Isabella Whitworth

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


4 Comments

The simple reappears once the dyer’s quite exhausted

Dyeing at Leewood on Dartmoor continues next week and on 11th April Jane Deane and I will be working on the same five fleeces as last month (see here), but this time using madder. Visitors are welcome and it’s free, but please phone Leewood before you make the journey.

I can now announce that our historical dye  project has been granted financial support from the Worshipful Company of Dyers, one of the historic London Livery Companies. I have been grateful for their assistance with research into the Wood & Bedford / Yorkshire Chemicals archive over the past years, but this is the first time I have requested support for a practical project. The Dyers Company has a long history of charitable giving which you can read about here.

Next weekend I’ll be in London for the AGM of the Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers followed, on the Sunday, by our quarterly Journal committee meeting. This whole weekend of meetings coincides with the major Huguenot of Spitalfields events and The Big Weave on the 13th, also in London. It’s most unlikely I will be able to bunk off meetings to inspect the Huguenots, however – it’s a shame there is so much on at once.

Despite a whole new bunch of lively committee members, there will be a sad  goodbye to Cally Booker (whose blog you can see here) and Belinda Rose , who have now completed their terms on the Journal committee. They have contributed hugely to a range of ever-changing Journal demands and I’ll really miss their intelligence, cheerfulness and good humour.

Plans for Fusion, West Dean’s summer event, proceed. This week I was asked for a ‘top tip’ by the organisers for a publicity campaign. I don’t have a practical one about dyeing dog hair or boiling sheep dung so I thought of a piece of Eastern philosophy I find revealing and useful. I first heard it when I read that Peter Collingwood had it fixed to his loom.

The simple only reappears once the complex is exhausted

It comes from Nigel Richmond’s Language of the Lines, written about the I Ching. The word I appreciate most is ‘reappears’. It’s because I recognise the simplicity of an idea in the inspiration stages, but endless, exhausting ‘stuff’ gets in the way and I struggle to pare everything down to try to find what I first saw. In so doing, I frequently take the wrong things out. It’s a process I often go through – in fact, I am doing it now, with work based on our trip to Australia last October.

Bookings for Fusion can be made through West Dean’s Fusion page here. I will be demonstrating wax resist on silk on Saturday 22 June and running three workshops on Sunday 23rd. These will be beginners’ workshops, but if you have done some work with wax before it should be equally enjoyable.


Leave a comment

Calculating cochineal: using Lanzarote dyestuff

The historical dye research Jane Deane and I are working on at Leewood (see previous post) involves comparing ‘like with like’. For the initial weld research we used a stock solution of weld extract and divided it equally into five separate jars to dye samples of five fleece types.

Last year I undertook a dye costing with a stock solution. It was for a Somerset-based company called The Woolly Shepherd which promotes the sustainable use of wool, particularly waste fleece that would normally be thrown away. It is producing  needle-felted insulation materials, horticultural products and acoustic panels and also sells a range of small items such as wine coolers and phone covers.

The Woolly Shepherd’s felt is a darkish grey overall, being a mixture of several fleece colours and thus far they had sold all their products undyed. The company asked me to find out if its felt could be natural-dyed to achieve a certain shade of dark pink. It had obtained a sample dyed pink with synthetic dyes and I offered to try to match it as nearly as possible using cochineal, and in such a way that a costing for natural dyes plus the dyeing process could be calculated.

Dye calculations are normally made on percentage of dyestuff to fibre, yarn or fabric, so I needed to work with a known weight of dry felt and a known weight of cochineal. By increasing the amount of measured dyestuff in a sequence of individual vats, I planned to dye a set of samples to calculate a percentage weight of dye to weight of felt. Cutting a precise weight of thick felt has ‘pound of flesh’ Merchant of Venice connotations. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. In the end I cut a piece that was slightly too heavy and then sliced pieces off the side so that I was working with a 200 g weight. I cut this into four so I could work with 50 g samples.

All the felt was mordanted in alum and cream of tartar. I used 12% alum and 8% cream of tartar – although I normally use less. The wool smelled so strongly of lanolin that I wasn’t sure if it had been sufficiently scoured for dyeing, so I erred on the side of a stronger mordant.

Because working with very small weights of ground cochineal is extremely fiddly I made a stock solution.

I used Lanzarote cochineal for The Woolly Shepherd project. Some time ago I undertook quality tests for the  Asociación Milana, found their cochineal to be excellent and I continue to use it.

