Isabella Whitworth

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


Even madder dyeing: Summer School, Carmarthen

The first task of the day was to devise a test sequence of Turkey Red dyeing in which a full solution of soaked and ground madder would be used to dye with, then the dyestuff re-ground and re-used to test the exhaust of each previous phase. It is expected that each phase will produce lighter tones than the last, but dyed cotton may also shift in colour as various chemicals are taken up in the dyeing at each stage. The four groups in the course undertook a stage of grinding and re-grinding, and then the cloth dyeing. At the end of the second day we are half way through this exercise. Each stage takes a while to complete.

The sheep-dunged cotton from yesterday was first worked in the oily emulsion prepared from olive oil and potassium carbonate. It was then divided up for the four dye stages.

While this exercise continued through the day, each group worked on recipes selected from Debbie’s suggested choices. My group completed dyeing silk according to a historic recipe (Haarlem Manuscript 281/1/1)  republished in Judith Hofenk de Graaf’s book The Colourful Past. The results were pale and salmony, not the ‘beautiful red’ we had hoped for. We must re-check calculations and compare results with another group using the same recipe.

The Jill Goodwin recipe we are using has turned out more successful. Madder had been soaked overnight with two tsps powdered chalk (calcium carbonate). This morning it was placed on the stove and over the period of an hour (and before the yarn was put in it) the temperature raised to a definitive ‘no more than 158F’.  Goodwin’s instructions are somewhat stern on temperature and I guarded it with a thermometer and my life. The dyebath developed  a very marked purple foam but in the wool yarn dyeing there was no shift from the expected madder shade. The yarn is resting in the cooled dyepot so I have no picture yet.

During the day a small group studied the water analyses brought in by students to accompany their 5 litre water samples. This revealed that the softest water comes from the water in my area, West Devon.

Tomorrow is a half day at Summer School and we off on a trip to the National Wool Museum at Dre-fach Felindre. At least, I think it’s there we’re going: my piece of paper doesn’t confirm the destination. No doubt we will find out when we get there. If it isn’t Dre-fach Felindre, it will be somewhere else.

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Carmarthen, Summer School and Turkey Red

I’m currently staying at Trinity St David’s College, Carmarthen, Wales, attending the Summer School of the Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. The course I am on is called Turkey Red and all that Madder and it’s being taught by Debbie Bamford.

There are 14 of us on Debbie’s course  (about 16 textile courses are running concurrently) and she has selected a number of madder recipes for us to try during the week. Because we can divide into small groups, we can prepare several recipes, adjust elements of the instructions, compare results and dye using water from different areas of the country. This ties in neatly with work I’ve been doing with Jane Deane at Leewood. 

We are using several historic madder recipes for wool and silk, including one from the 1548 Plictho of Gioanventura Rosetti and another from the late Jill Goodwin’s A Dyer’s Manual. What’s even more exciting is that we are going to dye Turkey Red. This method of dyeing cotton is very lengthy, requiring a number of separate processes which may involve many days’ airing between each.  I have always wanted to know more about it. Natural dyes are often reluctant to bond to cellulose fibres and the success of the complex and lengthy Turkey Red recipe is legendary.  As the course only lasts a week,  Debbie has prepared cotton in stages, ready for us to participate in all the preparations for dyeing Turkey Red.

Today, as the first stage, she presented us with a metre of cloth scoured and ready for the first process which involved fresh sheep dung.  Debbie has not brought us the sheep intestines which would have made it truly authentic. Shame on her.

The dung was squeezed and dissolved in water, then filtered through a cloth.  The cotton was then agitated in the fluid and allowed to soak.

More about madder and Carmarthen as the week goes on. You can follow other Summer School participants on Twitter using the hashtag #wsdsschool


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.


New toys, no time to play

Last week I took one of my regular looks at Jenny Dean’s website Wild Colour. Jenny is an authority on natural dyes and author of several practical books on the subject.  I respect her work and long experience and her website invariably includes something new and interesting.  Her book Wild Colour was reprinted by Mitchell Beazley in 2010 with updates and revisions – and I wouldn’t be without it.

Jenny’s entry for January 8th 2013 was about a set of natural dye extracts in liquid form. They are called Aquarelle, they are from Botanical Colors and certified compliant with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Jenny’s images show colours on wool yarn and silk fabric; some are mordanted and some are not. The colours look very good, especially on the wool, although the silk looks paler.

