Isabella Whitworth

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


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A treasured textile tool

tool

My textile treasure from The Gambia, the gift of a former student. 

When unpacking after teaching at West Dean this week, I noticed one of my favourite tools hadn’t re-appeared from the boxes.  I began to realise how precious the tool was, and kicked myself for being sufficiently stupid to take it out of the studio and risk losing it. The tool is no bigger than a long paintbrush, it’s clearly home-made and would look insignificant to anyone finding it but not ‘in the know’ about what it was. It could have been binned, or slipped beneath a workbench. It might never re-appear.

The tool, used for applying wax, was given to me nearly ten years ago by an inspiring and enterprising young student who left us with very special memories of her. She was on a scholarship studying batik world-wide and she stayed with us for a few days while I showed her how I worked.  She later travelled to The Gambia, and sent me the tool on her return. It has a simply-shaped, graceful wooden handle around the tip of which is wound a casual-looking thick spiral of copper wire. The spiral forms into a tightly-twisted, spout-shaped ‘nib’.

The copper tool can be dipped into hot wax, and because copper is a good conductor of heat the entire wire quickly reaches equal temperature. The coils of the spiral hold a considerable cargo of hot wax, which flows down into the ‘nib’ allowing a controlled drawing to be made in hot wax. Experience has taught me not to start drawing until drip frequency is slow, or wax flows too fast and floods the fabric. The tool looks as though it shouldn’t work, but in fact it’s remarkably effective and one of my studio favourites.

Some time ago I tried to replicate the tool for students in my classes, using copper wire and a substantial twig, or an old paintbrush, for a handle. I have had surprising success with them and I’ve found, for instance, that a narrower gauge wire can form a finer nib. But none of my versions has the grace and integrity of the original, or carries its history. I instinctively choose the Gambia tool when working, even though my replicas work just as well.

The tool was created by people who own little and must labour extremely hard to produce their batik work: they have no electricity, gather wax from bee-hives, heat wax on a fire and carry all their water by hand. Only when I unpacked my boxes and contemplated the possible loss of my student’s gift did I acknowledge (for the first time) that the tool’s story was as important as its function.

Happily, I found it.

 

Link: This remarkable little book tells the story of Rushyan’s batik journey

Paths of Molten Wax: A Textile Odyssey

 

 

 

 

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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.