Isabella Whitworth

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


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Getting to Blue

In my last blog A Purple Pursuit, I wrote about Browning’s Popularity, in which he referred to shellfish dye in a complex poem on inspiration, skill and genius. What I didn’t say, but others wisely pointed out, was the oddity of Browning referring to the dye as blue throughout the poem. Shellfish dye (from the ‘Tyrian shells’) is quite definitely purple and the colour, history and source of Imperial Purple were well known in Browning’s time. So, why blue?

Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes

Whereof one drop worked miracles,
And coloured like Astarte’s eyes
Raw silk the merchant sells?

I scratched around many sources but failed to find a historical reference, or image, defining Astarte’s eyes as blue. Maybe I have missed something. But the Resident Poetry Advisor says that Browning was more than capable of implying non-existent references, or even inventing them. This seems most perverse, but Browning was a poet and that’s the kind of thing poets do.

indigo

Author’s indigo-dyed wool yarn, using increasing vat strength

Putting Browning firmly aside, I happened across a reference to William Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Gladstone (1809 – 1908) was a British Liberal politician, three times Prime Minister, living at a time when politicians digested more than soundbites.

Gladstone studied the Iliad page by page, and as he did so he recorded the occurrence of words for colour. What he noticed was rather remarkable. He came across much mention of black, some white, less red, very little yellow, tiny amounts of green…but no blue. Was Homer ‘colourblind’, or unable to perceive colours? Were all Greeks the same, and their perception of colours (and the words to describe them) inherited, building over several generations? It left me wondering whether Astarte’s eyes could have been blue if there wasn’t yet a word for it, which was a head-spinning prospect.

Lazarus Geiger (1829-1870), a philosopher and philologist, took Gladstone’s research further and studied other ancient texts (for instance, Icelandic sagas, Vedic literature, and the original Hebrew version of the Bible) finding that none of them contained a word for blue. Geiger concluded that across ancient cultures, words for colour developed in an oddly consistent order. Black was always first, followed by white, red, yellow, green. Blue came next, eventually.

If this intrigues you, I suggest you listen to the Radiolab broadcast linked below. It makes more sense of it than I can here, but still left me wondering what exactly was being said. One of the programme’s guests is linguist Guy Deutscher. Listen, particularly, to the account of his little daughter trying to name the colour of the sky.

buddhist_edited-1

Author’s watercolour from sketchbook, 1995, recording the many dyed colours and fading shades of Buddhist monks’ robes in Sikkim and North India

My head can’t get itself round the concept that without an object to attach it to, a colour didn’t ‘exist’ and didn’t acquire a name. But that’s partly what is being said and it leads me to dyeing, and the need to name colours. I was dyeing felt last week, trying to achieve a good range of reds. I used different amounts of mordant, varied the percentages of weld, cochineal and madder and overdyed in different sequences. Small variations occurred in the reds and I sought to describe these to a client in words. Colours need adjectives like ‘bright’, ‘dark’, ‘dull’ etc but one inevitably ends up with a comparison to a universally understood coloured object, such as a poppy, a pillarbox, a brick, a patch of rust, a rose. We take this for granted but it’s very sophisticated, relying on a well-established set of understandings. We often need an object when we describe colour.

In her book Tintes y Tintoreros de América, Ana Roquero records the many changes that took place in Central and South American textile practice during the Spanish colonial period. One of the imports from Spain to the New World was an entire vocabulary for textiles. As well as words for machinery, tools, technical terms and cloth and fabric, this included words for colour. These colour words are still alive in parts of Latin America amongst mestizo weavers and dyers, when their use in today’s Spain is long lost.

In this case it’s the itinerant word that has preserved the colour, and I find that fascinating.


Links

Radiolab broadcast ‘Why Isn’t the Sky Blue’ here

The Himba and the perception of colour Anthropology and the Human Condition: here

Books:

Roquero, Ana, 2006, Tintes y tintoreros de América: catálogo de materias primas y registro etnográfico de México, Centro América, Andes Centrales y Selva Amazónica, Ministerio de Cultura, España

Deutscher, Guy, 2010, Through the Language Glass, Heinemann

Comments

Please also check out the very interesting links offered in comments for this page. Many thanks to those who have written and included them

 


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Year Ending

How long have I been dyeing? Not as long as I have been rubbish at maths. A recent experience, when I messed up percentage calculations of mordant, has reminded me how useful it is to keep records. (If you aren’t a dyer, these percentages refer to the mordant weight required against the fibre/fabric weight to be dyed).

