Isabella Whitworth

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


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Celebrating Ethel Mairet

 

submisson

Silk yarn skeins showing the results using two Mairet recipes. The lower skein was divided into three to demonstrate increments of iron added to the vat. Dried cochineal is shown at the lower left

A book of dye recipes by weaver Ethel Mairet was first published in Ditchling, Sussex, in 1916. Its title is Vegetable Dyes. Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft is undertaking a collaborative project to re-interpret and recreate Mairet’s recipes, with the help of  contemporary dyers. There is a considerably large number to complete.

However, not all Mairet’s recipes are safe by today’s standards. Some use toxic chemicals once common in historic use, such as chrome, tin, sulphuric acid, quicklime, lead and zinc and these recipes are excluded from the project, or some individual ingredients amended. Environmental considerations have changed over the years and it is no longer recommended (or permitted) to dye with certain plant material. Lichen dyes, for instance, appear in the book but are omitted from the project because they are rare in many areas and some species are protected. Lichen recipes will be dyed, but by one specialist in Scotland. I am happy with this decision: those who have read my blog for a while know my feelings about dyeing with lichens.

The project is open to natural dyers who are confident handling their materials and they can ‘apply’ for recipes as I did, through the Museum website. The Museum sends material to be dyed; the dyer supplies dyestuff.

The Book 

In Douglas Pepler’s Introduction he quotes the opening lines of the Gospel of St John (In the Beginning..) to illustrate his belief in the ‘goodness’ inherent in discoveries which mankind achieves for the first time. In tracing the subsequent destruction of quality through an urge for quantity (and one assumes, profit), he remarks that this inherent ‘goodness’ is lost. This was true, he suggests, when natural dyes were supplanted by those synthesised by chemists.

In a similar vein Ethel Mairet writes:

‘Dyeing is an art; the moment science dominates it is is an art no longer, and the craftsmen must go back to the time before science touched it, and begin all over again.’

The book is available online.

recipes

The two recipes I selected from Mairet’s book. They are for wool, but I chose the silk option offered by the project

Decisions

 I selected two cochineal recipes to dye onto silk yarn and ‘ordered’ them online from Ditchling Museum. The original recipes were for wool, but the project organisers offered the silk option and I chose it in preference to wool.  One recipe (7, above) uses iron to give a purple shade. (Note that cochineal is an insect, not a vegetable dye, but is included in Mairet’s book).

Many recipes which Mairet collected from the 17th C onwards, before science touched them, are scant on explanation and assume prior knowledge. Compare them, for example, to a contemporary book where a recipe can occupy a page of explanations and options.

So, following the two recipes wasn’t straightforward and often puzzling. I would never in normal practice add wool or silk to a boiling vat. So how should I interpret ‘Boil and enter wool while boiling, till the required colour is got.’?  And should I rinse after mordanting in recipe 4, or sling the cochineal and cream of tartar straight into the mordant as is suggested by the word ‘add? In recipe 7, what colour is considered violet? What does a 1 oz solution of iron mean? And so on. I had to make some of it up as I went along.

Happily, I had no spectators when calculating the Mairet quantities to simple percentages.

I’m including my recipe reports under the links, below. They are not of interest to everyone but indicate some quandaries faced when using historic recipes.


Links

Get involved in the dye project here

Download Ethel Mairet’s book here

Here My earlier blog about Mairet’s madder recipes

Here My blog on dyeing with lichens

Hilary Douglas Clark Pepler

Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft


 

Recipe report page 93, recipe 4: silk

PINK WITH COCHINEAL FOR WOOL

 12 gram silk skein supplied

Calculations were made at

10.4% alum

6% cochineal

12% cream of tartar

Method:

Cochineal ground finely in pestle and mortar.

Silk was washed, rinsed, and remained wetted out.

Mordanting was started cold so that the silk would not be entered at boiling point as the recipe requested (unwise for silk) but was raised to boiling over the period of an hour. It was held at boiling point for 50 minutes.

It would normally be my practice to allow the silk to cool in the mordant and rinse, but the recipe seemed specific about procedure as follows:

Then add 1lb. Cochineal and 5lbs cream of tartar

So I kept the silk in the very hot mordant liquid and added the cochineal and cream of tartar. The colour seemed to ‘take’ immediately and after half an hour the vat looked to be exhausted. The recipe suggests that items be left in the vat till the required colour is got . To obtain a lighter pink, this would have meant removing the yarn after a very short time in the vat which as far as I’m concerned isn’t very good practice. So, using this recipe, a lighter pink would be best obtained by reducing the percentage of dyestuff.