I ground 50 g dried cochineal to fine powder and tied it firmly  into a silk gauze bag. This helped prevent cochineal fragments entering the dye and avoided the need to strain the dyestuff. The bag was put into a stainless steel vessel with about 500 ml water and heated to simmer point (80C) for about 10 minutes. The decocted liquor was decanted into a container. Repeats of this process followed until there was hardly any colour coming out of the bag. The series of decoctions made up a stock solution of 50 g cochineal in 4 litres of water.

I calculated that I could draw off the equivalent of 1 g cochineal in each 80 ml of water  – if I kept the solution swirling while decanting so that it would be well-mixed.

The dyeing was fairly straightforward although I had an initial panic with the first sample: it appeared that the dye was not ‘taking’. Was the wool too greasy? But after the first half hour I saw the felt begin to turn pink. I slowly raised the temperature to 80C and held it for an hour, then allowed it to cool and sit overnight before rinsing. The colour was nearly exhausted in the vat after the long soak. I prepared three samples starting with a 4% proportion of dye to fibre and then increasing the percentage. With the felt being grey, the dye was always having to work against the base colour and in the end the percentage of dyestuff required for the dark pink was higher than I anticipated.

In a spirit of pessimistic self-knowledge I noted precise quantities, weights, times and individual calculations in my dye notebook. If my actual calculations were later found to be faulty (not uncommon with my maths), I could still make sense of the dyed samples because the maths could be reworked.

When undertaking my research into orchil I’ve studied historical dye notebooks, invoices, orders and the occasional sniffy nineteenth century letter of complaint. A high standard of colour accuracy was expected of past dyemakers by their clients. My exercise with cochineal gave me a small insight into how consistent results, competitive purchase and selling prices were achieved, using natural materials which can vary in quality.

Then as now, good results would depend on careful note-taking, accurate calculations, rigorously consistent dyeing and efficient retention of standard dyed samples.

The Woolly Shepherd: http://www.woollyshepherd.co.uk/

Asociación Milana http://www.tinamala.com

A version of this article was first published in the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers, Issue 242, Summer 2012, pp 24 – 25


6 Comments

Changing knowledge, changing attitudes: lichen dyeing

Because it looks like the inside tissue of human lungs, the lichen  Lobaria pulmonaria  (also known as Lungwort) was once commonly used in the treatment of chest infections. The historic rationale of using herbs that resemble parts of the body to treat illnesses of those parts of the body is called ‘the doctrine of signatures’. According to Wikipedia,  a theological justification was made for this philosophy in Christian European metaphysics: It was reasoned that the Almighty must have set his sign upon the various means of curing disease which he provided. The ‘signature’ on the plant was that of God, as a means of guiding the healer’s hand.

The substances in lichens used for both medicines and dye are normally acids; each lichen species can contain several types. The Wikipedia article (linked above) contains contemporary references to possible medicinal uses for  L. pulmonaria, which has indeed been found to have anti-inflammatory and ulcer-preventing properties. So, perhaps it did assist in the treatment of chest infections. When I was in Ecuador I saw usnea lichens sold  for the treatment of sore throats.

I took a serious interest in lichens when I began to study the orchil trade five years ago. You can read how it all came about here. Back then I joined a one-off lichen study walk, arranged by the local branch of the British Lichen Society (BLS). On the walk we were shown L. pulmonaria growing on just one ancient oak; the presence and abundance (or not) of this particular lichen is considered an indicator of forest age as it is normally found only in ancient woodland. It has been badly affected by habitat loss and pollution and according to Dominique Cardon, in many European countries it is a Red Data Book lichen.*  Those of us on the lichen walk were asked not to broadcast the precise location of this rare specimen, but as the BLS  Lobarion Interactive Map reveals L. pulmonaria  at Rosemoor, I can confirm that’s where I saw it – without incurring enduring wrath from the BLS.

In 1960, Eileen M. Bolton published a little handbook for handweavers called Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing.** The book is no less than a classic. It is scholarly from botanic and chemical perspective and it’s also beautiful. It is illustrated with Eileen Bolton’s carefully observed drawings and paintings with several lichens appearing on the same page along with snails, butterflies and curling fronds of ferns or flowers. Through these she shows a thorough knowledge, love and and respect for lichens, and her text includes comments relevant to the US as well as Europe. She makes no general statement on the wisdom and ethics of gathering lichen although she does advocate taking only a little of the L. pulmonaria ‘as it takes years to grow, and forestry operations are likely to make the plant even more scarce.’ She also refers to some species as being ‘less plentiful’.

