Isabella Whitworth

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


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Mordant pastes

The work I’m briefly describing here is an offshoot from a joint project. I have been researching mordant pastes (as taught by Michel Garcia) with a dyer friend; eventually we will write up our work because it isn’t yet finished. But the work we have done has made me wonder if it wasn’t the key to finding a satisfying, creative way to use natural dyes in combination with wax resist. This has been an ambition of mine since I went to ISEND* in 2011. It’s there I first came across Michel Garcia, on whose generously-shared research our mordant paste work is based.

There are technical problems in trying to combine paste with wax resist. Wax melts in the vat if it’s taken above a certain temperature, and each dye needs at least some heat to fix it. Cold dyeing isn’t an option: it would all take too long. The dyes must take their place in an ordered sequence for colour. The pH of one vat can affect colour of dyes in another layer, the wax can begin to flake off, etc. If the indigo dips are included, there may be as many as 20 operations to create one scarf, as they did in the image below. So it’s time consuming and isn’t going to produce a low-cost item, but I feel I’m getting somewhere at last. The dyes used are weld (Reseda luteola) from a British source, and indigo (a mixture of Devon-grown Persicaria tinctoria and imported powder from Tamil Nadu). The different paste resists give different shades of yellow on the base layer, including the brownish colour visible in small, thin lines and spots which came from the iron in the mordant paste.

Follow up post in July 2016: see here.

pastes

Mordant pastes (iron, alum and titanium) on silk crêpe de Chine. Weld immersion-dyed; wax resist, indigo-dyed, wax resist and multiple indigo dips

* ISEND: International Symposium and Exhibition on Natural Dyes, La Rochelle, 2011. You can download information about this here

A little about Michel Garcia’s technique here

 


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AGWSD Summer School 2015

There is a lot to say about Summer School and I’m short of time, so pictures will have to do their ‘thousand words’ thing. But here’s a quick summary. The Summer School of the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers (AGWSD) takes place every two years, in a different location. (If you want to know about the AGWSD, follow the link at the bottom of the post).

This year we convened at Moreton Morrell, at an agricultural college in Warwickshire not far from Stratford-upon-Avon. The arrangements for the 17 courses were immaculately prepared by the organisers, although some tutors and students faced various challenges in their allotted teaching spaces. In mine, for instance, wooden wall panels had been fitted to cover walls, and the holes in them had been cut too small to allow a plug into the sockets behind. As we were working in the joinery department, this caused considerable merriment, and resulted in creative arrangements of extension leads – the admiration of all knitters at Summer School. I should add that the department staff came to cut the panel holes larger and were more than helpful.

The intensely blue floor was an unexpectedly complicated colour distraction when working on sheer scarves stretched flat. It was hard to see the true colours of the dyes. Needing somewhere to hang drying work, I searched in vain in the workroom for suitable points to fix a line. Eventually a group of rebels set up a washing line, trespassing into the stables (no, no horses, just heaps of old chairs).

The course

I taught two identical courses on wax resist which ran back-to-back, and lasted two-and-a-half days each. These short courses, taught by several of the tutors, were designed so that students could follow two sets of studies in the week, and allow the possibility of a shorter stay. I have to admit that as an ageing tutor I found the two-course arrangement tiring. It demanded two inputs of ‘startup’ energy in an already exhausting week: on the plus side it meant that I could teach 20 students, not just 10.

Students used a range of traditional tools such as Indonesian tjantings, Ukrainian kystkas, Japanese ro-fude brushes and a Gambian tool made of a handle wound with copper wire. I also brought a motley crew of household brushes, kitchen forks, tractor washers, odd bits of wire and wood which were used to dip into the wax to make marks on the fabric. Students then dyed the fabric surface and built up the work up layer by layer.

The students rose to all manner of challenges, whether creative, personal, age, or health-related, as I realised from the ‘thank you’ card given to me at the end. Their work was inspired and inspiring, many tackling creative dyeing for the first time and declaring themselves somewhat anxious at the beginning. Teaching a few students who already had some experience was good for the group, allowing beginners to see more developed work and to talk through techniques and ideas. I was delighted to re-meet one student I first taught 17 years ago, and see how her work has developed.

The Summer School organisers faced considerable challenges with the demands made on them by the premises and some of the students, dealing with them with patience and grace. They had set up a full après-teach programme to keep us all out of trouble when darkness fell. Our Monday evening talk was given by Association President Jenny Balfour Paul with characteristic enthusiasm and energy. She outlined her travels with indigo, and how it led to writing her recently-published book Deeper than Indigo. Jenny gave a further day of her time to visit all studios and courses the next day, engaging with students and their work.

