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I scratched around many sources but failed to find a historical reference, or image, defining Astarte’s eyes as blue.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