Isabella Whitworth

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


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Poly-heading: and that’s not funny

Poly-heading

No, that’s not something that nasty pirates do*. It’s me, head-switching again. There’s a copy deadline coming up for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers so I have had temporarily to drop the write-up of the DHA paper.  I also need to continue making scarves. One is a commission (yes, RD, there will be a choice for you!) but also a batch for the Burton Gallery and Museum, Bideford, where I am demonstrating working with wax all day on 14th December as part of their Meet the Burton Makers family programme.

The Burton Gallery and Museum, Bideford, Devon

I am a devoted fan of the Burton Gallery and Museum. I urge anyone visiting Bideford to go. I happen to love the ceramics of North Devon; they have an excellent permanent display from the RJ Lloyd Collection and I never tire of looking at it. Related to the collection is a brick-built bottle-kiln adjacent to the Gallery in Victoria Park and wood firings regularly take place there. In the images above you can see a sherd of pottery I found in our vegetable patch. There is an entire plate with almost the same pattern in the RJ Lloyd collection, dated to the 16th century, so my find is rather special and I keep looking for more of it under the carrots and chard. The historic Devon pottery tradition carries on today with the work of many local potters, including that of Clive Bowen. We have several pieces of his work at home.

The Burton has a permanent collection of watercolours and drawings containing evocative marine and local scenes but also shows touring art exhibitions of international standard. It also has rather a good and child-friendly French café…

Wax resist work

The images of the scarf in progress show the final layer of dye applied over about five layers of wax and dye. You will see that in two images there are beads of dye on the wax surface. On other images they have been removed. This is because if they dry on the wax surface, they will eventually deposit themselves on the silk when the wax melts out and I don’t like the often fuzzy, mottled effect this produces. So I wipe it off, carefully. Minute quantities of residual dye attach themselves to the textured surface of waxed shapes which produces unpredictable but often subtle textures. These I do like. The wiping-up process is rather like cleaning an etching plate before printing: I do it in a whizzy, upwards, circular motion. Thank you Mr Sellars, who taught me how to do this fifty years ago.

* Apologies to those reading this whose mother tongue isn’t English. Poly-heading is meant to be a joke – a pun – because ‘Polly’ is the name people often give to pet parrots, and as we all know parrots always sit on old-fashioned Long John Silver-type pirates’ shoulders saying ‘Pieces of Eight’. A pirate might want to knock its head off if it went on and on…

The other thing we all know is that when one attempts to explain a joke, it ceases to be in any way amusing…


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We have Turkey Red

Not the final day of the course, but the final day of dyeing.  We have been through all the processes used in dyeing Turkey Red through a long sequence of carefully managed samples prepared by tutor Deb Bamford. Today we dyed the final stage. The temperature of the dyepot was raised and maintained and the prepared fabric was immersed, with one of the group stirring it continuously.

Turkey Red

Turkey Red

At the end of the dye period, we lifted the cotton from the pot. We had achieved a good, characteristic, Turkey Red. 

Various experiments and variations continued in the room and explanations and notes added to ‘the wall’.

Tomorrow is the last day and for tutors and students, it finishes at noon. For our course, the morning will be spent sorting and sharing samples and  clarifying processes.

Deb Bamford is highly organised; if she hadn’t been, this intensely complex course could have descended to chaos and dyeing mightn’t have been completed accurately, safely, or at all. Deb explained everything clearly and directly; she really knows her stuff. The student group has been pleasant, co-operative and multi-skilled, which has added to an enjoyable (and valuable) week.

The Trade Fair opened at the Summer School this afternoon with stands selling spinning and weaving equipment, yarns, books, fabrics and trimmings. I helped set up the stand for the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers for which I work as a volunteer editor.

Tomorrow classrooms and the Trade Fair are open to the public. In the evening there is a Gala Dinner with a speaker, and then it will be time to pack up and go home.

Two unrelated observations: it has been a great luxury to be on a course as a student and not a tutor, but it’s peculiar that I am more tired this way round.

The other is that they have some mighty fierce mosquitoes in Wales. I had hoped there was an interesting word for mosquito in Welsh, but it seems it’s mosgito. Oh.


