to look at it and talk to me, and as a result I learned new things about orchil from new perspectives.

The conference tour, after two packed days of papers, took us to Glengoyne Distillery for a fortifying wee dram preceding a tour of the plant, and thence to Stirling Castle where we visited the Tapestry Studios to see the final piece in the Unicorn Series nearing completion.

Sherry and tannins

The Glengoyne tour outlined the lengthy procedure for ageing whisky in casks. Casks are made from different types of oak, but have once held sherry (and some, if I remember correctly, Bourbon). The ageing whisky gradually absorbs colour and flavour from the sherry, and the tannins in the oak cask. The two images above illustrate ageing over thirty years in two different types of cask, with coloration intensifying every year. Evaporation is also evident, with around half the liquid being lost over the period. This lost alcohol is called ‘The Angels’ Share’.

Textile Tweets

About the pictures

Above is a small selection of textile-related images from Scotland, most of which I tweeted during our trip. My obsession with dye lichens was rewarded by finding Ochrolechia tartarea alongside Loch Ewe, and Lobaria pulmonaria  at Oban; Parmelia saxatilis and P. omphalodes were growing at many locations.  Note: I was looking, not collecting. A Gaelic-English Dictionary in a hotel room confirmed that in Gaelic crotal refers to boiling water method lichens, but corcur to orchil lichens. If you want to know what orchil is, or read more about my research and views on dyeing with lichens, please visit this page.

Turkey Red

I spent a week with Deb Bamford (aka The Mulberry Dyer) learning how to dye Turkey Red at a Summer School in 2013. Read about it from this blog post forwards. In Scotland I found remnants of the Turkey Red industry buildings at Alexandria, on Levenside. There is a great website about the Turkey Red industry here. And read this wonderful 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.

Unicorn Series: Stirling Castle and West Dean Tapestries

For more on the Unicorn Series, go here for the Stirling Castle story, and here for West Dean’s version.

 Glengoyne Distillery, Dumgoyne Glengoyne Distillery


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It’s all gone a bit Rumsfeld..

“… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” 

United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, 2002 

 

With the Christmas break just round the corner I know that if I don’t hit certain things right now it will be endlessly harder to pick them up in the New Year. So I have stopped making new work (see above) and am  organising the references for my co-authored DHA paper.

I am into Harvard References. I don’t have an academic background but occasionally I stray into Dark Territory and have to abide by the mighty rules, one of which is correct referencing. Writing up the DHA paper has meant revisiting texts read and absorbed maybe five years back. I have been favoured with a good memory and this means I sometimes remember very well that I know something, but don’t remember how or why. If I recognised the need to know at time of reading I will have taken a note of a source.  But as is the way with research, sometimes I don’t always know the relevance of a fact or a comment until a few years down the line. Then it can become vital – and that’s when it all goes a bit Rumsfeld.

So to his much lampooned statement (which I have always felt is more sane than many suppose) I’d add the following:

“… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. We just don’t know where we read them…”

And I recommend the University of Exeter’s helpful online resource here.


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Poly-heading: and that’s not funny

Poly-heading

No, that’s not something that nasty pirates do*. It’s me, head-switching again. There’s a copy deadline coming up for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers so I have had temporarily to drop the write-up of the DHA paper.  I also need to continue making scarves. One is a commission (yes, RD, there will be a choice for you!) but also a batch for the Burton Gallery and Museum, Bideford, where I am demonstrating working with wax all day on 14th December as part of their Meet the Burton Makers family programme.

The Burton Gallery and Museum, Bideford, Devon

I am a devoted fan of the Burton Gallery and Museum. I urge anyone visiting Bideford to go. I happen to love the ceramics of North Devon; they have an excellent permanent display from the RJ Lloyd Collection and I never tire of looking at it. Related to the collection is a brick-built bottle-kiln adjacent to the Gallery in Victoria Park and wood firings regularly take place there. In the images above you can see a sherd of pottery I found in our vegetable patch. There is an entire plate with almost the same pattern in the RJ Lloyd collection, dated to the 16th century, so my find is rather special and I keep looking for more of it under the carrots and chard. The historic Devon pottery tradition carries on today with the work of many local potters, including that of Clive Bowen. We have several pieces of his work at home.

