Isabella Whitworth

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


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AGWSD Summer School 2015

There is a lot to say about Summer School and I’m short of time, so pictures will have to do their ‘thousand words’ thing. But here’s a quick summary. The Summer School of the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers (AGWSD) takes place every two years, in a different location. (If you want to know about the AGWSD, follow the link at the bottom of the post).

This year we convened at Moreton Morrell, at an agricultural college in Warwickshire not far from Stratford-upon-Avon. The arrangements for the 17 courses were immaculately prepared by the organisers, although some tutors and students faced various challenges in their allotted teaching spaces. In mine, for instance, wooden wall panels had been fitted to cover walls, and the holes in them had been cut too small to allow a plug into the sockets behind. As we were working in the joinery department, this caused considerable merriment, and resulted in creative arrangements of extension leads – the admiration of all knitters at Summer School. I should add that the department staff came to cut the panel holes larger and were more than helpful.

The intensely blue floor was an unexpectedly complicated colour distraction when working on sheer scarves stretched flat. It was hard to see the true colours of the dyes. Needing somewhere to hang drying work, I searched in vain in the workroom for suitable points to fix a line. Eventually a group of rebels set up a washing line, trespassing into the stables (no, no horses, just heaps of old chairs).

The course

I taught two identical courses on wax resist which ran back-to-back, and lasted two-and-a-half days each. These short courses, taught by several of the tutors, were designed so that students could follow two sets of studies in the week, and allow the possibility of a shorter stay. I have to admit that as an ageing tutor I found the two-course arrangement tiring. It demanded two inputs of ‘startup’ energy in an already exhausting week: on the plus side it meant that I could teach 20 students, not just 10.

Students used a range of traditional tools such as Indonesian tjantings, Ukrainian kystkas, Japanese ro-fude brushes and a Gambian tool made of a handle wound with copper wire. I also brought a motley crew of household brushes, kitchen forks, tractor washers, odd bits of wire and wood which were used to dip into the wax to make marks on the fabric. Students then dyed the fabric surface and built up the work up layer by layer.

The students rose to all manner of challenges, whether creative, personal, age, or health-related, as I realised from the ‘thank you’ card given to me at the end. Their work was inspired and inspiring, many tackling creative dyeing for the first time and declaring themselves somewhat anxious at the beginning. Teaching a few students who already had some experience was good for the group, allowing beginners to see more developed work and to talk through techniques and ideas. I was delighted to re-meet one student I first taught 17 years ago, and see how her work has developed.

The Summer School organisers faced considerable challenges with the demands made on them by the premises and some of the students, dealing with them with patience and grace. They had set up a full après-teach programme to keep us all out of trouble when darkness fell. Our Monday evening talk was given by Association President Jenny Balfour Paul with characteristic enthusiasm and energy. She outlined her travels with indigo, and how it led to writing her recently-published book Deeper than Indigo. Jenny gave a further day of her time to visit all studios and courses the next day, engaging with students and their work.

Jenny

Jenny Balfour Paul addresses students at the Summer School

There were tours (I went to RSC Stratford); a Silent Auction; barbecues; a hog roast; a fashion show, a Trade Fair; and a Fifties party to celebrate the Association’s 60th year. Students stayed up into the wee hours to make Fifties outfits and fascinators. I’m afraid I was too tired to join in the fun and went to bed unfascinatored.

My thanks to all hard-working Summer School organisers, particularly Chris, plus the support team whose names I do not necessarily know. And thanks to my students, for their trust, good humour, co-operation and enthusiasm. Please look at Katie’s blog, linked below, for a student’s view of my course (and the Rigid Heddle course taught by Dawn Willey) at this year’s Summer School. You can see Katie in the images above, painting the four panels. She based them on the Four Seasons.

Links

Hilltop Katie’s blog about her experience of Summer School here

For an overview of Summer School plus a Storify read her account here

Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers website here

The Journal of the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers here

Deeper than Indigo website here


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Harvesting Japanese indigo

photo

Blue stains which developed after rubbing Japanese indigo leaves onto paper

I planted out my Japanese indigo (Persicaria tinctoria) several weeks ago, having grown it all from seed. This week I picked some leaves and rubbed them on the page of my sketchbook to see if any blue appeared. It did (ignore the buff coloured stain to the left of the image, which is nothing to do with it). From this I knew that I could make a vat from the crop.

I began by picking half a bucketful and testing it as a small vat. I achieved a very good blue, which was used to overdue some cochineal-dyed scarves I had shibori-tied ready and waiting. You can see the result in the gallery below.

On the second vat I used a whole bucketful of leaves, rammed down hard. I just pick the tips, like tea: not the whole stalk. I sometimes weigh the leaves before processing but the material was wet after rain and there didn’t seem much point. I don’t always strip the leaves from stalks either, so a known dry weight is somewhat academic because the stalks don’t, as far as I know, produce any colouring matter.

On the day I dyed the second bucket I live-tweeted the various stages with images and received a good response. I think more and more people are trying to grow, and dye with, their own indigo.

With colleague Christina Chisholm I co-authored a piece on growing and using Japanese indigo for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in 2011. It was a free download and you can still access it here so I don’t have to write it all out again. We included some information on growing the plant in two distinct climates (Devon and north east Scotland). Christina has much more experience with dyeing wool, so fibre dyers might find her comments useful. If I were to be able to edit the article I’d make a couple of additions / amendments: 

1. I have since found that I don’t always see a blue froth when I whisk up the strained dye bath. Instead, the sherry-coloured liquid darkens and looks greener – but the froth is often colourless. Why? No idea. These days I have stopped using soda crystals and use washing soda instead. Maybe that’s the reason. 