My end-of-year project has been to test my Rubia cordifolia, or Indian Madder. I ordered it in the summer from KMA Exports of Tamil Nadu, but haven’t yet had time to use it. A week or so ago I mordanted two Merino wool scarves, calculating the mordant at  8% alum + 5% cream of tartar. Only it wasn’t: my notebook later confirmed I had mordanted at about 1% each. Results on the first set of dyeings were disappointing (it was a surprisingly good red, considering inadequate mordant, but certainly not eye-popping) so I checked out my notes and revealed the serious mistake.

At this dark end of the year I was hoping to dye the cheery Meltdown Orange achieved with Indian Madder on the Carmarthen Association Summer School Workshop, run by Deb Bamford, in 2013. In trying to convey Meltdown Orange on this blog, I hit a regular problem. Colour inaccuracies accrue between camera, screens and editing programmes. Obviously, colour portrayed via a screen isn’t going to look the same as the actual item, but my phone and camera come up with strange slants on reality which I often have to rectify when trying to pin down a ‘true’ colour. It can be vital if I’m working with a researcher or conservator, or a client who needs to know the exact colour of a scarf they propose to buy.

There are three images below. In the image of wool dyed with Rubia cordifolia from Carmarthen (image 1), the colour on my screen is as near as possible to the original yarn I hold up against it. That’s because I fiddled with the settings. I have no idea what you will see.

I had a nerdy idea. With the MyPANTONE app on my phone, I used a photo of the dyed yarn to see how MyPANTONE could analyse the colour range. Image 2 is a screenshot from MyPANTONE. By the time the image has cybered from the yarn to the phone to MyPANTONE to email to an editing programme to WordPress and the screen I see here, it seems that the image had shifted to something stronger and sharper. On the app itself, I had selected what I thought were three typical ‘hues’.  This is done in the same way as an ‘eyedropper’ is used to select colour on an editing programme. The colours I chose were Warm Red C, Pantone 179 C, and Pantone 171 C. They are shown at the bottom of the screenshot (image 2) and seemed a reasonable representation of Meltdown Orange seen through my own, and MyPANTONE’s, eyes.

From a former life in the graphics industry I retain a printed Pantone set of colours. I checked the MyPANTONE colours against my printed set and compared the yarn to each printed colour. Warm Red was ‘too red’, Pantone 179 was brownish and Pantone 171 too weak. But Pantone 172, one shift away from 171, was an accurate representation. This is shown in image 3.

I am not sure what any of that proves, except that colour is a tricky old business.

Silks and wool dyed with various strengths of Indian Madder (and correct mordant)

Silks and wool dyed with various strengths of Indian Madder (and correct mordant)

Reverting to the dyepot story, I repeated the dyeing with correct percentages of mordant and was rewarded by much sharper and more intense orange-reds, on silk and wool. As well as recording the mordant I kept notes on the percentage of dyestuff needed to achieve deep shades on the scarves and found it to be higher than expected – at about 20%. That’s one fifth of a weight, I shall remind myself. I’ll try to do the calculations better next time.

Links: My blog about buying Rubia cordifolia here.

KMA Exports

Deb Bamford (The Mulberry Dyer)

MyPANTONE (for iPhone)

MyPANTONE (for Android)

Pantone UK


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A Scottish Post

I’m just home after a fortnight in Scotland, which started at the annual DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) conference at the University of Glasgow. I tend to know people by their research – and that’s how they know me. Someone at DHA greeted me as Mrs Orchil: she could also have hailed a Dr Indigo, a Ms Madder and Professor Purple. It’s a friendly conference attended by many world experts in the fields of dyes and pigments, but it welcomes independent scholars like me as well as dyers and textile makers.

I wasn’t giving a paper this year so it was an entirely stress-free conference and I sat back and enjoyed it, or at least, all the bits I understood. There are always some technical papers at DHA concerning dye analysis; the ones packed with acronyms, graphs and molecular structures streak comet-like above my head. But factual gems can lurk amongst figures and statistics, so it’s worth not totally tuning out.

I took a small ‘suitcase’ exhibition with me about orchil and my research studies; most delegates came to look at it and talk to me, and as a result I learned new things about orchil from new perspectives.

The conference tour, after two packed days of papers, took us to Glengoyne Distillery for a fortifying wee dram preceding a tour of the plant, and thence to Stirling Castle where we visited the Tapestry Studios to see the final piece in the Unicorn Series nearing completion.

Sherry and tannins

The Glengoyne tour outlined the lengthy procedure for ageing whisky in casks. Casks are made from different types of oak, but have once held sherry (and some, if I remember correctly, Bourbon). The ageing whisky gradually absorbs colour and flavour from the sherry, and the tannins in the oak cask. The two images above illustrate ageing over thirty years in two different types of cask, with coloration intensifying every year. Evaporation is also evident, with around half the liquid being lost over the period. This lost alcohol is called ‘The Angels’ Share’.