The Burton has a permanent collection of watercolours and drawings containing evocative marine and local scenes but also shows touring art exhibitions of international standard. It also has rather a good and child-friendly French café…

Wax resist work

The images of the scarf in progress show the final layer of dye applied over about five layers of wax and dye. You will see that in two images there are beads of dye on the wax surface. On other images they have been removed. This is because if they dry on the wax surface, they will eventually deposit themselves on the silk when the wax melts out and I don’t like the often fuzzy, mottled effect this produces. So I wipe it off, carefully. Minute quantities of residual dye attach themselves to the textured surface of waxed shapes which produces unpredictable but often subtle textures. These I do like. The wiping-up process is rather like cleaning an etching plate before printing: I do it in a whizzy, upwards, circular motion. Thank you Mr Sellars, who taught me how to do this fifty years ago.

* Apologies to those reading this whose mother tongue isn’t English. Poly-heading is meant to be a joke – a pun – because ‘Polly’ is the name people often give to pet parrots, and as we all know parrots always sit on old-fashioned Long John Silver-type pirates’ shoulders saying ‘Pieces of Eight’. A pirate might want to knock its head off if it went on and on…

The other thing we all know is that when one attempts to explain a joke, it ceases to be in any way amusing…


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French Connections

I’m back from a trip to the DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) Conference in La Rochelle. La Rochelle hosted the ISEND Conference in 2011 and so I was already familiar with the conference venue – a former fishmarket, now the exhibition and conference centre  L’espace Encan.

This is a text-heavy post, so here’s a picture of La Rochelle to keep you going.

LaRochelle

La Rochelle

A DHA conference annually attracts a wide variety of delegates from various disciplines. This year there were about 90 of us. Our number included chemists, conservators, artists, historians, researchers working with natural dyes, and students at various academic levels. At a DHA conference you can find yourself sitting next to someone from the British Museum, the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum, or an independent scholar who is simply passionate about parchment. It is a friendly assembly and all are welcome. Even if, as a non-chemist, you sometimes sit boggle-eyed through muscular technical papers full of graphs, analysis and molecular data, there is always something to be learned. I’m told that in early DHA days (this was the 32nd meeting!) there was a heavy bias towards these more scientific analytical papers but that nowadays the balance is more even, with a good mix of historic /scientific presentations. The selection committee who choose proposed papers must have an intensely hard job. Of the 24 or so papers accepted, several intrigued me but as none have yet been published this handful of comments remains general.

Purple Parchments

One paper involved the analysis of  purple-dyed parchments. Very little work has been done to analyse the source of the purple colour in such codices and as far as I understand, there is currently no scientific evidence that shellfish dyes were used on the parchments. Non-invasive methods are normally used in their analysis, essential if precious manuscripts are to be studied without damage, and these methods can make it more difficult to identify dyestuffs. (With a parchment it isn’t so easy to remove a physical sample as it can be from a textile, where a loose fibre may be available).

There was a mention of dyeing parchment with orchil, and my ears twitched. Last year I was asked to dye some parchment samples with orchil – and dye they certainly did. But it was apparent that the temperatures and immersion involved in dyeing with orchil stiffened and damaged the parchment quality. I felt that this method wasn’t viable. Cold-dyeing seemed to yield a more sympathetic result but I have no idea to what extent the parchment quality was affected as I was only sent miniscule pieces of parchment to dye.

In the post-presentation question session it emerged that the term ‘dyeing’ means different things to different people. Some delegates considered ‘dyeing’ could be the layered painting on of dye and not dyeing by immersion, as working dyers think of it. Now, I should say that I tried painting orchil on too, but soon lost the will to live. It would be immensely protracted to paint on sufficient orchil to build up a good colour. That’s not to say it would be impossible, I just didn’t have the time or the resources to continue.

It will be interesting to learn more about this research. Maybe at Glasgow and DHA 33 next year? The dates are October 30th – 31st 2014.