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Learning the ropes: learning methods

One of my first posts on this blog included a reference to bellringing.  If you live outside the UK you may know nothing of the ancient tradition of church ringing which seems to have started in England at an uncertain date, but was well established by the 1600s. It spread to the English-speaking world, but not to continental Europe. Bells are rung in sequences of ‘changes’. They start in rounds (ringing down from the highest bell to the lowest). Then, bells swap places in the sequence. This can be done any number of ways, but always ends up in rounds. It requires control, co-ordination and concentration. The changes are normally called out for ringers to follow, so they are not feats of memory.

These ‘changes’ are what I have learned for about four years but recently we started to learn a different system, called ‘method ringing’. Bells are rung in a sequence but the patterns or order of ringing must be memorised and executed by the ringers – once they are experienced.

If you have followed some of my Leewood posts you’ll have read that I have problems with numbers and maths. I recognise the mathematics of patterns, but experience a debilitating sense of panic when urgently or publicly required to do a sum, follow a numerical sequence or hold a set of numbers in my head. Method ringing is therefore a real challenge. An entire community of over 1,000 people can hear my every mistake.  I have tried to take in the information I need in several ways and this involves learning a sequence of numbers (not so hard for me, but apparently not a good way to learn methods) or writing them out on paper. Then I found a method-teaching explanation describing the pattern changes as a kind of ‘plaiting’. Plaiting or braiding comes from a world I understand, so I thought I’d apply textile tech to bell tech and see where it got me.

It was very interesting. I used dyed string (prepared for braiding workshops I taught in Wales 13 years ago). There was a different colour for each of the six bells rung in learning a beginners’ sequence called ‘Plain Hunt.’ Here the bells move along one place in the sequence but more than one bell may be doing it concurrently. So it isn’t just a case of swapping to the next number in logical sequence because it too may have swapped…. Bring on the debilitating panic.

The image shows what I did with my string. In the right hand sample if you follow a particular colour it travels along one step at a time and remains on the outer edge for two rows, before travelling back the opposite way and returning to its starting position. On the left hand sample, ignore the thick yellow string on the outside right and just look at the sequence to its left.

I certainly find it easier to ‘see’ the ringing patterns by visualising it this way. Removing the scary numbers helps. But I take issue with the description of its being ‘plaiting’ or ‘braiding’ in the method-teaching instructions. To me, a plait or a braid has every change or sequence held in position by the previous one. In the samples above it is impossible to hold the sequence changes in place without the addition of a ‘weft thread’ in the form of a cocktail stick.

Merry postscript: I learned while checking bell facts that that when Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded in1587 the parish of St Margaret’s, Westminster, paid ringers 1 shilling per head to ring out in rejoicing. That is a mighty sum.

Following on from a Welsh mention, I am off to the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Summer School at Carmarthen next week. I am thoroughly looking forward to attending as a student rather than as a tutor for a change and to meeting  Journal colleagues, old friends and students from past years. I will be on Deb Bamford’s course (Deb is The Mulberry Dyer) called Turkey Red and all that Madder. Deb has asked us to take 5 litres of tap water, and to obtain a water analysis from our water supplier. I didn’t know, until she told us, that the water supplier is legally obliged to supply this without charge. Mine finally arrived last week.

I am hoping to blog from the Summer School and will now need to reacquaint myself with the Blogsy app I have on my iPad. It worked very well in Australia last year when we created our travelling blog.


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BB3: Teaching rewards: wax, dye and shibori

Blog-Bite 3 – and almost up to date

It’s great when a student lets me know if something from my course has helped them in their work or studies. Last week I heard from someone on my West Dean course last March . The ‘Brilliant with Pattern’ course introduces several techniques with an emphasis on scarf making, although the skills are useful for general fabric design as well as learning about dyes, wax and silk. The young student who contacted me had just completed a Foundation Course in Sussex. She has been awarded a distinction. She told me she had made her final major project based on what she learned at West Dean and sent me some images, which I have her permission to publish here. Thanks, PJ, and congratulations on your success.

She wrote, about the silk vest in the images: For my final major project I made from georgette silk , the middle panel is actually a print from a photograph I took, using this direct imagery I printed onto transfer paper, then heat pressed onto cotton with an overlay of white chiffon. Then made into a basic top to focus the attention on the print.

