Isabella Whitworth

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


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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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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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Shibori, sheep and the power of six

Last week I tutored a day-course in shibori techniques at Ardington School of Crafts. Ardington is a village on the edge of the Berkshire Downs. The venue is housed in a Victorian school, and its large windows ensure good light at all times. It has been imaginatively and calmly adapted for its current incarnation as a craft school and overlooks a traditional English landscape of farmland and trees. This week, with fine weather and leaves at the multiple-greens stage, everything looked at its best.

Students were introduced to the basic principles of shibori and how patterns will build in the fabric through what is a mathematical logic of repeating folds and layers. We worked principally with the equilateral triangular fold which creates hexagon-based patterns through its geometry of six equilateral triangles. I prepared a set of triangular card units showing how this repeat principle works. The positioning (and shape) of the clamped and identical wooden blocks either side of the folded fabric is represented by the white areas in my patterns. The clamping inhibits the flow of dye through the fabric. The wood blocks can be any shape – there is a pattern created by the green-painted triangular blocks below – and placed in any practical position. Block position will dictate the basics of the pattern. You can see from the image (below right) that the blocks do not necessarily prevent dye from entering the fabric beneath the clamped area. They just affect the character of the final pattern which is based on dye dilutions, deliberate drying of work, overdyeing etc.

Students ironed vertical folds in a scarf length and converted the strip to a stack of triangular folds. They checked the wood blocks and protected them with new clingfilm. This enables a clean start each time the blocks are used: wood absorbs dye readily and will mark  work that follows. I advise beginners to work with three colours only, plus dilutant, to avoid shades of mud. Some students admitted they had been sceptical that their seemingly random application of dye would create something so ordered and I think all were pleased with their results.

Below, you can see me opening up the steamer. This has to be done with considerable care, hence the somewhat stressed expression. You can see the roll of paper and scarves, which has been protected with foil at top and bottom to prevent drips entering the folds and spoiling the work. Note that the top piece of foil was dislodged as I lifted the chamber from the boiler.

Many thanks to the students for allowing me to post these pictures and to Faith at Ardington for taking the photos.

Other news: On Thursday 13th June, Jane Deane and I will be working on our dye research at Leewood for the final open-to-the-public time. We haven’t finished our research, but from Thursday on you can’t come to watch us. To check on details, see here.

With shearing time in Devon arriving, local flocks are looking cooler and in the summer-ish sun my nest of mason bees (Osmia) is hyperactive. The bees don’t make honeycombs (that’s another hexagon-based subject) but are laying eggs in the tubes and sealing them in various shades of Devon clay. We are lucky to have culm meadow locally which is filling with textured grasses in some summer sun. But tomorrow it is going to rain.


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Madder and goats at Leewood

This week Jane Deane and I continued our research into natural dyes on fleece, working at Leewood in the Dartmoor National Park. On our last session we used weld: this time we dyed with madder.

We have chosen to use natural dye extracts to begin with as these have greater consistency in colour from batch to batch. At the moment our research isn’t so much about finding answers as knowing which questions to ask.  We realise we may need to retest the whole sequence of five dyes using raw dyestuff,  different water, altered mordant proportion etc.

Here are images from the day’s work showing how colour developed, the colour on fleece and the jars at the end of the session.

The sessions at Leewood are open to the public and yesterday we welcomed two visitors, one of whom was Robin Paris. Robin is a well-known and respected local batik artist whose concerns with sustainability have also led her to research the use of natural dyes with wax. You can read about this part of her work work here. Robin works mostly on cotton, a cellulose fibre, and because of this some of the problems she faces are different to mine using silk or wool, which are proteins. But there are also several common issues. I wrote here about some of them.

In May we will be working on cochineal at Leewood. We have had to change our published date of 16th May and this will be updated on my Leewood page as soon as it is confirmed.

The Leewood goats and  kids formed the cabaret as dye-day lengthened: goats are definitely madder than most animals.


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Calculating cochineal: using Lanzarote dyestuff

The historical dye research Jane Deane and I are working on at Leewood (see previous post) involves comparing ‘like with like’. For the initial weld research we used a stock solution of weld extract and divided it equally into five separate jars to dye samples of five fleece types.

Last year I undertook a dye costing with a stock solution. It was for a Somerset-based company called The Woolly Shepherd which promotes the sustainable use of wool, particularly waste fleece that would normally be thrown away. It is producing  needle-felted insulation materials, horticultural products and acoustic panels and also sells a range of small items such as wine coolers and phone covers.