Jenny

Jenny Balfour Paul addresses students at the Summer School

There were tours (I went to RSC Stratford); a Silent Auction; barbecues; a hog roast; a fashion show, a Trade Fair; and a Fifties party to celebrate the Association’s 60th year. Students stayed up into the wee hours to make Fifties outfits and fascinators. I’m afraid I was too tired to join in the fun and went to bed unfascinatored.

My thanks to all hard-working Summer School organisers, particularly Chris, plus the support team whose names I do not necessarily know. And thanks to my students, for their trust, good humour, co-operation and enthusiasm. Please look at Katie’s blog, linked below, for a student’s view of my course (and the Rigid Heddle course taught by Dawn Willey) at this year’s Summer School. You can see Katie in the images above, painting the four panels. She based them on the Four Seasons.

Links

Hilltop Katie’s blog about her experience of Summer School here

For an overview of Summer School plus a Storify read her account here

Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers website here

The Journal of the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers here

Deeper than Indigo website here


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Thinking Positive

If you signed up to my blog solely on the basis of posts on natural dyes and history, I offer apologies. This is about neither.  As well as researching the history of natural dyes (in particular, orchil), I still produce work as a textile artist. Some of this uses natural dyes, but I also work with synthetic dyes on silk for resist techniques such as wax and shibori.

The Devon Guild of Craftsmen is holding an exhibition called Life Illustrated from 2nd October – 15th November 2015. Sketchbooks are the theme of Life Illustrated, showing them both as source material and as part of the creative process. A number of Devon Guild members are contributing new work, plus their precious books.

My training as an illustrator in the late 1960s was drawing-based, and I have used sketchbooks as source material for over 50 years. For Life Illustrated I decided to revisit an ‘old’ design and see how it adapted to current techniques and materials.  Back then I was using a simple gutta outliner to draw the design and control the dye. Now I prefer to use wax. The design was based on drawings I made of fritillary butterfly wings. Here are sketchbook studies from 17 years ago:

The design formula divided the scarf into about nine sections. A sinuous line bisected all sections, running down on the scarf’s vertical. You can see this drawn out in the sketchbook images above although the scarf is imagined from the side. Shapes either side of the sinuous line are either ‘positive’ (dark on a light ground) or ‘negative’ (light out of a dark ground). This polarity swapped from side to side and line to line. It was logical to look at, but entirely silly to explain. Below, you’ll find a sketch showing the basic structure.

Although I sometimes archive samples, I don’t have any of Fritillary. They were large, on very good quality silk and they sold well. So I was probably too money-grabbing to keep one, which I now regret. All I have left are sketches and a rather poor image rescued from my old website.

For the exhibition Life Illustrated I made new sketches to remind myself of what had inspired me. Then I stretched a scarf, dyed the background and outlined the design with wax – in much the same way as I remembered doing with gutta. I found I was able to reproduce the old design pretty well, although the quality of the outlining wax marks is looser than with gutta. That’s not a problem with this design. So I went ahead and made two or three scarves.

One of the reasons I became tired of gutta is that it is an outlining process. All design elements are drawn carefully with the gutta pen, and dye is filled in up to the gutta line. It’s a tight technique – even a bit tedious at times because one is often reproducing a pre-planned scheme. The reason I love wax is that spontaneous brush marks can create the shapes in a design (by instantly blocking out further application of dye). Of course, one can use wax tools such as tjantings or kystkas to draw outlines, just like gutta. But I find larger waxed marks more expressive and the design evolves in a more fluid way. So my next step was to try to adapt the old design to this preferred use of waxed marks instead of outlines.

I soon realised that ‘block-out’ marks needed more space around them than the simpler outlined shapes I used years ago. Large brush marks are often textured, oddly shaped and  ‘whiskery’ at the edges. In the same nine-section format, my next waxed scarf looked crammed and overcrowded. I reduced the number of horizontal divisions to five and it works better, but that’s as far as I’ve got. I’m not done with it yet.

Positive and negative: To make the ‘negative’ marks (lighter on a dark ground) I make a large waxed shape with a brush that blocks out the background. Then the background is dyed around that mark.  To make ‘positive’ marks (darker on a light ground) I create an island of unwaxed silk surrounded by a sea of freely waxed marks.

Teaching: On Sunday I’m off to Warwickshire to teach at the Summer School of the Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. I’ll be running two courses back-to-back introducing wax resist on silk.

I will be teaching three times at West Dean next year (March, May and July) but if you want a place, please book early. The March course already has a waiting list.