More recently I taught two students (J and R) at home. I normally enjoy this: everything is to hand and I don’t have to load the car, drive 200 miles, unload it, sleep in a strange bed with scary pillows and eat too much breakfast every day. There is but one but – and I know it’s something of a cliché.  When students come to me I have to tidy the studio. By the time cleaning operations are complete I don’t recognise the place. Acres of floor emerge, bin bags are filled with things I didn’t know I didn’t need, I am emotionally drained by the stress and I then can’t find a thing for weeks.

J and R had a professional interest in learning silk and steam-fixed dye technique. They were already ‘creatives’ which made technical input the most important part of their visit. To realise the designs and garments they planned through the use of wax, resist and dye, they need to experiment with equipment, materials, various dye techniques and resists and work on various weights of silk. Because they live abroad, heat and humidity will play a part in how they work, how dyes need to be stored etc. There was a lot to pack in, from dye basics to some studio safety, steaming, where to buy to buy silk and wax, even how best to label and market work. We discussed various technical issues, such as painting long lengths and supporting the fabric. We had  to improvise this to some extent using workbenches: I don’t have a set of shinshi sticks and these days do not paint fabric lengths.

We worked in the garage for the longer length as the studio isn’t big enough. The garage too had required a moderate tidy but the Maintenance Department (also Catering Department for two days) had already taken care of it.

I am hoping J and R keep in touch – I’d love to see how the two days with me translates and how they solve some of the technical difficulties we discussed.

And I now have a squeaky-tidy studio and am scared to go in.


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BB2 Teaching dyes, Fusion and Sewing a Boat

Blog-Bite 2: Ardington update

The shibori course I ran at Ardington School of Crafts at the beginning of last month will be repeated on Thursday May 1st and Friday 11th July 2014. There will also be an introductory ‘taster’ day on natural dyes on 10th July 2014 plus a day on shibori using indigo on May 2nd. Look out for the courses in Ardington’s forthcoming programme.

Fusion at West Dean

On June 22nd and 23rd I took part in a new outdoor event at West Dean called Fusion. On the first day I was demonstrating and selling my work, and on the second I led three 90-minute workshops designed to introduce students to working with wax and dyes. The evening before Fusion, I arrived at West Dean to set up and the weather was fine and sunny. It was only a day off midsummer night and I took a walk up onto the hills above West Dean to look down on the tented site. The moon was up and great fields of oxeye daisies caught the evening light. It was like walking on paths through moonlight. Marvellous stuff, but no time to go all romantic because we live in England and it was the last fine weather we saw until Sunday afternoon.

Hot waxpots, dyes and fourteen students confined in a tent taking off for Chichester, anyone?  Not a mix I would normally recommend. But  with a few precautions all seemed to go ok. I was pleased with what students achieved. The sessions were carefully pre-planned and timed, with a basic traced design already on the silk so no-one had to panic because they were expected to draw anything. With the assistance of heavy-drinking Devon friends, I had made a set of simple tools using wine corks and wire which could be dipped into wax to make textures and lines. I offered students small, cheap, bristle brushes which wouldn’t drip wax onto the silk. For sessions two and three we pre-stretched the silk to save time, but students could choose colours and some tools and textures. Without friend and helper Fiona it wouldn’t have worked half so well, and here is a huge and grateful cheer for her.

HOORAY FOR FIONA!!

Sewing a Boat

In my last post I mentioned a family visit. My brother, who is well known for his epic perambulations in rather a small boat (see here)  has been visiting from Australia. In mid June we made a trip down to Falmouth, where several of his voyages have ended and begun and went to the National Maritime Museum. We saw the replica of the Bronze Age boat Morgawr which was built by a team of volunteers led by master boat-builder Brian Curnby. Paul Harry has made a brilliant time-lapse film of the building: see here.

Section of the boat showing sections sewn with yew withies

Section of the boat showing sections sewn with yew withies

One of the things that  fascinated me about the oak boat was that it was sewn together using yew withies. These appear to have been twisted into a kind of rope and pulled up very tight, probably assisted by shrinkage. From the Bronze Age onwards, English longbows were made using one stave of yew (Taxus baccata). The wood is very springy, and the sapwood and heartwood together combine to resist tension and compression. I don’t know all the techie stuff, but I ‘did’ Shakespeare’s Henry V for O Level.  I remember being not in the least interested in his tedious French wife, but far more intrigued by the English longbows used at Agincourt. There is more here about the history and the wood relating to bow making. Wikipedia has a page on yew trees with images of ancient examples from Northern Europe.

