Isabella Whitworth

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


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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

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Learning the ropes: learning methods

One of my first posts on this blog included a reference to bellringing.  If you live outside the UK you may know nothing of the ancient tradition of church ringing which seems to have started in England at an uncertain date, but was well established by the 1600s. It spread to the English-speaking world, but not to continental Europe. Bells are rung in sequences of ‘changes’. They start in rounds (ringing down from the highest bell to the lowest). Then, bells swap places in the sequence. This can be done any number of ways, but always ends up in rounds. It requires control, co-ordination and concentration. The changes are normally called out for ringers to follow, so they are not feats of memory.

These ‘changes’ are what I have learned for about four years but recently we started to learn a different system, called ‘method ringing’. Bells are rung in a sequence but the patterns or order of ringing must be memorised and executed by the ringers – once they are experienced.

If you have followed some of my Leewood posts you’ll have read that I have problems with numbers and maths. I recognise the mathematics of patterns, but experience a debilitating sense of panic when urgently or publicly required to do a sum, follow a numerical sequence or hold a set of numbers in my head. Method ringing is therefore a real challenge. An entire community of over 1,000 people can hear my every mistake.  I have tried to take in the information I need in several ways and this involves learning a sequence of numbers (not so hard for me, but apparently not a good way to learn methods) or writing them out on paper. Then I found a method-teaching explanation describing the pattern changes as a kind of ‘plaiting’. Plaiting or braiding comes from a world I understand, so I thought I’d apply textile tech to bell tech and see where it got me.

It was very interesting. I used dyed string (prepared for braiding workshops I taught in Wales 13 years ago). There was a different colour for each of the six bells rung in learning a beginners’ sequence called ‘Plain Hunt.’ Here the bells move along one place in the sequence but more than one bell may be doing it concurrently. So it isn’t just a case of swapping to the next number in logical sequence because it too may have swapped…. Bring on the debilitating panic.

The image shows what I did with my string. In the right hand sample if you follow a particular colour it travels along one step at a time and remains on the outer edge for two rows, before travelling back the opposite way and returning to its starting position. On the left hand sample, ignore the thick yellow string on the outside right and just look at the sequence to its left.

I certainly find it easier to ‘see’ the ringing patterns by visualising it this way. Removing the scary numbers helps. But I take issue with the description of its being ‘plaiting’ or ‘braiding’ in the method-teaching instructions. To me, a plait or a braid has every change or sequence held in position by the previous one. In the samples above it is impossible to hold the sequence changes in place without the addition of a ‘weft thread’ in the form of a cocktail stick.

Merry postscript: I learned while checking bell facts that that when Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded in1587 the parish of St Margaret’s, Westminster, paid ringers 1 shilling per head to ring out in rejoicing. That is a mighty sum.

Following on from a Welsh mention, I am off to the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Summer School at Carmarthen next week. I am thoroughly looking forward to attending as a student rather than as a tutor for a change and to meeting  Journal colleagues, old friends and students from past years. I will be on Deb Bamford’s course (Deb is The Mulberry Dyer) called Turkey Red and all that Madder. Deb has asked us to take 5 litres of tap water, and to obtain a water analysis from our water supplier. I didn’t know, until she told us, that the water supplier is legally obliged to supply this without charge. Mine finally arrived last week.

I am hoping to blog from the Summer School and will now need to reacquaint myself with the Blogsy app I have on my iPad. It worked very well in Australia last year when we created our travelling blog.


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BB1: Historical Dyeing at Leewood

June was my busiest month for a very long time. Work continued on the historical dye project at Leewood, I taught three courses including three sessions of 90 minute workshops plus demonstrating at West Dean over a weekend, sat on an exhibition selection committee and enjoyed a family visit. As a result I am so behind with blog posts that I need to tackle them in Blog-Bites (BBs) or I’ll give up before I start.

So. BB1 is about the final ‘public’ day of historical dyeing at Leewood which I have been working on with friend and colleague Jane Deane. If you want to see what it’s all been about, click here. After this exploratory phase we’ve concluded that we can focus on what we believe is affecting dyes and fleeces. There are certainly differences in dye take-up although they are so far unpredictable across the range of dyes and fleeces. We think we are onto something interesting, which came as a result of the intially frustrating and unpromising day using cochineal in May.