Textile Tweets

About the pictures

Above is a small selection of textile-related images from Scotland, most of which I tweeted during our trip. My obsession with dye lichens was rewarded by finding Ochrolechia tartarea alongside Loch Ewe, and Lobaria pulmonaria  at Oban; Parmelia saxatilis and P. omphalodes were growing at many locations.  Note: I was looking, not collecting. A Gaelic-English Dictionary in a hotel room confirmed that in Gaelic crotal refers to boiling water method lichens, but corcur to orchil lichens. If you want to know what orchil is, or read more about my research and views on dyeing with lichens, please visit this page.

Turkey Red

I spent a week with Deb Bamford (aka The Mulberry Dyer) learning how to dye Turkey Red at a Summer School in 2013. Read about it from this blog post forwards. In Scotland I found remnants of the Turkey Red industry buildings at Alexandria, on Levenside. There is a great website about the Turkey Red industry here. And read this wonderful book:

Colouring the Nation: The Turkey Red Printed Cotton Industry in Scotland c1840-1940 by Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett. Published by National Museums Scotland. From Amazon here.

Unicorn Series: Stirling Castle and West Dean Tapestries

For more on the Unicorn Series, go here for the Stirling Castle story, and here for West Dean’s version.

 Glengoyne Distillery, Dumgoyne Glengoyne Distillery


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Summer schools…

No posting recently because I’ve had a month of intensive teaching followed by intensive feet-putting-up. I ran three courses at Ardington in Oxfordshire and then four days in Nether Stowey at the studio of Janet Phillips.

At Ardington School of Crafts I taught my synthetic dyes shibori day, plus two one-day (repeated) courses on natural dyes. The natural dye course is a taster to a fascinating subject with some practical work at the dyepots, but also intended as an eye-opener to textiles seen at a stately home, museum etc. It’s even relevant to looking at paintings: I often wonder what dyestuffs were used on garments represented (with pigments) in a historic portrait. We had to move fast, with all fibre and fabric pre-mordanted, and an indigo vat ready to go. Most students dyed a scarf using simple immersion methods. We used madder, weld, cochineal and two indigo vats (one weak, one strong).

At Nether Stowey, I taught a three-day-dye course to several of Janet’s graduates from her Masterclass.  On day one they learned some shibori folds using steam-fixed dyes; day two gave them a taster of wax resist, and day three was a full day with indigo. At the same time as I taught dyes, Janet was teaching ‘shibori on the loom’ to students from the London Guild. In this technique, removable weft threads are incorporated into the weaving. They are later used to draw up the cloth tight. According to how the shibori threads are woven, patterns emerge after the piece is dyed, then opened up.

Students used coloured and plain warps, on different pieces. Some of this shibori work was put into my indigo vat on day four; others used Janet’s fibre-reactive dyes which were applied by placing woven pieces into a short length of gutter (brilliant idea) and painting by hand.  I am used to folding, tying and clamping for indigo work and although I have seen loom shibori before, I haven’t watched the whole process from start to finish. A combination of enthusiastic and knowledgeable students,  Janet’s teaching and the imaginative arrangements made by Janet and Nigel made for a very enjoyable week. Did I mention glorious weather?

 

Many thanks to students at Ardington and Nether Stowey for permission to use images of their work.

Teaching in 2015

Dates of next years’ courses are accumulating. I will be tutoring two courses at the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Summer School in August 2015 at Moreton Morrell. Details of the entire event can be seen here and there are details on this page.

I am teaching a new one-day introductory course in wax-resist at Ardington School of Crafts in 2015 as well as days on shibori scarves, indigo dyeing.  The Vibrant World of Natural Dyes proved very popular this year and I will be teaching it again in 2015: I have one course at West Dean scheduled for March. If you want to sign in, do so soon because my October course has been full since April.


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Oddments

photo

Packs of indigo and Rubia cordifolia, (Indian madder) shown with Phytosanitary Certificate

My latest excitement is today’s arrival of a parcel from India, containing indigo and Indian madder (Rubia cordifolia) from the excellent KMA Exports. I am sharing the consignment with a friend because the freight is expensive and costs more than the dyestuff, but it took just one day to arrive from Tamil Nadu. Sometimes a parcel takes longer from Okehampton. It would have been here earlier but import regulations into the UK now require fumigation which takes a bit longer; the Phytosanitary Certificate confirms that my consignment is free of Khapra beetle (Trogoderna granarium) and other quarantine pests.

