Isabella Whitworth

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


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A Harris Way of Life

Last month I took a ferry to the Western Isles. There is much to say about the wild, bleak beauty of the islands, and their resilient inhabitants, but this is about Harris Tweed and natural dyes.

crotalspoon

Crotal used to scrape lichen from rocks. Marion Campbell collection, Harris Tweed Knitwear at Drinishader

A well-timed tweet from @HTAarchive advised me not to miss a display at the old Drinishader schoolhouse, on Harris. This relates to the life and work of Marion (Morag) Campbell (1909 – 1996) who once lived nearby and had attended the school as a child.

Marion was visited by a Washington Post journalist in the 1990s, telling him, ‘I’m the last person doing it the really old way — dyeing my own fleeces, carding, making my own yarn, weaving — I even do my own ‘waulking’ to clean the tweed and shrink it a bit. That takes a lot of stamping about in Wellington boots!’

scraping crotal

Marion Campbell scraping crotal lichen, probably Parmelia omphalodes or P. saxatilis. Rephotographed at Drinishader. Regret no photo credit available

In a stylish, purpose-built centre behind the school is a contemporary Harris Tweed exhibition called Clo Mhor (The Big Cloth). It is beautifully designed and presented, contains up-to-date examples of catwalk fashion and high quality local design using Harris Tweed.  The Marion Campbell collection, housed off the shop in the schoolhouse itself, could not appear more different. It comprises a number of woven samples, lengths of tweed, photographs, newspaper articles and other items associated with Marion’s long and active life, all assembled in a cramped, higgledy-piggledy fashion and often a bit dusty. It took a little time to absorb, but was rewardingly full of treasures. I found the crotal spoon Marion used to scrape lichen from the rocks, a waulking board, her loom, and dyed but unspun fleece. Marion used only natural dyes in her work, such as peat soot, crotal from various types of lichen, mugwort, logwood and indigo.

Drinishader schoolhouse is well worth a visit and its location on the Golden Road is exceptionally beautiful.

From the Drinishader shop, I bought a copy of Gisela Vogler’s biography of Marion Campbell, first published in 2002. It’s called A Harris Way of Life. A recipe for indigo dyeing puzzled me as it does not appear to explain familiar processes common to all usage of indigo:

indigorecipe

From ‘A Harris Way of Life’ by Gisela Vogler, first published 2002 by Harris Voluntary Service, West Tarbert, reprinted 2006

The description gives no clues as to where and when reduction (removal of oxygen) takes place although the use of stale urine clarifies that the vat will be alkaline. The statement about mordant is curious (because indigo doesn’t need one), as is the phrase ‘making the dye permanent’, and the specific reference to ‘dogleaf’. Dock is sometimes referred to as dogleaf, and is from the Rumex family.

An interesting exchange between various contacts on Twitter took place when I aired the finding on Twitter, and came up with a revelation for which I thank Anna NicGuaire, (or @A_M_Q on Twitter). In Jean Fraser’s book Traditional Scottish Dyes a similar description is included in an indigo recipe from South Uist. It gives sorrel as the ‘mordant’ ‘to make the colour adhere to the wool’.  (Sorrel is Rumex acetosa).

I later found a similar reference in Ethel Mairet’s 1916 book on vegetable dyes, where she states, ‘Some add a decoction of dock roots the last day, which is said to fix the blue. The wool must then be thoroughly washed.’

The function of sorrel or dock is far from clear in any of the three instances, but it will not be acting as a mordant in the standard sense. Dock does appear in several dye publications I have consulted, but as a colourant.

I have great respect for traditional recipes and expect there to be a reason for the sorrel or dock stages as described. I’d be very interested in anyone’s views.

Links 

Marion Campbell, BEM

Video of Marion Campbell weaving

David Yeadon’s 1990 account of a visit to Marion Campbell for the Washington Post  

Clo Mhor exhibition at Harris Tweed and Knitwear

Thanks

Special thanks to the Twitter community including @HTAarchive, @A_M_Q, @Freyalyn, @ripplescrafts, @TorranIslay, @squeejay

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Celebrating Ethel Mairet

 

submisson

Silk yarn skeins showing the results using two Mairet recipes. The lower skein was divided into three to demonstrate increments of iron added to the vat. Dried cochineal is shown at the lower left

A book of dye recipes by weaver Ethel Mairet was first published in Ditchling, Sussex, in 1916. Its title is Vegetable Dyes. Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft is undertaking a collaborative project to re-interpret and recreate Mairet’s recipes, with the help of  contemporary dyers. There is a considerably large number to complete.

However, not all Mairet’s recipes are safe by today’s standards. Some use toxic chemicals once common in historic use, such as chrome, tin, sulphuric acid, quicklime, lead and zinc and these recipes are excluded from the project, or some individual ingredients amended. Environmental considerations have changed over the years and it is no longer recommended (or permitted) to dye with certain plant material. Lichen dyes, for instance, appear in the book but are omitted from the project because they are rare in many areas and some species are protected. Lichen recipes will be dyed, but by one specialist in Scotland. I am happy with this decision: those who have read my blog for a while know my feelings about dyeing with lichens.

The project is open to natural dyers who are confident handling their materials and they can ‘apply’ for recipes as I did, through the Museum website. The Museum sends material to be dyed; the dyer supplies dyestuff.

