Isabella Whitworth

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


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A foreign country

Everything there is to be said about memory has been said before, and very much better than I’ll manage here. We build all kinds of structures with memories, but if we start serious archaeology these structures often teeter: fallen material is merely the start of a new construction.

I’m at an age when I have more past than future. So I am curious about probably unstable structures on which my memories (and assumptions) are built. I like revisiting once-familiar places, and finding out what happened to people I once knew well. It’s a kind of nosiness, but it’s mainly a need to clarify connections, identify patterns across time and events and reorganise a continuous construction programme.

Sometimes a more infinite past is tangibly and intriguingly revealed. In the last months, British coasts have been lashed by sequences of ferocious storms. At several coastal locations traces of ancient forests appeared when raging seas scoured out layers of sand and stones above them. Some of the 4,500-year-old stumps and roots are astonishing, such as those in Cardigan Bay – see here. Ancient forests also appeared in the South West.

We found the the ones at Daymer Bay, emerging from slabs of dark compressed soil-like material threaded by a network of roots and embedded with land snail shells. The submerged trees only appear every hundred years or so and may by now have been re-covered by sand and rocks. They look ordinary, just like any old tree stumps, which of course, they are – and aren’t. My imagination was fired and I noticed other visitors were approaching the stumps with something like reverence. By my calculation (and construction), the unknown but important person buried in the Dartmoor White Horse Hill cist  might have walked in the forest at Daymer Bay, although it’s a bit of a Bronze Age bus ride.

Last weekend I was teaching at West Dean and en route home diverted to the New Forest, a once familiar place. Starting with a clear picture of what I was looking for, and where, I soon found that memories weren’t particularly accurate. In ‘deconstructing’ I found that paths were longer, or shorter, or just somewhere else. Buildings that had clearly been in place forty years ago took me by surprise, as if I’d never seen them before. In ‘reconstructing’ a new visual memory, old versions were revised by new observations, both being perceptions which can, at least for the moment, be separately accessed. Most curious.

I was named after a great-aunt. Her grave is in a churchyard in the New Forest and my headstone would be the same as hers – were I to be buried, which I probably won’t. I don’t find it spooky or morbid visiting the grave with (almost) my full name on it; I like to go because there will be few people that now remember who she was.  I have her to thank for my love of textiles because her house was full of beautiful fabrics.  As a small child I loved to poke about in her mothballed chests of drawers where I plunged my hands into heaps of beautiful embroidered shawls and scarves. She made patchwork quilts, and beautifully executed decorative dolls from pipe-cleaners and precious fabric scraps. She tatted long scarves like nets for herself and her friends.

grave

I still have some of her clothes. As an art student in the late 1960s I used to wear the reversible brown and cream silk jacket with the fleur-de-lys type motif (shown above) when I went in to college. It looked great over a black polo neck and jeans, which would have horrified my great-aunt. The jacket was much admired and if I wore it, I felt totally-far-out-cool.

All her clothes are in the style of the 1920s and 30s and are handmade: there are no designer labels.

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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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Madder, wool and Welsh quilts

In the dye room this morning we reground the fourth and final exhaust dyestuff for the Turkey Red samples and heated it to temperature so that it could cool before dyeing tomorrow. Debbie has hung the Turkey Red-prepared cloth in the college smoking shelter – which might well discourage smokers from entering and be very good for overall Welsh health.

smoking

Smelly smoking shelter

Many madder recipes state that one should not raise the temperature of the dyepot above a certain point or the colours will turn brown.  On the other hand, many recipes have silk or wool boiling for as much as an hour. So what’s going on?

Jill Goodwin advises a maximum of 158 F (70 C). We were careful to follow her recipe yesterday, but today someone suggested we should boil one of the Goodwin skeins to see if  it would affect the colour.

So we did, and it didn’t…. and it set us thinking where such advice originates and under what, if any, circumstances it might be true.

If you read yesterday’s blog you’ll know I wasn’t sure where we were going on our outing: it turned out to be the National Wool Museum at Dre-fach Felindre and the Welsh Quilt Centre at Lampeter.

