Inspiration from past Brothers

Penny Walsh

Madder dyed silk damask - AO textiles

As for so many Brothers, these last months have been a time of cancelled work, disrupted orders and long delays in planned collaborations. For many of us, it will have come at a crucially bad time. In my case, my two colleagues and I felt our little textile company (AO Textiles) was reaching a milestone – the production of a collection of fully sustainable locally woven furnishing fabrics, dyed with a range of natural plant dyes. We had finally made a fully workable link from design, through technology, production and extensive testing!

Then everything came to a standstill.

However this enforced change of pace has given everyone some time to think. I have found myself reconsidering our relationship with industrial production processes, in light of the environmental challenges we all now face.

Autumn leaves as a resource for a furnishing fabric colour range

A comparatively recent Brother, I have become increasingly aware of the great range of disciplines within the AWG. As a textile designer and dyer linked to highly industrial processes, questions that may concern many of us about production methods, technology and environmental issues buzzed around my head.

At this moment, by a twist of fate, a friend who is an ace researcher sent me some fascinating images of the pages she had discovered from William Morris’s Merton Abbey workbooks. Morris had taken over the Merton Abbey works from Huguenot silk weavers in 1881 to create a workshop and expand from what must have been an incredibly cramped dye-house at the back of his house in Queen Square. In these workshops he set up printing tables and looms, the building already had facilities for dyeing and the river Wandle ‘supplying water of a special quality for dyeing - especially madder’* – ran beside the premises.

The images and recipes from the workbooks were thrilling as they have been rather inaccessible and un-researched from a purely practical point of view. They show Morris’s detailed and precise instructions on colour quality and matching, to his expert workforce, instructions that produced the colours for many famous Liberty fabrics. Meticulous experiments and techniques in dyeing silk, wool and linens fill the pages, an inspiration for any dyer and colourist. I was inspired and immediately made up a set of indigo baths!

Indigo bath

Morris had himself learnt dyeing and colouring from a master, Thomas Wardle, like Morris an early member of the AWG. I re-read Brenda King’s brilliant book on Wardle. He had inherited a traditional silk dye-house in Leek Staffordshire, from his father, and had continued to pursue excellence and craftsmanship in an industrial context. Relying on a highly skilled workforce and extensive knowledge of dyestuffs (50 different natural dyestuffs were stored in the Leek dye-houses), Wardle researched recipes from medieval Europe, India and Persia.

Morris and Wardle began to work together from about 1875, in Leek and at Morris’s house in Queen Square. The struggle of these artist/craftsmen to revive old skills and adapt them at a time of enormous technological change was inspiring – and made perfect sense to me today!

Morris’s translation of craft processes into mechanised production required a high level of artistry. He hated the products and working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, he felt it degraded the workforce and did not produce beauty. When he set up his own Merton Abbey works in 1876 the colour mixer and the foremen shared in the profits of the business.

This bridge between creativity and technology, the relationship between designer, colourist and technician meant that he adapted industrial processes to make textiles that were works of art. At Merton Abbey, Morris produced a series of dazzling designs inspired by historic fabrics and nature, and Wardle used his knowledge of dyes and chemistry to to get the colouring accurate, test each colour and adjust the recipes for different fabrics. Letters between the two men show Morris trying to get 'the pinkness of cochineal crimson and the tones of indigo down towards blue-black'*. Their exhibit won a gold medal at the 1878 Paris Exhibition and by the 1880’s Liberty’s collaborated with them to bring the collections to their customers.

Indigo dyed fabrics, blue to black

The accounts of researching techniques of the past and adapting these to textile production at a time, like today, of global technological change inspired me. Although good quality materials and natural dyes can make textiles expensive (which rather offended Morris’s socialist sensitivities), the ideals embodied in the art of Morris and Wardle were that good design created by a skilled workforce can enhance daily life. We humble dyers can feel ourselves constantly inspired by these two great men.

Colour shade samples from madder root 

In fact now that we know the hidden environmental costs of synthetic colour and of attempting to dispose of effluent from hazardous dyes means that ‘cost’ is relative and ambiguous. More than ever, we will all have to pay more, use less and make sure that everything we have in our homes is very beautiful.

Back to my indigo vat – an exquisite bloom is forming on the surface and my hands are a nice shade of aquamarine. Surely one has to actually handle a colour to understand it!

'Morris revived the historic method of making green with an overlay of yellow on blue. It faded gradually and beautifully, the design is integral with the cloth... the next generation…was content to design on paper rather than get their hands in the dye vat' from Modern Block Printed Textiles by Master Alan Powers.

*Quotes from 'William Morris Textiles' by Linda Parry

Pink from madder and Brazilwood, and Geoff - the expert dye technician at Gainsborough Silk Weavers 


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