I’m also running a one-day introduction to wax resist on silk at Ardington School of Crafts next month (September). Please contact these venues for information (links below) and see my courses page.

Links

Devon Guild of Craftsmen

West Dean College

Ardington School of Crafts

Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers


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Fit – for some kind of purpose

There can’t be many households in agricultural areas which don’t have some baler twine in their house.  It’s used by farmers principally for the binding of hay or straw bales. Wikipedia states: Baling twine or baler twine is a small diameter sisal or synthetic twine used to bind a quantity of fibrous material (notably hay or straw) into a more compact and easily stacked form. Tensile strengths of single-ply baling twine range from 95 psi (0.66 MPa) to 325 psi (2.24 MPa).

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Synthetic baler twine: dropped by roadside ready-wound into a length to be used for an as yet unknown task

Down here you can find useful discarded lengths of it in the hedgerows, on the moors and in the fields. I’ve seen the multitude of uses to which it is put: holding a fence together; as a temporary gate-hinge; keeping a car-boot lid closed; as an improvised dog-lead; in birds’ nests and more crucially, holding up a farmer’s trousers. People collect it where it drops, saving it for a multitude of future unknown tasks. There is a kind of simple human optimism in this.

Here in Devon, local farmers have been completing the harvest, which includes baling and the generous distribution of baler twine to keep errant boot-lids down and trousers up. Recently they have been cutting moor grassland to use for animal bedding. The grass is cut and allowed to dry before being baled into cylinders for storage and I recently noticed a group of these, bound up in what looked like black and white stripes of baler twine. Only they weren’t, and it wasn’t.

I had a look up close to discover the ‘twine’ was actually a wide plastic mesh. It contracts widthwise when wound onto the bales under tension. I was intrigued by its structure and complexity, wondered who sat and designed it, where it is made, and whether its structure was solely suited to this one baling process. I started to research it online – and found it’s called bale netwrap and is sold by suppliers of agricultural bindings, such as good old baler twine. Not so useful in the trouser department, I suspect, and might be hazardous for birds that become caught up in it.

I have been moderately unfit for purpose myself recently, hence my lack of posts. Now I’m better and I have just completed teaching my final course of the year at West Dean, only to return with a heavy cold. Unfortunately I can think of no way in which baler twine will alleviate the symptoms.

My March 27th – 30th  2015  course Rhythm and Pattern is nearly full so if you want a place, contact West Dean as soon as possible. I will be teaching a further course from 17th – 19th July 2015.

 


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Summer schools…

No posting recently because I’ve had a month of intensive teaching followed by intensive feet-putting-up. I ran three courses at Ardington in Oxfordshire and then four days in Nether Stowey at the studio of Janet Phillips.

At Ardington School of Crafts I taught my synthetic dyes shibori day, plus two one-day (repeated) courses on natural dyes. The natural dye course is a taster to a fascinating subject with some practical work at the dyepots, but also intended as an eye-opener to textiles seen at a stately home, museum etc. It’s even relevant to looking at paintings: I often wonder what dyestuffs were used on garments represented (with pigments) in a historic portrait. We had to move fast, with all fibre and fabric pre-mordanted, and an indigo vat ready to go. Most students dyed a scarf using simple immersion methods. We used madder, weld, cochineal and two indigo vats (one weak, one strong).

At Nether Stowey, I taught a three-day-dye course to several of Janet’s graduates from her Masterclass.  On day one they learned some shibori folds using steam-fixed dyes; day two gave them a taster of wax resist, and day three was a full day with indigo. At the same time as I taught dyes, Janet was teaching ‘shibori on the loom’ to students from the London Guild. In this technique, removable weft threads are incorporated into the weaving. They are later used to draw up the cloth tight. According to how the shibori threads are woven, patterns emerge after the piece is dyed, then opened up.

Students used coloured and plain warps, on different pieces. Some of this shibori work was put into my indigo vat on day four; others used Janet’s fibre-reactive dyes which were applied by placing woven pieces into a short length of gutter (brilliant idea) and painting by hand.  I am used to folding, tying and clamping for indigo work and although I have seen loom shibori before, I haven’t watched the whole process from start to finish. A combination of enthusiastic and knowledgeable students,  Janet’s teaching and the imaginative arrangements made by Janet and Nigel made for a very enjoyable week. Did I mention glorious weather?

 

Many thanks to students at Ardington and Nether Stowey for permission to use images of their work.

Teaching in 2015

Dates of next years’ courses are accumulating. I will be tutoring two courses at the Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers Summer School in August 2015 at Moreton Morrell. Details of the entire event can be seen here and there are details on this page.