Having tried Rubia cordifolia with Deb Bamford at Summer School last year I can’t wait to have another go. It produced the most astonishing colour on wool.

A highspot of recent weeks was a short trip to Finistère in Brittany, in the glorious weather also enjoyed in the UK that week. I enjoyed seeing fine examples of Breton embroidery, something about which I knew nothing, in the Musée Bigouden, Pont l’Abbé. There is an informative page about traditional Breton costume here from which I’ve learned a lot. You can see a photo of the embroiderers of Pont l’Abbé at the top of the page. Until I studied the caption I thought it was a very old photo, but it is dated to 1976, when I was about the age of some women in the picture. Perhaps that does make it a very old photo, come to think of it.

Several walks along the coast west of Douarnenez offered stunning views over the sea and as always, I was on the lookout for lichen. I don’t collect it, but I like to find it; my views on actually using lichen for dyeing are here. A knowledgeable colleague has told me that one of my images probably shows an orchil lichen, one of the Roccellae, which cheers me up now I’m back and the weather has changed.

The historic cork floats and netting tools, which I found rather beautiful, were in the window of shop selling fish in Audièrne. Without a given explanation, I must assume the carved names once indicated owners of nets. When I lived on the west coast of Scotland I remember several vitriolic exchanges over ownership of creels, buoys and nets. This appears to be a simple way of marking equipment.

 

I’m teaching three courses at Ardington School of Crafts from Wednesday. Natural dyes on Wednesday 9th and Thursday 10th, and shibori with synthetic dyes on Friday 11th. If you’re coming, I look forward to seeing you there.


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Installations, pasties and Turkey red

I’ve found a link between art installations and our family’s Pasty Evaluation Test. We live in the South West, the traditional home of the pasty. Most local bakers produce pasties and whole businesses are devoted to their making, including one of our favourites, The Original Pasty House in Tavistock. What is the Pasty Evaluation Test? Taste and healthy ingredients are part of it, but the initial stage is to check how many bites it takes before you achieve something other than pastry-coated air.

It’s the same with installations. I’ve seen many that beckon appealingly but prove increasingly unrewarding and wearisome post-first-bite. I don’t want to pre-read screeds of explanation telling me what to think, so if an installation doesn’t communicate after a decent period of interaction, then for me it’s a non-starter. 

I remember some good ones such as Jaume Plensa’s gongs at The Baltic in 2002. (Note: YouTube link shows them at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where they seem arranged in a different way). They glowed in changing light and there was a timeless, temple-like quality to the space where silence and sound defined each other. People sounded the gongs with great intensity and contemplated powerful reverberations. Others seemed embarrassed to hit the gongs, as if they needed permission. A further cohort transformed into delighted children, shattering reverence with indiscriminate boing-ing and restaging the experience as wicked fun. It ended up as much about watching people as listening to gongs.

Not quite on the same scale, but I did enjoy two installations at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen this week. The first was Tina Hill’s Excavating Babel, a striking, tall spiral of over 2000 once-discarded books set in dust on a dark plinth. The books had been stripped of their covers, and thus identity, revealing a structure of sections and linen stitches, showing that books are, or can be, sewn together.  Created with books set uniformly with spines outwards, the inner spiral could be entered. It enclosed, isolated and insulated the visitor with a dense paper barrier. One was aware of millions of pages of muffling, unknown stuff.  What was this no-longer-needed information? There were interesting supporting notes to read, which afterwards I did. But Excavating Babel worked on several  levels without explanation, and thus passed the equivalent of the Pasty Evaluation Test.  You can see more about it on Tina’s own site here. Excavating Babel is part of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen exhibition Narrative Remains and you can see it until 23 March.

In the Riverside Gallery, also at the Devon Guild, is another exhibition called Love, Loss and Laundry.  This can be seen until March 16th. Through stitch and fabric Jacqui Parkinson commemorates the lives of destitute women and girls who worked in Devon House, Bovey Tracey. Devon House was run by Anglican nuns of the Clew Sisterhood – the notes record that they were largely a kindly organisation.  The refuge they offered allowed some girls, at least, to obtain respectable jobs in service and even to marry and have families of their own.

Women and girls were mostly occupied with laundry and sewing. Dirty sheets were washed, torn clothing darned, linen patched. But many inmates of Devon House lived or were buried unnamed. If it were not for the 1911 census records, their lives might have left no trace.  Anne Liebermann’s embroidered linen squares record some of these lives in the delicate red cross-stitching of their names from the census. Jacqui has sewn these onto squares of an old bedspread where layers of old fabrics can be seen. The squares resemble the padded fabric the girls would have used to hold an iron and the names are haunting and moving.