Shearings and Clippings

Magnified images had been studied by the presenters which showed lumpy-looking particles in the red lake used in several medieval paintings. These indicated that they were reclaimed dyes from red-dyed wool, made into lakes for painting. The reclaiming of red lake pigment dyestuffs from clippings of dyed wool revealed that it made good economic sense to extract the dyes and to reuse them as painting materials. The dyeing of red, from whichever dye source, was expensive and thus waste material might be reprocessed. Again, I encountered problems with a mutual understanding. Initially I was confused by the words ‘shearings and clippings’ which were used by the presenters. I associate these words primarily with sheep-shearing!  In the paper the words referred to waste dyed cloth after cutting woven material – or yarn.

The finding of these ‘reclaimed reds’ isn’t in itself new. A 1996 paper by Jo Kirby and Raymond White goes into great detail (find it here) and also lists a  number of paintings in which red lake pigment dyestuffs have been found. Have a look. You may be amazed.

Networking

A couple of years ago, at DHA in Lisbon, I presented a paper about the trade in dye lichens from Angola through Lisbon. I have yet to publish this, for several complicated reasons. But I had an interesting conversation with another delegate which led me to sending a very small quantity of dye lichen and a recipe to the University of Évora. I heard no more, and forgot all about it. At La Rochelle my Portuguese colleague and  her team presented a paper in which they had measured and tracked the breakdown of the depsides and depsidones (the dye precursors) in the orchil preparation process until purple chromophores formed. Chromophores are the part of the molecule responsible for colour. The chemistry was patiently explained to me in a coffee break and I now understand rather more about the process that before – although I wouldn’t like to take an exam just yet. DHA is great for this kind of contact and co-operation.

DHA=GFZ: A Gremlin Free Zone

If you read the previous post you will now that I was co-presenting a paper at DHA 32  and I wrote about the snaggly-toothed IT gremlins that lurk for unprepared presenters. I am pleased to report that my eminent co-author, Zvi Koren, had done an admirable job on gremlin-bashing (he’s ace at puns too) and everything loaded and presented totally as expected. So did everyone else’s, and we all benefited from calm, unobtrusive technical expertise delivered by Florent Glatard of ARRDH- CRITT Horticole. Our presentation was really well-received but I will not be writing about it until formal publication.

Thanks to DHA 32 organisers Anne de la Sayette and Dominique Cardon

Anne de la Sayette is the Directrice of ARRDHOR – CRITT Horticole, a ‘centre of research, innovation and technology transfer in horticulture’. Dominique Cardon is well known to most natural dyers as author of Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science. She is also Emerita Senior Researcher at CNRS, the French national centre of scientific research. CIHAM UMR 5648 CNRS  (an institution, not a mathematical  equation..)  is one of the most important research centres in France for history, literature and archaeology of the Middle Ages. A new book by Dominique is about to be published but I don’t have the details: as soon as I do I will add them to a post.

Carnac

If you have got this far you deserve a pictorial prize. Using photos from DHA is tricky as I feel I should ask people’s permission before posting their images on a blog, so here is something rather special from the trip home.

I had never been to Carnac in Brittany until last week and I had no idea of the scale and breadth of the entire site. But it seemed most serendipitous to discover, on some stones of the alignments, a quantity of orchil lichen. Naturally, I did not touch it. But here are some images to reward stalwart readers. The orchil lichen is in the left hand image only.


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Dyes, history, and a chilly trip to Yorkshire

About five years ago life veered off in a new and unexpected direction.

My neighbours asked me to look at a dye-related company archive they were liberating from their attic. They were selling their house, thought they had a ‘firm offer’ and there wasn’t a lot of time.  There would be no space for the archive in their new home and I offered to rescue anything important from its potential new resting place – an unconverted stone barn. I imagined I’d see a small, disparate heap of documents and books descend the attic stairs with little supporting contextual information;  honestly, I did wonder how interesting that might be.  Because I knew a little about dyes I hoped to advise my neighbours if anyone would be interested in any of the collection before it made its acquaintance with the barn.

Six weeks later (the ‘firm offer’ wasn’t) I had opened and listed the contents of dozens of boxes and trunks containing documents, books, ledgers, patents, dye samples, photographs, letters, diaries, Minutes, catalogues, invoices, plans, maps, contracts, botanical samples, watercolours, chemicals, medals and awards….   and even a mousetrap, devoid of mouse.

Are you beginning to get the idea? Neither disparate, nor without context.