I am teaching a new one-day introductory course in wax-resist at Ardington School of Crafts in 2015 as well as days on shibori scarves, indigo dyeing.  The Vibrant World of Natural Dyes proved very popular this year and I will be teaching it again in 2015: I have one course at West Dean scheduled for March. If you want to sign in, do so soon because my October course has been full since April.


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All in the Background

I’ve been working on a set of scarves in which the first layer of dye is more than usually vital. In layered wax-resist one works by blocking out, or outlining, existing dyed areas. This effectively ‘leaves them out’. One then adds more dye for the next layer of the design. This sequence of dye – wax – dye – wax can go on more or less indefinitely until there is no room left on the fabric, or the silk is saturated with dye and will take no more.

In this way the first layer of dye, if applied in a lively and varied way, can still work its magic when the silk is covered with several more layers. If wax outlines are used in a design, these, or the areas they define, will appear as interesting as the layer of dye they cover or isolate. This new design, which I’m calling Fish and Fowl, relies on lines, outlines and areas of lighter and dark tone.

I was teaching the principle last week at West Dean on my Brilliant with Pattern course: it’s hard to explain to students verbally and far easier by means of examples, demonstration and encouraging them to ‘have a go’ on experimental sample silk pieces.

My October course at West Dean is already full, but if you would like to learn the wax and dye technique along with some basic shibori, it’s worth adding your name to the waiting list. A further course is sometimes arranged if there are several people waiting.

Otherwise, I will be teaching Brilliant with Pattern at West Dean again at the end of March 2015.

If you want to book, look out for the Winter short courses programme which will be available from the West Dean website.

 


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Brilliant with Pattern

Brilliant with Pattern is the title of a course I teach at West Dean College, and I’m off again tomorrow. The course always runs under this title, but I never tutor it the same way. It’s partly because I’d get bored teaching an identical course and so I take different ideas along, but also because the creativity of individual students infuses the group, making each outcome entirely different.

Preparation for these intense weekends is extensive, in terms of assembling boxes and general ‘stuff’, but also in the thinking about how I will approach them. This week I completed two days’ teaching at Ardington School of Crafts (see some images on Facebook here) and finished up with a visit to a friend in Oxford. She took me to see the recently completed courtyard of the Mathematical Institute.

There I saw the work of someone truly ‘brilliant with pattern’. Professor Sir Roger Penrose, mathematician and physicist, works at the Mathematical Institute and his brilliance shines on fields beyond my understanding. But his work on non-periodic tiling  (yes, I had to look it up too: try here for some assistance) is exhibited in the form of a pavement outside the entrance to the Mathematical Institute. It’s pattern: constructed, mathematical, non repeating, and compellingly beautiful. The steel, mirrored sections work especially well, reflecting sky, birds, or passers by.

 

On the same day I was able to spend a short time in the Pitt Rivers Museum, perhaps my favourite museum in the world. The newly-cleaned and restored glass roof of the Natural History Museum lit a path to the Pitt Rivers, which has no external public entrance. I know I will always discover something new in the Pitt Rivers: going there is like Christmas. This time it was a collection of resist-dyed eggs, the kind I wrote about in my previous post. The Pitt Rivers collection of these eggs was made at the turn of the 20th century in Galicia – not Spanish Galicia, but the one that is now part of  Poland and Ukraine.


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Pysanky and a kystka

On the recent Brilliant with Pattern course at West Dean one of my students had brought along something unusual. It was an Eastern European kystka. These small tools for applying hot wax are used, particularly in Ukraine, for the decoration of Easter eggs known as pysanky. I’d heard of a kystka but never seen one and until I started to research today’s post I knew nothing of the pysanky tradition. Wikipedia has a page on it here; it is a full and fascinating read which explains symbolism in the colours, the motifs and the actual giving of the eggs. It describes the ancient heritage of the craft, how patterns and methods were handed from mother to daughter, and the tools used. The list of pysanka recipients each Easter is especially interesting, revealing ‘life priorities’ of the givers. It includes a gift to the beehive, and eggs to the graves of deceased family members.

A list of natural dyes in traditional pysanky includes familiar names, such as alder buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Dyer’s Broom (Genista tinctoria) and green walnut husks from Juglans nigra. The Wiki article introduced me to two new words in the language of symbols: scevomorphic and cosmomorphic. To find out what they mean, follow those links to a website about pysanka tradition.

And in case you’re wondering how to pronounce pysanky, this is what the pysanky website says:

Despite what you may have heard on the Food Network or in a local class, ‘Pysanka’ is pronounced ‘PIH-sahn-kah’  (with the plural ‘pih-sahn-KIH’),  with all short vowels.  The term ‘pysanky’ is not, never was, nor will it ever be correctly pronounced ‘pie-SAN-kee’!!!!