The colour in the sample therefore reflects the 6% of cochineal used.


 

Recipe report page 94, recipe 7: silk

VIOLET FOR WOOL

12 gram silk skein supplied

The following quantities used:

1.5 gr alum

.75 gr cochineal

Iron water as described below

Method:

Cochineal was ground finely in pestle and mortar. Silk was washed, rinsed, and remained wetted out.

No method was given for mordanting in the recipe. Mordanting was started cold and the vat raised to boiling over the period of an hour. It was held at boiling point for 50 minutes, as in my sample for the p. 93 recipe 4 sample. However, for this recipe I allowed the silk to cool in the mordant for several hours and then rinsed it. This is because the recipe seemed to separate the mordant and dye processes, unlike the p. 93 recipe.

Because there was no specific mention of cream of tartar in this recipe (and there was on p. 93), I did not use it in the mordant.

A clean vat was made with cold water and the cochineal added. The silk was entered into the vat and stirred: the colour ‘took’ quickly. The recipe states that the cochineal and iron should be added at the same time but I was reluctant to do this because I do not use ferrous sulphate. Instead I keep a jar of iron water, made with rusty nails, water and vinegar. This serves my dyeing purposes well but means that for this project I could not calculate what the recipe’s 1 oz solution of iron would represent in terms of iron water. I was therefore wary of adding too much too soon.

I therefore dyed the silk yarn for a full half hour, and the vat was exhausted. I added 1 ml iron water to the vat and after ten minutes there was an appreciable change in colour so I removed the yarn.

When the yarn had dried I decided it wasn’t ‘violet’ – or at least not violet enough. So I divided the skein into three equal parts, keeping the original colour as Skein 1. Skein 2 was wetted out, reintroduced into the vat with a further 1 ml iron water, and removed after ten minutes. Skein 3 was wetted out, and reintroduced into the vat with a further 2 mls iron water.

All skeins washed and rinsed to remove iron.

NOTE: The colour of the dyed silk prior to the addition of the iron was almost identical to the sample obtained for p. 93. The two sets of samples thus offer a good progression from pink through to violet and purple.

 Cochineal source The cochineal was sourced from Lanzarote.


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We Three Trees of Orient Are

Gum arabic

In the previous post I mentioned gum arabic. I vaguely thought it came from a tree but I don’t actually know much about it. Wikipedia’s entry here explains that it is known by many names, including acacia gum, which starts to give the game away. The trees concerned are Senegalia senegal and Vachellia seyal and Wikipedia continues, ‘The gum is harvested commercially from wild trees throughout the Sahel from Senegal to Somalia, although it has been historically cultivated in Arabia and West Asia.’

Frankincense 

Thanks to a generous travelling friend I have a small amount of two valuable resins which also come from trees: frankincense and myrrh. As precious gifts from kings at Bethlehem, frankincense and myrrh obviously predate Christianity. Frankincense (and myrrh) were consecrated incenses described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. It is worth reading Wikipedia’s explanation of the value and reverence in which frankincense was held.

The substance is tapped from varieties of tree, the Boswellia sacra being one. Over-exploitation of the  tree is contributing to a decline in population, as is the fact that seeds from tapped trees demonstrate lower germination rates.

Myrrh

The trees which are the primary source of myrrh are Commiphora myrrhaIn ancient Egypt and along with natron it was used for embalming mummies. Is this why the Christmas carol contains this rather glum verse?

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

Perhaps not, according to Sister Sarah’s Bible Bytes. Her explanation has a surprising take on myrrh – to those of us unfamiliar with Old Testament texts. Read versions of Esther 2:12 here.

Apart from playing its part in the narrative of the Christmas story, myrrh is still used is Eastern and Western Christian rites, including the sacraments of chrismation and unction.

Sources:

Wikipedia: frankincense, myrrh, gum arabic

Jewish Encyclopedia

Sister Sarah’s Bible Bytes

King James Bible Online


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Talking Orchil

Canterbury graveyard, 1960s sketchbook

Lichens in a Canterbury graveyard: from my 1960s sketchbook

In my last post I started to write about orchil, and how I became fascinated by its story through my researches on an eighteenth / nineteenth century Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive.

