Isabella Whitworth

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


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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

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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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A foreign country

Everything there is to be said about memory has been said before, and very much better than I’ll manage here. We build all kinds of structures with memories, but if we start serious archaeology these structures often teeter: fallen material is merely the start of a new construction.

I’m at an age when I have more past than future. So I am curious about probably unstable structures on which my memories (and assumptions) are built. I like revisiting once-familiar places, and finding out what happened to people I once knew well. It’s a kind of nosiness, but it’s mainly a need to clarify connections, identify patterns across time and events and reorganise a continuous construction programme.

Sometimes a more infinite past is tangibly and intriguingly revealed. In the last months, British coasts have been lashed by sequences of ferocious storms. At several coastal locations traces of ancient forests appeared when raging seas scoured out layers of sand and stones above them. Some of the 4,500-year-old stumps and roots are astonishing, such as those in Cardigan Bay – see here. Ancient forests also appeared in the South West.

We found the the ones at Daymer Bay, emerging from slabs of dark compressed soil-like material threaded by a network of roots and embedded with land snail shells. The submerged trees only appear every hundred years or so and may by now have been re-covered by sand and rocks. They look ordinary, just like any old tree stumps, which of course, they are – and aren’t. My imagination was fired and I noticed other visitors were approaching the stumps with something like reverence. By my calculation (and construction), the unknown but important person buried in the Dartmoor White Horse Hill cist  might have walked in the forest at Daymer Bay, although it’s a bit of a Bronze Age bus ride.

Last weekend I was teaching at West Dean and en route home diverted to the New Forest, a once familiar place. Starting with a clear picture of what I was looking for, and where, I soon found that memories weren’t particularly accurate. In ‘deconstructing’ I found that paths were longer, or shorter, or just somewhere else. Buildings that had clearly been in place forty years ago took me by surprise, as if I’d never seen them before. In ‘reconstructing’ a new visual memory, old versions were revised by new observations, both being perceptions which can, at least for the moment, be separately accessed. Most curious.

I was named after a great-aunt. Her grave is in a churchyard in the New Forest and my headstone would be the same as hers – were I to be buried, which I probably won’t. I don’t find it spooky or morbid visiting the grave with (almost) my full name on it; I like to go because there will be few people that now remember who she was.  I have her to thank for my love of textiles because her house was full of beautiful fabrics.  As a small child I loved to poke about in her mothballed chests of drawers where I plunged my hands into heaps of beautiful embroidered shawls and scarves. She made patchwork quilts, and beautifully executed decorative dolls from pipe-cleaners and precious fabric scraps. She tatted long scarves like nets for herself and her friends.

grave

I still have some of her clothes. As an art student in the late 1960s I used to wear the reversible brown and cream silk jacket with the fleur-de-lys type motif (shown above) when I went in to college. It looked great over a black polo neck and jeans, which would have horrified my great-aunt. The jacket was much admired and if I wore it, I felt totally-far-out-cool.

All her clothes are in the style of the 1920s and 30s and are handmade: there are no designer labels.


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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.