The Book 

In Douglas Pepler’s Introduction he quotes the opening lines of the Gospel of St John (In the Beginning..) to illustrate his belief in the ‘goodness’ inherent in discoveries which mankind achieves for the first time. In tracing the subsequent destruction of quality through an urge for quantity (and one assumes, profit), he remarks that this inherent ‘goodness’ is lost. This was true, he suggests, when natural dyes were supplanted by those synthesised by chemists.

In a similar vein Ethel Mairet writes:

‘Dyeing is an art; the moment science dominates it is is an art no longer, and the craftsmen must go back to the time before science touched it, and begin all over again.’

The book is available online.

recipes

The two recipes I selected from Mairet’s book. They are for wool, but I chose the silk option offered by the project

Decisions

 I selected two cochineal recipes to dye onto silk yarn and ‘ordered’ them online from Ditchling Museum. The original recipes were for wool, but the project organisers offered the silk option and I chose it in preference to wool.  One recipe (7, above) uses iron to give a purple shade. (Note that cochineal is an insect, not a vegetable dye, but is included in Mairet’s book).

Many recipes which Mairet collected from the 17th C onwards, before science touched them, are scant on explanation and assume prior knowledge. Compare them, for example, to a contemporary book where a recipe can occupy a page of explanations and options.

So, following the two recipes wasn’t straightforward and often puzzling. I would never in normal practice add wool or silk to a boiling vat. So how should I interpret ‘Boil and enter wool while boiling, till the required colour is got.’?  And should I rinse after mordanting in recipe 4, or sling the cochineal and cream of tartar straight into the mordant as is suggested by the word ‘add? In recipe 7, what colour is considered violet? What does a 1 oz solution of iron mean? And so on. I had to make some of it up as I went along.

Happily, I had no spectators when calculating the Mairet quantities to simple percentages.

I’m including my recipe reports under the links, below. They are not of interest to everyone but indicate some quandaries faced when using historic recipes.


Links

Get involved in the dye project here

Download Ethel Mairet’s book here

Here My earlier blog about Mairet’s madder recipes

Here My blog on dyeing with lichens

Hilary Douglas Clark Pepler

Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft


 

Recipe report page 93, recipe 4: silk

PINK WITH COCHINEAL FOR WOOL

 12 gram silk skein supplied

Calculations were made at

10.4% alum

6% cochineal

12% cream of tartar

Method:

Cochineal ground finely in pestle and mortar.

Silk was washed, rinsed, and remained wetted out.

Mordanting was started cold so that the silk would not be entered at boiling point as the recipe requested (unwise for silk) but was raised to boiling over the period of an hour. It was held at boiling point for 50 minutes.

It would normally be my practice to allow the silk to cool in the mordant and rinse, but the recipe seemed specific about procedure as follows:

Then add 1lb. Cochineal and 5lbs cream of tartar

So I kept the silk in the very hot mordant liquid and added the cochineal and cream of tartar. The colour seemed to ‘take’ immediately and after half an hour the vat looked to be exhausted. The recipe suggests that items be left in the vat till the required colour is got . To obtain a lighter pink, this would have meant removing the yarn after a very short time in the vat which as far as I’m concerned isn’t very good practice. So, using this recipe, a lighter pink would be best obtained by reducing the percentage of dyestuff.

The colour in the sample therefore reflects the 6% of cochineal used.


 

Recipe report page 94, recipe 7: silk

VIOLET FOR WOOL

12 gram silk skein supplied

The following quantities used:

1.5 gr alum

.75 gr cochineal

Iron water as described below

Method:

Cochineal was ground finely in pestle and mortar. Silk was washed, rinsed, and remained wetted out.

No method was given for mordanting in the recipe. Mordanting was started cold and the vat raised to boiling over the period of an hour. It was held at boiling point for 50 minutes, as in my sample for the p. 93 recipe 4 sample. However, for this recipe I allowed the silk to cool in the mordant for several hours and then rinsed it. This is because the recipe seemed to separate the mordant and dye processes, unlike the p. 93 recipe.

Because there was no specific mention of cream of tartar in this recipe (and there was on p. 93), I did not use it in the mordant.

A clean vat was made with cold water and the cochineal added. The silk was entered into the vat and stirred: the colour ‘took’ quickly. The recipe states that the cochineal and iron should be added at the same time but I was reluctant to do this because I do not use ferrous sulphate. Instead I keep a jar of iron water, made with rusty nails, water and vinegar. This serves my dyeing purposes well but means that for this project I could not calculate what the recipe’s 1 oz solution of iron would represent in terms of iron water. I was therefore wary of adding too much too soon.

I therefore dyed the silk yarn for a full half hour, and the vat was exhausted. I added 1 ml iron water to the vat and after ten minutes there was an appreciable change in colour so I removed the yarn.

When the yarn had dried I decided it wasn’t ‘violet’ – or at least not violet enough. So I divided the skein into three equal parts, keeping the original colour as Skein 1. Skein 2 was wetted out, reintroduced into the vat with a further 1 ml iron water, and removed after ten minutes. Skein 3 was wetted out, and reintroduced into the vat with a further 2 mls iron water.

All skeins washed and rinsed to remove iron.

NOTE: The colour of the dyed silk prior to the addition of the iron was almost identical to the sample obtained for p. 93. The two sets of samples thus offer a good progression from pink through to violet and purple.

 Cochineal source The cochineal was sourced from Lanzarote.


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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