To start at the beginning, orchil (pronounced or-kil) comes from lichens. It has been used for millennia to dye wool and silk a purple colour. There is some confusion over ancient recipes for purple. It isn’t always possible to decipher which recipes refer to lichen and which to shellfish dyes. Both dyestuffs produce a remarkably similar colour, were to be found in the same areas (e.g. the Mediterranean coast) and descriptions of lichen are often a little vague. For instance, dyestuff might be referred to as a plant, or a moss, or a seaweed.

There is evidence (Pliny, Theophrastus, Dioscorides) that orchil was used in conjunction with shellfish purple and it’s a ready assumption that this was done  to defraud – which of course it may have been. The processing of orchil would have been significantly cheaper than for shellfish dye. But the combination was also undertaken to produce a legitimately cheaper alternative to pure shellfish-dyed cloth. Nevertheless, orchil and shellfish-dyed cloth seems regarded with disdain because of the great and unique reputation of shellfish purple, and orchil’s tendency to fade.

The beauty of fresh orchil on woollen yarn

The beauty of fresh orchil on woollen yarn

Orchil dye is extremely beautiful in its first, fresh bloom of colour but it normally proceeds to fade fast. It is therefore interesting to read a 2012 paper (link below) in which Casselman and Terada demonstrated that a combination of orchil and shellfish dye may in certain circumstances, stabilise the orchil. They also reported that the  use of orchil as a base dye would to some extent neutralise the intensely unpleasant odour of shellfish-dyed cloth. Those facts cast an entirely different light on the historic combination of orchil and shellfish dye.

It occurs to me that in more recent days, far from being ‘poor man’s purple’, orchil could have been considered a great luxury. If you could afford the rich glories of orchil-dyed silk, and these would be obvious to all by the colour, it might indicate one’s financial indifference to fading and the realities of a soon-spoiled garment.

Dye lichens

Not all lichens will dye, not all dye lichens will make orchil. Orchil-producing lichens (and there are innumerable species) contain precursors of the dye and to make this available the dyestuff must be crushed in ammonia or stale urine and water and then kept well-oxygenated. It undergoes a type of fermentation, and the purple colour develops over several weeks.

Orchil is very sensitive to changes in pH and by adjusting vat strength and acidity, a wide variety of colours can be achieved, ranging from browny reds to reds, pinks and purples.

Crotal / crottles

There are lichens that will dye rusty reds, browns and golds. They are often referred to as ‘crotal’, (a Gaelic word) or crottle, lichen. These require no fermentation and are normally boiled up together with fibre, yarn or cloth. They have been in traditional use in Scotland for centuries and the warm, earthy smell of crotal-dyed yarn is also a moth deterrent. But crotals are not orchils!

Mordants

Neither orchil nor crotal requires a mordant although some historical recipes recommend an alum mordant for orchil.

 

The Wood & Bedford Orchil Story

I found a vast number of items in the archive which related to the nineteenth and twentieth century trade in orchil. A couple of them can be seen in the previous post. The records defined several sources of orchil lichen. Around 1830 these included Scandinavia, Sardinia, the Azores, Madeira,  the Canary Islands and Cape Verde. Political changes and colonial interests affected trading in the later 1800s, as did the slave trade and, eventually, its abolition. A picture emerged of a voracious trade that reached an industrial and even global scale by the mid nineteenth century. There is a certain irony in the fact that stocks of what, in effect, is a non-renewable product were saved by the synthesis of mauveine by Perkin in 1856. The demand for lichen then dropped. Nevertheless, Wood & Bedford,  later the Yorkshire Dyeware and Chemical Company, continued to buy and process orchil lichen well into the twentieth century. I understand that the last unused lichen stocks went to Johnsons of Hendon who presumably used lichen to make their indicator papers.

Lichen ethics

You will see that I have learned to make orchil and to dye samples for research purposes but I don’t use it in my studio work. You can read some of my thoughts on lichen use here. I am extremely grateful to all those who taught me about making orchil and how to dye with it.