Our visit to the museum was interesting but short and there were far too many of us for a comfortable visit. Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching the spinning mule in action, and touring the finishing and weaving sheds. Across in the field was a tenterframe for stretching and finishing cloth, and a windhouse for drying more delicate fabric. The tenterframe looked squeaky-new and unhistoric (do Ikea offer a selection?)  but gave some idea of how the field might once have looked.

I came across a set of natural-dyed yarns produced by David and Margaret Redpath who, until 2002, ran Wallis Mill in Pembrokeshire. It was the last commercial mill in Wales to dye with plant materials. The dye garden behind the wool museum was sadly neglected and overgrown with weeds, although some madder was struggling plantfully on.

The Quilt Centre at Lampeter is in the old Town Hall. Currently, and until November, a collection of antique Welsh quilts is on display with work by Kaffe Fassett and other contemporary quiltmakers. There was a time when this modern work would have held all my attention, but now I am old and grey it was the monochrome historic textiles I found the most beautiful. The collection has been put together by Jen Jones, who realised several years ago that these lovely bedcovers were being discarded as having no value. In a short address to the group, Jen said that she had once seen a farmer using an old quilt to keep a sick cow warm. The Quilt Centre exhibition was superbly done, with work suspended at different angles and heights from an immensely high ceiling. Complexities of lighting were skilfully handled so that nothing appeared overshadowed.

crossover

This collection is by Moda Fabrics and is called Indigo Crossing

In Calico Kate,  a shop for quilting enthusiasts almost next door, I found a set of printed cottons in the blue and white derived from the traditional patterns of resist-dyed indigo. These fabrics seem to be following me around: see this post from earlier this year.

A reminder to anyone following in real time that you can follow AGWSD Summer School at Carmarthen through the posts of several students here on Twitter, using the hashtag #wsdsschool


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Blue routes – blue roots

As a schoolchild, my first and much-hated needlework project was to handsew a dirndl skirt. I was on the tubby side (not much has changed) and the skirt was red with white spots. My mother probably thought it would look charming but I knew I would look like a fat ladybird so, like Penelope and her shroud, I put off finishing it and learned to sew very slowly. Dirndl skirts and I have not crossed paths again for over 50 years.

We have just been to Bavaria to attend a family event. Many guests wore traditional clothes which, for the women, meant a dirndl costume. Now I have seen what it ought to look like, I must admit that the full dirndl costume can look good on old and young – and even the tubby. It isn’t just a skirt. There is a bodice, a blouse, a full skirt and an apron. Contemporary and expensive dirndl costumes are superbly tailored and very expensive.  They can be made from silks, cottons, linen, velvet or wool depending on the season, or the event at which they are worn.

A wedding dirndl. An apron knotted at the front means the wearer is unmarried

A dirndl worn at a wedding. An apron knotted at the front means the wearer is unmarried

A characteristic of the traditional dirndl is the printed cotton from which skirt and bodice are sometimes cut. The repeat patterns are small and delicate. At one time they would have been block-printed, and the blue and white fabrics would probably have been paste-resist-printed and indigo-dyed. This fabric is increasingly rare although there are still workshops in Hungary and Austria. Eastern Europe was a strong centre for these fabrics.

Last year the Devon Guild of Craftsmen held an exhibition called Tracing the Blueprint. The exhibition told the story of ‘Blauwdruk’ fabric from Eastern Europe which made its way to South Africa via trade,  European settlers and Manchester printers. Blue and white 100% cotton fabric is now printed in South Africa, although not using a traditional process. It is known as shweshwe and the Three Cats trademark of Da Gama Textiles is famous. Shweshwe used to be transported by sea and was heavily starched to help it survive the long journey. Although this is no longer necessary, heavy starching is still used to denote its status as true shweshwe. I have a pack of shweshwe by me as I write and the smell is strong and ‘inky’, but not unpleasant.

Last year I visited the studio of Martina Gistl near Gmünd in Bavaria. Martina screenprints traditional patterns onto cotton and linen at her studio. She has a beautiful workspace and you can look down on the printing process as she passes the ink-loaded squeegee across the fabric, forcing the ink down onto the stretched fabric. After the fabric dries it is heat-fixed (but I don’t think it’s a steam process).

There is such fascination in the journeys these strongly related patterns and designs have made, their natural dye origins and their contemporary uses and interpretations.