The Woolly Shepherd’s felt is a darkish grey overall, being a mixture of several fleece colours and thus far they had sold all their products undyed. The company asked me to find out if its felt could be natural-dyed to achieve a certain shade of dark pink. It had obtained a sample dyed pink with synthetic dyes and I offered to try to match it as nearly as possible using cochineal, and in such a way that a costing for natural dyes plus the dyeing process could be calculated.

Dye calculations are normally made on percentage of dyestuff to fibre, yarn or fabric, so I needed to work with a known weight of dry felt and a known weight of cochineal. By increasing the amount of measured dyestuff in a sequence of individual vats, I planned to dye a set of samples to calculate a percentage weight of dye to weight of felt. Cutting a precise weight of thick felt has ‘pound of flesh’ Merchant of Venice connotations. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. In the end I cut a piece that was slightly too heavy and then sliced pieces off the side so that I was working with a 200 g weight. I cut this into four so I could work with 50 g samples.

All the felt was mordanted in alum and cream of tartar. I used 12% alum and 8% cream of tartar – although I normally use less. The wool smelled so strongly of lanolin that I wasn’t sure if it had been sufficiently scoured for dyeing, so I erred on the side of a stronger mordant.

Because working with very small weights of ground cochineal is extremely fiddly I made a stock solution.

I used Lanzarote cochineal for The Woolly Shepherd project. Some time ago I undertook quality tests for the  Asociación Milana, found their cochineal to be excellent and I continue to use it.

I ground 50 g dried cochineal to fine powder and tied it firmly  into a silk gauze bag. This helped prevent cochineal fragments entering the dye and avoided the need to strain the dyestuff. The bag was put into a stainless steel vessel with about 500 ml water and heated to simmer point (80C) for about 10 minutes. The decocted liquor was decanted into a container. Repeats of this process followed until there was hardly any colour coming out of the bag. The series of decoctions made up a stock solution of 50 g cochineal in 4 litres of water.

I calculated that I could draw off the equivalent of 1 g cochineal in each 80 ml of water  – if I kept the solution swirling while decanting so that it would be well-mixed.

The dyeing was fairly straightforward although I had an initial panic with the first sample: it appeared that the dye was not ‘taking’. Was the wool too greasy? But after the first half hour I saw the felt begin to turn pink. I slowly raised the temperature to 80C and held it for an hour, then allowed it to cool and sit overnight before rinsing. The colour was nearly exhausted in the vat after the long soak. I prepared three samples starting with a 4% proportion of dye to fibre and then increasing the percentage. With the felt being grey, the dye was always having to work against the base colour and in the end the percentage of dyestuff required for the dark pink was higher than I anticipated.

In a spirit of pessimistic self-knowledge I noted precise quantities, weights, times and individual calculations in my dye notebook. If my actual calculations were later found to be faulty (not uncommon with my maths), I could still make sense of the dyed samples because the maths could be reworked.

When undertaking my research into orchil I’ve studied historical dye notebooks, invoices, orders and the occasional sniffy nineteenth century letter of complaint. A high standard of colour accuracy was expected of past dyemakers by their clients. My exercise with cochineal gave me a small insight into how consistent results, competitive purchase and selling prices were achieved, using natural materials which can vary in quality.

Then as now, good results would depend on careful note-taking, accurate calculations, rigorously consistent dyeing and efficient retention of standard dyed samples.

The Woolly Shepherd: http://www.woollyshepherd.co.uk/

Asociación Milana http://www.tinamala.com

A version of this article was first published in the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, Issue 242, Summer 2012, pp 24 – 25


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Historical Dyeing at Leewood

Over the next few months I am working on a set of historical dye experiments at Leewood in the Dartmoor National Park with friend and colleague Jane Deane. Leewood is a beautiful 30 acre smallholding in the Dartmoor National Park owned by artist Nick Viney. It is set on the bank of the river Walkham with water-meadows and ancient woodland, and offers a versatile environment for events, creative study and sustainable (but definitely comfortable!) camping. You can see Leewood’s website here.

Jane and I are conducting a set of detailed dye experiments at Leewood using traditional dye recipes and several varieties of fleece. Using the dyes of woad, indigo, cochineal, madder and weld we are comparing amounts of dye absorbed by individual fleeces. This information will be of interest to contemporary makers and textile conservators. It will be a long project which could run into a second year so any conclusions will be arrived at slowly.

We did a starter session with weld earlier this month.

Our weld session left us with rather more questions than it answered, but we are on our way. The sessions at Leewood are open to visitors – although we may politely ask them to stop asking questions from time to time while we struggle with the maths, at which neither of us excels.

The next session is on April 11th, and we will be using madder.


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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