Twitter was then tweeted to see if any dyehards had experience of Aquarelle. Positive input arrived from several people including  Jane Deane  (no relation to Jenny and note the different spelling!) who tested the dyes last year. Jane probably told me all about them then, but I’m afraid I had forgotten.

I have used raw dyestuffs or powder extracts, but never a liquid extract which might suit my work better so I ordered a set of dyes which arrived yesterday. There is only one stockist in the UK, as far as I know, and that is D.T Crafts who import the dyes from the States. Unfortunately I just don’t have the time to try them out at the moment, so I took a photo instead.

A satisfying way of combining natural dyes with wax resist continues to be a challenge for me.  I am at my most confident when designs originate in a drawing or sketchbook study and gradually evolve into an image, a texture or an arrangement of shapes, defined by wax as a resist. The original drawing drives me onwards through several incarnations of an idea, although I occasionally fizzle out, exhausted or bored when something doesn’t merit further exploration.  Synthetic dyes are my medium for this type of work; they are painted on in layers alternating with the wax, and then steamed. They go where they are put, they stay there, the overdyes are predictable and they don’t change colour. It’s not at all like that with natural dyes, which, of course, is part of their allure.

Natural dyes normally require heat, and heat melts the wax, so there is an instant difficulty with the natural dye / wax technique. Each separate dye requires individual handling and the colour may not turn out the same as the last time you used it. One dye can affect another, unexpectedly altering a colour or tone and overdyes aren’t always predictable. The timing of the indigo layer is crucial, as is mordanting. I have achieved a few pieces that I am happy with and these can be seen in the gallery section, and above. The central piece suffered from too much alkali in the indigo vat and the silk went harsh. That’s yet another problem with the technique.

I will certainly be posting on the results of work with Aquarelle when I  have time to try them out.


Mud on the dog, blood on the ropes

The mud? Our snowflake melted, the moor is waterlogged, ditches and streams are overflowing, and although water is trying to flow downhill, it has to queue up and wait its turn. Water has nowhere left to go. The dog ploughs happily through it all, acquiring an abstract expressionist look to her fur. The final dog walk event nearing home must be in the ditch we call the Dog Wash.

Damp in the Devon air oozes into cob, thatch, wood  and stone. I am a church bell ringer and it also oozes into the bell ropes if they are not kept dry between ringing sessions. We have an extraordinary system to keep our ropes dry in the main tower – ropes are held within a large tube and a piano heater placed inside. But we ring in other places where there is no heat available.  Damp ropes become hard and tight and they also shorten in length. It makes them particularly hard to ring and is wicked on the hands, often resulting in blisters and friction burns – hence occasional drawn blood.  We had a long practice session on Saturday and I scored a four-plaster pair of hands this morning. Later, during the day’s ritual dog-mudding, I wondered what fibre is used for bell ropes.

These two quotes are from the website of Mendip Ropemakers Ltd

Flax has become the most widely used natural fibre for Church bell ropes. Flax is widely available at a reasonable price but the quality can vary depending on a wet or dry harvest. Flax is hard wearing and soft to handle. It is liable to absorb moisture and stiffens in damp or humid conditions. Longer ropes can change in length as a result of wet & dry weather.

Hemp is the traditional material for bell ropes. It is a superior quality of natural fibre rope, giving greater strength and abrasion qualities. Hemp is not as readily available as flax and is therefore more expensive. Hemp rope may seem a little hard on the hands initially, but softens with use. Hemp is also liable to absorb moisture and stiffens in damp or humid conditions. Longer ropes can change in length as a result of wet & dry weather.

There are several companies that make ropes, among them Ellis Bell Ropes in Leicestershire whose site shows how the sallies are made, by inserting coloured wool into the rope. The sallies are the tufted lengths which ringers grip while ringing; you can see some of them in the images above. They are often striped, which makes it easier to see them whizz up and down in dark bell towers.

Man-made fibres are also used: I saw references to pre-stretched polyester and something called Dyneema which is a ‘polyethylene core shrouded with a polyester sheave’. You can also buy combination ropes, where the bottom of the rope is flax and the top of man-made fibre.

Why do I ring? I enjoy being part of a team following an ancient tradition. I love old churches, and ringing in different places gives me the opportunity to climb towers. And, crusty old cynic that I am, I enjoy the ceremony, celebration and hope signified by a wedding and the theatrical moment when a peal of bells announces the emergence of the newly-married couple into the daylight. In our small town, there is normally a large crowd waiting.