An effective and foolproof  method of collating, labelling and notekeeping has developed as the project has progressed so that we can remember precisely what we did from one session to another and compare results. Each fibre sample is individually labelled and kept in a (similarly labelled) transparent bag. This allows the contents to be viewed without always needing to remove and handle them.

We had intended to run our last day using indigo or woad, but as a result of the cochineal experience decided to repeat three dyes on the same day, but using different water sources. To create conditions as near identical as possible, we made a stock dye solution and divided it equally into jars containing an equal weight of dry fibre. By putting the jars into a bain-marie we kept dyeing conditions the same for all jars.

Our public dye-days have run since March and we have welcomed a number of visitors. The work will now continue privately at Leewood and we’ll no longer suffer the humiliation of ‘maths in public’, at which neither of us excels. Our final day in June was the most busy, with eight visitors (we can count ok provided we have sufficient fingers between us) crammed into the studio workshop. We are grateful to all who braved the creative weather to visit, ask questions and learn about natural dyes.


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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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Surprised at Leewood: dyeing with cochineal

Dyeing at Leewood: If you have been following for a while, you’ll know that Jane Deane and I are researching natural dyes on five different fleeces, initially using four dyes. The  four dye-days were / are open to to the public. Visitors can watch, ask questions, and howl at our inability to do basic maths without recourse to endless bits of paper and the assistance of passing goats.

We are dyeing at Leewood, a smallholding on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. So far we’ve worked with weld and madder; this week it was cochineal. We used raw dyestuff  and there is a post on preparing a stock solution of Lanzarote cochineal here. At Leewood we decided to use Mexican cochineal rather than Lanzarote. Why?

Mexican dyestuff  is reputed to be stronger but is more suited to the historical aspect of our interests. It also has a significant local connection.  Lanzarote cochineal arrived on the natural dye scene in about 1830, which is relatively late in terms of pre-synthetic dyes. Our dyestuff was a gift from a friend, who had obtained it while in Mexico from Rancho Tlapanochestli, Oaxaca. If you are reading, thank you, Ana.

A brief history lesson: When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, Hernán Cortés heard of the existence of nocheztli, or grana, which the Aztecs used for a rich, red dye. Recognising its efficiency compared to insect dyes available in Europe (eg: kermes, St John’s Blood, Armenian Red), specimens were sent to Spain in the 1520s. The Spanish monopolised the dye, so it rapidly became a great prize to pirates of all nations. A fabled English ‘pirate’ of the age was a Devon boy, Sir Francis Drake, sometimes known as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s chief pirate’. He was born in Tavistock, a few miles from Leewood. You can see Sir Francis, probably dressed in cochineal-dyed garments, in this portrait from the National Gallery.

What happened: Neither Jane nor I consider ourselves novices, but we were taken aback by our first batch of cochineal dyeing this week. Using our normal water source and mordant we failed to produce  colour on any one of five fleeces after around two hours’ dyeing in the jars. The dye ‘baths’ had turned from red to purple but the fleeces were virtually undyed.

Resourceful Jane suggested a different water source and we started a second batch.  That resulted in almost instant dyeing –  and the expected cochineal red. Why? We have absolutely no idea. We aren’t working in a laboratory so can’t analyse the water content of the original source which clearly had some vital part to play. But we take notes on pH, temperature, quantity etc and all the fleeces are dyed from the identical mordant and dye solution. It is the nearest we can get to comparing like with like.

The final surprise was that the initial batch, at first so reluctant to dye, did after four hours pick up very pale colour. This varied most from fleece to fleece of any of the three dyes we have tried. Why again? No idea.

Instead of working with indigo for our final ‘public’ day we are going to retest some of the dyes, comparing water sources.  To find out more about the final ‘open’ day or how to find Leewood, see this page.

Book: For a really interesting read on the history of cochineal I recommend A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield. My own copy is published by Black Swan (2006).


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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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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.