Pronunciation

How do you pronounce lichens? I say it to rhyme with kitchens. Most people and academics (ok, sorry, academics are also people)  say ‘likens’. The OED pronunciation makes it official: you can say it either way:
/ˈlʌɪk(ə)n, ˈlɪtʃ(ə)n/

References:

The Politics of Purple: Dyes from Shellfish and Lichens Karen Diadick Casselman and Takako Terada

Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science; Dominique Cardon, Archetype Publications

The Colourful Past: Origins, Chemistry and Identification of Natural Dyestuffs; Judith H. Hofenk de Graaff, Archetype Publications

Lichen Dyes: The New Sourcebook and Craft of the Dyer by Karen Diadick / Leigh Casselman

 


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Changing knowledge, changing attitudes: lichen dyeing

Because it looks like the inside tissue of human lungs, the lichen  Lobaria pulmonaria  (also known as Lungwort) was once commonly used in the treatment of chest infections. The historic rationale of using herbs that resemble parts of the body to treat illnesses of those parts of the body is called ‘the doctrine of signatures’. According to Wikipedia,  a theological justification was made for this philosophy in Christian European metaphysics: It was reasoned that the Almighty must have set his sign upon the various means of curing disease which he provided. The ‘signature’ on the plant was that of God, as a means of guiding the healer’s hand.

The substances in lichens used for both medicines and dye are normally acids; each lichen species can contain several types. The Wikipedia article (linked above) contains contemporary references to possible medicinal uses for  L. pulmonaria, which has indeed been found to have anti-inflammatory and ulcer-preventing properties. So, perhaps it did assist in the treatment of chest infections. When I was in Ecuador I saw usnea lichens sold  for the treatment of sore throats.

I took a serious interest in lichens when I began to study the orchil trade five years ago. You can read how it all came about here. Back then I joined a one-off lichen study walk, arranged by the local branch of the British Lichen Society (BLS). On the walk we were shown L. pulmonaria growing on just one ancient oak; the presence and abundance (or not) of this particular lichen is considered an indicator of forest age as it is normally found only in ancient woodland. It has been badly affected by habitat loss and pollution and according to Dominique Cardon, in many European countries it is a Red Data Book lichen.*  Those of us on the lichen walk were asked not to broadcast the precise location of this rare specimen, but as the BLS  Lobarion Interactive Map reveals L. pulmonaria  at Rosemoor, I can confirm that’s where I saw it – without incurring enduring wrath from the BLS.

In 1960, Eileen M. Bolton published a little handbook for handweavers called Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing.** The book is no less than a classic. It is scholarly from botanic and chemical perspective and it’s also beautiful. It is illustrated with Eileen Bolton’s carefully observed drawings and paintings with several lichens appearing on the same page along with snails, butterflies and curling fronds of ferns or flowers. Through these she shows a thorough knowledge, love and and respect for lichens, and her text includes comments relevant to the US as well as Europe. She makes no general statement on the wisdom and ethics of gathering lichen although she does advocate taking only a little of the L. pulmonaria ‘as it takes years to grow, and forestry operations are likely to make the plant even more scarce.’ She also refers to some species as being ‘less plentiful’.

In 1991 the book*** was reissued in the US due to the efforts of Karen Diadick Casselman. The fascinating story of Eileen Bolton, her family, and tracking down the copyright to her 1960 book, is told in the preface. I strongly recommend reading the preface but the whole book is available to read online here where you can also see Eileen Bolton’s illustrations. The re-issued book was updated to included the status of rare and potentially endangered lichens; L pulmonaria is noted to be endangered in Britain by 1991.

Ten years later, Karen Diadick Casselman’s 2001 book**** on lichen dyes is prefaced by two pages on the ethical approach to dyeing, a useful chapter  on ethics and identification, and an epilogue which briefly exposes some conflicting attitudes and raises questions that potential lichen dyers might consider. I would just add this: I have learned a little through  my contact with mycologists while researching orchil and one of these is the utter complexity of lichen reproduction. It still isn’t properly understood. It isn’t known that a ‘windfall’  lichen can no longer reproduce, or for how long it might reproduce once fallen.  Gathering windfall lichen seems less of a wise move than once it did unless you are actually rescuing it from the bonfire. I now place windfalls back into the crevices of trees.

Last but not least: the pronunciation issue

Is it lichens (to rhyme with kitchens) or lichens (sounds like likens)? I have always said lichens to rhyme with kitchens. Maybe it’s a generation thing in the UK. I am not sure about pronunciation in the US (I’d like to hear from you!) but I think the likens pronunciation is more common. At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where I have worked with mycologists, they also say ‘likens’. But they also say I am not wrong, and as I have no intention of changing at my age, that’s just as well.

Books referred to in this post

*Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science; Dominique Cardon; Archetype Publications; 2007; p 518-9

** Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing; Eileen M. Bolton; Studio Books 1960

*** Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing; Eileen M. Bolton; second edition edited by Karen Leigh Casselman and Julia Bolton Holloway; Robin and Russ Handweavers 1991

**** Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book; Karen Diadick Casselman; Dover Publications 2001