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I scratched around many sources but failed to find a historical reference, or image, defining Astarte’s eyes as blue.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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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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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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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