Possibly, the same qualities that made yew effective for longbows also worked well for sewing boats together, but I don’t know how the structure of the withies would differ from larger staves of yew used in bowmaking.  The most ancient trees in the British Isles are yew, with the oldest surviving wooden artifact from these shores being a spearhead an astonishing 400,000 years old – see link below.

White, T.S.; Boreham, S.; Bridgland, D. R.; Gdaniec, K.; White, M. J. (2008). “The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of Cambridgeshire”. English Heritage Project. 


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Shibori, sheep and the power of six

Last week I tutored a day-course in shibori techniques at Ardington School of Crafts. Ardington is a village on the edge of the Berkshire Downs. The venue is housed in a Victorian school, and its large windows ensure good light at all times. It has been imaginatively and calmly adapted for its current incarnation as a craft school and overlooks a traditional English landscape of farmland and trees. This week, with fine weather and leaves at the multiple-greens stage, everything looked at its best.

Students were introduced to the basic principles of shibori and how patterns will build in the fabric through what is a mathematical logic of repeating folds and layers. We worked principally with the equilateral triangular fold which creates hexagon-based patterns through its geometry of six equilateral triangles. I prepared a set of triangular card units showing how this repeat principle works. The positioning (and shape) of the clamped and identical wooden blocks either side of the folded fabric is represented by the white areas in my patterns. The clamping inhibits the flow of dye through the fabric. The wood blocks can be any shape – there is a pattern created by the green-painted triangular blocks below – and placed in any practical position. Block position will dictate the basics of the pattern. You can see from the image (below right) that the blocks do not necessarily prevent dye from entering the fabric beneath the clamped area. They just affect the character of the final pattern which is based on dye dilutions, deliberate drying of work, overdyeing etc.

Students ironed vertical folds in a scarf length and converted the strip to a stack of triangular folds. They checked the wood blocks and protected them with new clingfilm. This enables a clean start each time the blocks are used: wood absorbs dye readily and will mark  work that follows. I advise beginners to work with three colours only, plus dilutant, to avoid shades of mud. Some students admitted they had been sceptical that their seemingly random application of dye would create something so ordered and I think all were pleased with their results.

Below, you can see me opening up the steamer. This has to be done with considerable care, hence the somewhat stressed expression. You can see the roll of paper and scarves, which has been protected with foil at top and bottom to prevent drips entering the folds and spoiling the work. Note that the top piece of foil was dislodged as I lifted the chamber from the boiler.

Many thanks to the students for allowing me to post these pictures and to Faith at Ardington for taking the photos.

Other news: On Thursday 13th June, Jane Deane and I will be working on our dye research at Leewood for the final open-to-the-public time. We haven’t finished our research, but from Thursday on you can’t come to watch us. To check on details, see here.

With shearing time in Devon arriving, local flocks are looking cooler and in the summer-ish sun my nest of mason bees (Osmia) is hyperactive. The bees don’t make honeycombs (that’s another hexagon-based subject) but are laying eggs in the tubes and sealing them in various shades of Devon clay. We are lucky to have culm meadow locally which is filling with textured grasses in some summer sun. But tomorrow it is going to rain.


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Shibori through the megaphone

Last Friday I packed my passport and left the county to travel up to Gloucestershire. On  Saturday I led a shibori workshop, and gave a talk to the Gloucester Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. Not concurrently; not even foreigners from Devon can do that.  But all on the same day.

GGworkshop

Work from students of the Gloucester Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers

The group of ten students successfully produced a wide variety of scarves during the morning using concertina folds on the vertical, and a triangular fold down the length. They clamped across the triangular block of fabric using oblong wooden blocks. I gave a demonstration of  folding before setting students loose on ironing boards – and then my steam-fixed Kniazeff dyes. The frequent use of  hairdryers, to create harder-edged patterns and lines on the outer folds, was an essential part of the technique. As a result the room became hairdresser-hot and infernally  noisy. Any general verbal instructions required a megaphone. I wondered if I’d have a voice left to give the afternoon talk.

