Isabella Whitworth

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


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.


Devon Guild of Craftsmen

West Dean College

Ardington School of Crafts

Association of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers


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.