2. I have found that leaves are often ready whether or not they have the red/blue tinge shown in the Journal download document. What I have heard since (but don’t know if it’s true) is that you need to use the leaves before the plant produces flowers.  

3. I try to encourage flowers for seeds each year and there is some urgency about this as in the UK the plants die with the first big frost. I mark a few vigorous stalks early on by tying a conspicuous ribbon round each one. Then I can’t pick them by mistake. I let these stalks develop flowers as early as possible.


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The Journal and a few bossy leaves

I’ve recently been up to London to the first Journal meeting of 2014. Whatever time of the year, this long day trip involves a very early start to drive to the station and travel up to London. We start at 11 am and the whole day, even lunch, forms a meeting to discuss Journal matters and plan forthcoming issues. On the chime of 4 pm the meeting ends and the room empties so swiftly you’d think we were all going to turn into pumpkins.  Members disappear to catch their trains – and occasionally, their planes. There is a great intensity to Journal meeting days, quite a few biscuits are eaten and sometimes it’s a bit frustrating. One has the day-long company of interesting textile-y people with whom one exchanges no more than a sentence or two of nothing-to-do-with-Journal conversation. But that’s the way it is. We are all volunteers giving time for a registered charity / organisation and we keep our expenses to a minimum: most of us are able to complete our round-trip to London within the day. If  you don’t know the Journal, have a look at the website.

Australian Journey: Leaves at Katherine

Australian Journey: Leaves at Katherine

Back at home I have been working on a new piece of wax-resist work which started off with one idea in mind but was intruded on, in a most impolite and insistent way, by the shapes of eucalyptus leaves. The direction of the work (and my hand) changed totally. It’s weird when this happens and is, I assume, a luxury not open to certain types of craft work such as weaving, which require more advance planning.

I’m not sure whether the bossy leaves idea will work, but I have dewaxed the silk and it will go into the steamer this week, along with several shibori scarves of a – thankfully – more compliant nature. Then I will creep up on the leaf-piece and see if it’s any good.

This new work is part of the series I call Australian Journey because the designs are based on colours, shapes and ideas from our trip to Western Australia in 2012. There is a bit more about it here and you can find other posts and images by clicking the Australian Journey link in the tag cloud.


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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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Head-switching

I’m crunching a lot of words these days. As a voluntary editor for the Journal of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers I normally spend at least part of my day reading and commenting on articles, corresponding with authors, checking facts and figures, proofreading or generally nitpicking. I happen to care about commas, colons and how to spell practise. (If it’s a verb, use an ‘s’. That’s if you’re British).

Writing up part of the co-authored DHA paper from La Rochelle (see previous post) is also a priority and it’s a lengthy task which may stretch to several thousand words.

My main computer is in the studio and it’s here that Journal, editorial and some research work happens. The studio is also where I keep dyes, brushes, wax pots, frames and silks. Theoretically it’s the place I make things too – but studio work has suffered heavily over the past months from the quantity of research and editorial commitments.  I consider everything I do absorbing, but there is only one of me.  And there’s the question of changing heads.

From art college training I realised, and perhaps learned, the intense concentration needed to draw or paint. If I have to interrupt work on a drawing or experimental textile, creative thought-trains chuff-chuff deep into irretrievable tunnels by the time I get back, and I lose the metaphorical plot, as has this sentence. Essentially, I find it intensely frustrating to be interrupted when I’m working on something new.

With an established design, it isn’t so difficult as it’s only half new. Sometimes I can change heads from the particular analytical demands of editing, and work on a  textile. I know what I’m aiming at, and although each textile is unique it’s like being guided by written music. Instructions have been established; technique and interpretation are what matter.

This week I’ve been constantly switching heads. I’ve been editing articles on shipwreck dye cargoes, medieval woad vats, or working on the history of a Leeds dye manufacturer: then I migrate two metres to wax pot, silk, frames, dyes and an established design theme. In three paces I unscrew Nitpick Ed-Head and replace it with Agent Zig-Zag. Zig-Zag, because that’s the design I’m working on this week.

I can’t always do this head-switching lark. I can’t always manage to ban the activity I’m not doing from my thoughts, and then nothing works at all. But this week it’s going OK.


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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.


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We have Turkey Red

Not the final day of the course, but the final day of dyeing.  We have been through all the processes used in dyeing Turkey Red through a long sequence of carefully managed samples prepared by tutor Deb Bamford. Today we dyed the final stage. The temperature of the dyepot was raised and maintained and the prepared fabric was immersed, with one of the group stirring it continuously.

Turkey Red

Turkey Red

At the end of the dye period, we lifted the cotton from the pot. We had achieved a good, characteristic, Turkey Red. 

Various experiments and variations continued in the room and explanations and notes added to ‘the wall’.

Tomorrow is the last day and for tutors and students, it finishes at noon. For our course, the morning will be spent sorting and sharing samples and  clarifying processes.

Deb Bamford is highly organised; if she hadn’t been, this intensely complex course could have descended to chaos and dyeing mightn’t have been completed accurately, safely, or at all. Deb explained everything clearly and directly; she really knows her stuff. The student group has been pleasant, co-operative and multi-skilled, which has added to an enjoyable (and valuable) week.

The Trade Fair opened at the Summer School this afternoon with stands selling spinning and weaving equipment, yarns, books, fabrics and trimmings. I helped set up the stand for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers for which I work as a volunteer editor.

Tomorrow classrooms and the Trade Fair are open to the public. In the evening there is a Gala Dinner with a speaker, and then it will be time to pack up and go home.

Two unrelated observations: it has been a great luxury to be on a course as a student and not a tutor, but it’s peculiar that I am more tired this way round.

The other is that they have some mighty fierce mosquitoes in Wales. I had hoped there was an interesting word for mosquito in Welsh, but it seems it’s mosgito. Oh.