One of the problems / pleasures of my teaching technique for shibori is that results obtained are unpredictable – and unrepeatable. I can only go so far with my instructions, and then students’ work will go its own way. Results are reliant on how wet they allow the work to become, how much they use the driers, how much they dilute the dyes and even which dyes they use. Separate colours can have different interactions.

It’s also a forgiving medium. Students are often dismayed at their first attempts to create a perfectly aligned  block of fabric, but astonished when the result appears pleasing and coherent. One student produced a stunning result by not exactly following my instructions: I am now going to experiment to see if I can reproduce her  ‘Gloucester Effect’.

My talk  was called Dyeing to Connect and described some of  the inspiring ways in which natural dyes are currently being used in social and educational projects.  It went well, as far as I can tell, although a gremlin crept in to my ‘remote’ clicker and it wouldn’t move my slides forward. Maddening. I had to dart in and out of the sidelines like a demented bird to click the computer trackpad. When I returned from foreign parts last night, the clicker worked perfectly and the gremlin had departed to plague a speaker in some other distant hall. Or maybe it didn’t have a passport and they’d apprehended it at the Devon border.


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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.


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Historical Dyeing at Leewood

Over the next few months I am working on a set of historical dye experiments at Leewood in the Dartmoor National Park with friend and colleague Jane Deane. Leewood is a beautiful 30 acre smallholding in the Dartmoor National Park owned by artist Nick Viney. It is set on the bank of the river Walkham with water-meadows and ancient woodland, and offers a versatile environment for events, creative study and sustainable (but definitely comfortable!) camping. You can see Leewood’s website here.

Jane and I are conducting a set of detailed dye experiments at Leewood using traditional dye recipes and several varieties of fleece. Using the dyes of woad, indigo, cochineal, madder and weld we are comparing amounts of dye absorbed by individual fleeces. This information will be of interest to contemporary makers and textile conservators. It will be a long project which could run into a second year so any conclusions will be arrived at slowly.

We did a starter session with weld earlier this month.

Our weld session left us with rather more questions than it answered, but we are on our way. The sessions at Leewood are open to visitors – although we may politely ask them to stop asking questions from time to time while we struggle with the maths, at which neither of us excels.

The next session is on April 11th, and we will be using madder.


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Wax and dye course at West Dean

Two weekends ago I tutored a new course at West Dean called Silk Scarves: Brilliant with Pattern.  I taught a number of pattern-making ideas which combined various elements of wax resist work with shibori. Most students were new to both techniques and I was initially concerned that I had tried to squeeze too much material into too short a time; however they told me at the end of the course that they didn’t agree. As always, I tend to learn as much as I teach and it was fascinating to see different results achieved with the same information – but processed by different creative minds.

Below is a sequence I worked out for creating what I call a  double scarf. By working the scarf folded double, you automatically create a symmetrical design. It will only work effectively on a sheer or very light silk as the wax needs to penetrate through the double layers easily.

If you want to try it:

  • Press the scarf in half along its length
  • Pin the scarf to a frame. For the piece above I pinned the rolled edges of the blank to the frame edge. The fold was aligned down the open centre of the frame
  • Support the folded edge with clips and masking tape. Do not put pins through the centre fold or it will mark with holes. You can only see the clips in the final two images
  • Once the folded scarf is firmly attached you can work a wax design through both layers. Remember that you can work half a design element across the fold (in this case, a semi circle)
  • Work several layers of wax and dye. In the example above I gradually altered the dye colour for the background to work from one colour to another
  • When dry, de-wax and steam the scarf. Very important: do not attempt to open up the scarf until the de-wax process. The heat of the iron will allow you to peel the layers apart; otherwise you may irreparably damage the silk

West Dean will be hosting an entirely new creative event on June 22 – 23 called Fusion. Details and booking info here. There will be demos of craft and cookery, garden tours, a shed trail (the Poetry and Knitting Sheds sound intriguing), performance, music, a family area, visits to the internationally renowned Tapestry Studio, and so on. And there will be craft workshops. I will be demonstrating my wax resist work on the Saturday and offering three 90 minute workshops in wax resist on the Sunday. Bookings through West Dean, and there’s an Early Bird  advance discount. See you there?