This is some of what I initially learned. The archive had been handed down through my neighbour’s family. He is a direct descendant (the great-great grandson) of a chemist called James Bedford who was born in  1795 and apprenticed to a chemist and druggist in Briggate, Leeds, in 1810.  James Bedford was the first in a descending series of three James’, all of whom worked in the family business, which started its life as Wood & Bedford. The same company, though it amalgamated with others and changed names, never underwent a takeover and occupied the same premises in Leeds, on Kirkstall Road, until it went into administration in 2004. It was by then the internationally-known Yorkshire Chemicals.

The Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive was largely assembled in the early twentieth century by the third of the James’, although it included material from the early 1800s. There was little after 1945 as later material was largely retained by the company and not kept within the family. I published an article in the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in 2008 (it can still be downloaded here) which gives a summary of the early days of my research. I was amazed to discover that, contrary to what I had read and often heard, the use of natural dyes persisted long after 1856 when mauveine was discovered by the young William Henry Perkin. Logwood, orchil lichen and various tannins featured in the archive well into the twentieth century, although the company also worked successfully on the development of synthetic dyes.

It’s hard to pin down why I became particularly intrigued by the orchil trade, but an early 1800s dyers’ notebook (there’s a page shown above) certainly helped. My orchil-dyed path, proceeding from the heap of rusty trunks, has since led me to Galicia in Spain, to Posnan in Poland, to Leeds, Lisbon and to Ecuador. In October it’s taking me to La Rochelle, and last week it took me back to Yorkshire. I will be giving a talk on the orchil trade to the ‘6 Guilds’ group of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers at the end of this month in Stratford; at DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) in La Rochelle in October I am delivering a joint research paper with Professor Zvi Koren on samples labelled ‘Tyrian Purple’. I can’t say any more about those until after the event – or I would have to leap through the screen and kill you. It’s Classified.

Yorkshire Grit

The Wood & Bedford / YC archive has been accepted by the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS) through the generosity of my one-time neighbours; a ‘firm offer’ did eventually materialise. So the collection has gone back to Leeds where it belongs. WYAS were excited by the fact that the archive covered long periods of the same company’s history. It isn’t yet available for study as archiving is being undertaken by a dye chemist; through a coincidental set of circumstances I was put in touch with a large group of ex-employees of Yorkshire Chemicals (YC), of which he is one. This contact led to my giving ex YC employees several presentations as they knew nothing about Wood & Bedford’s beginnings. Most professed great affection for their time at YC, and one referred to it as ‘the best days of my working life’.

A (sadly) dwindling band of ageing YC folk meet up from time to time and I sometimes join them for the annual outdoor charity Band Concert given by the Elland Silver Youth Band. That’s why I have just been back to Yorkshire. The rest of the country sweltered in tropical heat, but Halifax wasn’t having that. It was practising Yorkshire Winter. The wind Heathcliffed down from the moors with such enthusiasm that tents and gazebos couldn’t be put up to protect the young Band members – who played valiantly in shirtsleeves. A knocky-kneed and freezing set of ex YC attendees cowered under woolly blankets and discussed cryogenic concerts. There’s nout like Yorkshire Grit.

I’ll be writing more about the archive in future blogs, once I thaw out.

Farfield Mill

Some years ago when Farfield Mill reopened as an arts centre, I used to sell work there but I have never visited until this week. The impressive Mill centre is set on four floors which include exhibition spaces, a retail area, the best second-hand textiles bookshop ever, a historical display about wool, weaving and knitting  and small workshop / display units. A large industrial working loom weaves blankets and throws next to the Weavers Café – a refuelling stop after the rigours of viewing everything at Farfield. I enjoyed seeing but particularly, handling, Laura Rosenzweig’s Howgill Range which I have only read about in the Journal  (issue 243).  As Laura’s Loom, Laura runs one of the work and display units. With my next Yorkshire concert in mind, I bought a Shetland wool hat from Angela Bradley‘s shop.

On the top floor we found a welcoming group of weavers, some of whom I know through the Online Guild. They had a variety of looms and equipment on show and in use, and were clearly a valuable asset offering explanations to visitors, many of whom, it seems, don’t know the difference between weaving and knitting.