I have just enjoyed reading ‘Colouring the Nation’, a book about the Turkey red industry which set up along the Clyde and Vale of Leven in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the fabrics in the installation (the one on the right, above, with the fan) looked very like a Turkey red or Turkey red derived pattern, and the dates fit.

Thanks to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen and the artists involved in the two exhibitions for permitting photography of their work.

book

Colouring the Nation: The Turkey Red Printed Cotton Industry in Scotland c1840-1940

by Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett. Published by National Museums Scotland

From Amazon here

There is an associated website which is well worth a visit for its text and searchable images. There are 501 available to see from the full 40,000 contained in the pattern books now held by National Museums Scotland.

http://www.nms.ac.uk/turkey_red/colouring_the_nation.aspx


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More-or-less-Ethel and the Mairet madder method

Several years ago I was fortunate to buy a small out-of-print hardback book in the collection of an Oxfordshire dyer. It was Ethel Mairet’s Vegetable Dyes. Originally published in 1916, the book is something of a classic and my 1952 edition represents its eleventh reprinting. I normally don’t like finding handwritten marks and notes in books but this one has been well-used, and I enjoy thinking of (at least) two dyers before me making use of it.

Ethel Mairet, née Partridge, was born in 1872  in Barnstaple, North Devon, which isn’t far from where I live. Her life was extraordinary on many levels as an influential figure in arts, crafts and education. She was married for a time to a Ceylonese called Ananda Coomaraswamy and travelled to Ceylon with him, studying and documenting weaving, spinning and dyeing techniques. She divorced in 1912 and married Philippe Mairet in 1913. At ‘Gospels’, her house at Ditchling, she set up a workshop and taught students who themselves became influential in the textile world. These include Marianne Straub and Elizabeth Peacock. Elizabeth Peacock has an association with Dartington, also here in Devon, for whom she wove a set of banners in 1938. There is an image of one of them here.

In 1931 Elizabeth Peacock co-founded the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers (AGWSD). With others, she organised the first AGWSD Summer Schools and if you have been reading previous blogs about madder and Turkey Red, you’ll know that Summer Schools are still held biennially by the Association.  Ethel Mairet taught on these first Schools, so I’m glad her madder recipe emerged with such success at Carmarthen. Opinions change over the years, however, and nowadays dyers tend to use much less alum mordant than the 25% her 1916 recipe recommends. It’s certainly a large percentage for me.

Blessed with some summer sun, I have been drying out the wet madder chips I brought back from Wales. I was surprised at how much the heap shrank as the chips contracted. With the liquid madder exhaust I have used a More-or-Less-Ethel (call it MOLE?) method to dye scarves. It’s ‘more-or-less’ because the exhaust is an amalgam of numerous dyebaths from Summer School and isn’t consistent with Mairet’s recipe. I have also dyed silk with it, and her recipe specifies it’s for wool. But I worked the Mairet long mordant (resting it damp for several days) and the 25% alum and also brought the dyebath to the boil for the recommended ten minutes. Boiling madder is very controversial as many recipes (such as Jill Goodwin’s) advise that raising the heat of the dye bath above a certain point will make the madder go nasty and brown. This is clearly not necessarily the case because our experiments included recipes where we boiled, and those where we didn’t, and Deliberately Boiled Brown became something of a Holy Grail.

If you read my blog regularly you will also know I am a voluntary editor on the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers which is the magazine of the AGWSD.  A new issue (247) will shortly be plopping onto doormats for the attention of international sets of dog-teeth; we are also approaching the copydate for a future issue. So it has been a frantically busy week. All the reports from the recent Summer School are included in 247, as well as regular articles and features.

The Journal is also announcing the appointment of the new AGWSD President, Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul, but this will be in Journal 248. Jenny is best known for her research work into indigo but is passionate about education and the passing on of our skills.  I owe my own passion for natural dyes to her: I attended a series of lectures on Japanese crafts at the Crafts Council in the early 1990s (Marianne Straub was another attendee!) and was infected by Jenny’s enthusiasm for natural dyes. She taught me to dye with indigo, and the rest is history.

Links

Ethel Mairet:

University of Brighton biography of Ethel Mairet here

vads online resource here. There are also images of her woven cloth

You can read Ethel Mairet’s book, which is out of copyright, online here 

An image of Ethel (then) Coomaraswamy weaving at Broad Campden here

Elizabeth Peacock:

vads online resource here

Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul

Jenny’s website (under construction) here

Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, here

Jenny’s work with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Connect here

Books here