 

My West Dean student (not the lady in the image above!) showed me how she uses her kystka on silk fabric. I was impressed because it was clear that the tool adapts well to applying fine lines to fabric and it doesn’t drip. I have never felt wholly at ease with a tjanting, although it produces beautiful fine lines in expert hands. The reservoir and spout of the kystka is made of brass but looks similar to the ‘rotring-style’ heads I used to use to apply spirit-based gutta resist in pre-wax days. The reservoir is small and the hot wax would soon run out, but one can adapt to this. I am wondering if I could improvise my old, now-unused gutta nibs into home-made kystkas. But brass may be a preferable metal with hot wax than steel ‘rotring’ nibs and I’ll have to try it out.

 


 

A greeting to Ukraine  This post sends a special greeting to L, a reader in Ukraine, who has been a regular visitor to my blog until all the current distractions. I send warmest spring and Easter wishes at a time of continuing anxiety.

Update: a reply from Ukraine I had a reply from my reader L, recalling their grandmother using onion skin dyes to make krashanky, which are one-colour-dyed eggs. The skins were collected well in advance of Easter so that there were enough to make deeper colours. In Ukraine, the kystka is called a pysachok.  My Ukrainian correspondent also recommended a great website here. Teresa Mihalko Harbert is The Real Thing when it comes to decorating eggs and the Trypillian culture, which provides some of her inspiration, a source of some superb patterns. Thank you L.


 

Acknowledgments: The image of Olga Kryway is by Robert L. Stone from the State Archives of Florida which allows reproduction for educational use. Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/108313

Thanks also to R for allowing me to reproduce an image of her family’s beautiful collection of decorated eggs and to A for the generous gift of a kystka.


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The Journal and a few bossy leaves

I’ve recently been up to London to the first Journal meeting of 2014. Whatever time of the year, this long day trip involves a very early start to drive to the station and travel up to London. We start at 11 am and the whole day, even lunch, forms a meeting to discuss Journal matters and plan forthcoming issues. On the chime of 4 pm the meeting ends and the room empties so swiftly you’d think we were all going to turn into pumpkins.  Members disappear to catch their trains – and occasionally, their planes. There is a great intensity to Journal meeting days, quite a few biscuits are eaten and sometimes it’s a bit frustrating. One has the day-long company of interesting textile-y people with whom one exchanges no more than a sentence or two of nothing-to-do-with-Journal conversation. But that’s the way it is. We are all volunteers giving time for a registered charity / organisation and we keep our expenses to a minimum: most of us are able to complete our round-trip to London within the day. If  you don’t know the Journal, have a look at the website.

Australian Journey: Leaves at Katherine

Australian Journey: Leaves at Katherine

Back at home I have been working on a new piece of wax-resist work which started off with one idea in mind but was intruded on, in a most impolite and insistent way, by the shapes of eucalyptus leaves. The direction of the work (and my hand) changed totally. It’s weird when this happens and is, I assume, a luxury not open to certain types of craft work such as weaving, which require more advance planning.

I’m not sure whether the bossy leaves idea will work, but I have dewaxed the silk and it will go into the steamer this week, along with several shibori scarves of a – thankfully – more compliant nature. Then I will creep up on the leaf-piece and see if it’s any good.

This new work is part of the series I call Australian Journey because the designs are based on colours, shapes and ideas from our trip to Western Australia in 2012. There is a bit more about it here and you can find other posts and images by clicking the Australian Journey link in the tag cloud.


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It’s all gone a bit Rumsfeld..

“… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” 

United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, 2002 

 

With the Christmas break just round the corner I know that if I don’t hit certain things right now it will be endlessly harder to pick them up in the New Year. So I have stopped making new work (see above) and am  organising the references for my co-authored DHA paper.

I am into Harvard References. I don’t have an academic background but occasionally I stray into Dark Territory and have to abide by the mighty rules, one of which is correct referencing. Writing up the DHA paper has meant revisiting texts read and absorbed maybe five years back. I have been favoured with a good memory and this means I sometimes remember very well that I know something, but don’t remember how or why. If I recognised the need to know at time of reading I will have taken a note of a source.  But as is the way with research, sometimes I don’t always know the relevance of a fact or a comment until a few years down the line. Then it can become vital – and that’s when it all goes a bit Rumsfeld.

So to his much lampooned statement (which I have always felt is more sane than many suppose) I’d add the following:

“… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. We just don’t know where we read them…”

And I recommend the University of Exeter’s helpful online resource here.