In 1991 the book*** was reissued in the US due to the efforts of Karen Diadick Casselman. The fascinating story of Eileen Bolton, her family, and tracking down the copyright to her 1960 book, is told in the preface. I strongly recommend reading the preface but the whole book is available to read online here where you can also see Eileen Bolton’s illustrations. The re-issued book was updated to included the status of rare and potentially endangered lichens; L pulmonaria is noted to be endangered in Britain by 1991.

Ten years later, Karen Diadick Casselman’s 2001 book**** on lichen dyes is prefaced by two pages on the ethical approach to dyeing, a useful chapter  on ethics and identification, and an epilogue which briefly exposes some conflicting attitudes and raises questions that potential lichen dyers might consider. I would just add this: I have learned a little through  my contact with mycologists while researching orchil and one of these is the utter complexity of lichen reproduction. It still isn’t properly understood. It isn’t known that a ‘windfall’  lichen can no longer reproduce, or for how long it might reproduce once fallen.  Gathering windfall lichen seems less of a wise move than once it did unless you are actually rescuing it from the bonfire. I now place windfalls back into the crevices of trees.

Last but not least: the pronunciation issue

Is it lichens (to rhyme with kitchens) or lichens (sounds like likens)? I have always said lichens to rhyme with kitchens. Maybe it’s a generation thing in the UK. I am not sure about pronunciation in the US (I’d like to hear from you!) but I think the likens pronunciation is more common. At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where I have worked with mycologists, they also say ‘likens’. But they also say I am not wrong, and as I have no intention of changing at my age, that’s just as well.

Books referred to in this post

*Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science; Dominique Cardon; Archetype Publications; 2007; p 518-9

** Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing; Eileen M. Bolton; Studio Books 1960

*** Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing; Eileen M. Bolton; second edition edited by Karen Leigh Casselman and Julia Bolton Holloway; Robin and Russ Handweavers 1991

**** Lichen Dyes: The New Source Book; Karen Diadick Casselman; Dover Publications 2001


5 Comments

A purple tent and Mr Ibsen’s haplotype

A journalist friend once told me that when bored in the newsroom, colleagues would set each other random words or phrases to insert as logically as possible into the day’s articles. The game was to sneak them past the wily editor, and everyone bought the winner a beer. With no colleagues to deal me a rum hand, I idly set myself a trio. A purple tent; sheep’s dung and Ibsen’s haplotype.  

As only the wily and super-smart read this blog, they will instantly smell a rat and I will not win the beer tonight.

Yesterday I received a draft paper on a set of sixteenth century tapestries at the Historic Royal Palaces – in this case, Hampton Court. During conservation work last year, dye analysis was carried out on a tapestry and orchil was found. Because tapestries were such lavish purchases, (a series might cost the equivalent of a super-yacht in today’s money), the use of such a light fugitive dye is surprising. But it’s not the first instance I know of. In the book accompanying the V&A’s 2010 exhibition of the Sistine Chapel Tapestries,* the (pitifully small) commentary on the dyes included the finding of orchil.

In the case of the Hampton Court set, further analysis was to be carried out which involved dyeing and testing wool samples. I assisted  by teaching the making of an orchil vat and demonstrating how to dye with orchil. It was fascinating to be involved in such a project and when the paper is published I will say more about it. Alexander and Hephaestion were the key figures in the tapestry, standing in front of a purple tent. The tapestry is one of a series called the Battles of Alexander. 

And onwards to the sheep’s dung. My initial contact with Hampton Court was through a recommendation. The natural dye / natural dye history world is very small and everyone knows each other’s particular dye obsessions. Deb Bamford is an expert natural dyer, member of the Online Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and always seen at the DHA (Dyes in History and Archaeology) conferences. She has worked and advised at Hampton Court before and was able to recommend me for my involvement with orchil. Deb will be a tutor at the Summer School of the Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers in August this year. I have a place on her course Turkey Red and all that Madder. One of the challenges in natural dye is in obtaining good shades on cellulose and I hope to learn a lot about the various methods and recipes for Turkey Red for which one ingredient used to be sheep’s dung.

My involvement with dyes, history and chemical analysis has increased over the past five years and it is astonishing what modern analysis can reveal about  dyes, colour, and even the variety of a species used to dye a textile. I have been similarly intrigued by the strands of research and archaeological evidence that included the DNA analysis of Michael Ibsen and the identification of Richard III’s bones.  One of the first novels I ever read was The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, which questions the ‘Shakespearian’ version of Richard III and considers how history is constructed very much in the interests of its authors.

Its title is based on a quotation from Sir Francis Bacon: Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.

* Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel; Evans, Browne and Nesselrath; V&A Publishing 2010; pp 36-37