Wednesday, 1 April 2009


Wax, both paraffin wax and beeswax, is a material as fundamental to batik as dye and cloth. For the last few years I've been aware that there are global issues with honey bees (colony collapse disorder, or CCD) hence a potential for shortages of beeswax. And that alongside peak oil and rising oil prices will undoubtedly be peak paraffin wax and rising paraffin wax prices. I also knew that I didn't know that much about either, and so in January set about researching.

I started with paraffin wax, but fairly soon it appeared there are far more issues to learn about with beeswax. The article was written for the Batik Guild Magazine, in the event an edited version was published a few weeks ago. The full version is on my website here though the research is ongoing and will be updated. I will write up the paraffin wax research later this year too.

In the way that soy wax has been developed as a resist in the US (though I understand it's not that good for batik), and the Malaysians are working with a oilpalm waste resist, I feel in Europe we need to consider finding and developing a future home-grown source for wax, as an alternative to paraffin wax and supplement to beeswax. I thought I'd read somewhere that snowberry was used in the past for its wax qualities - berries I assume, not leaves - but can't find a reference for it now. That a new source could in fact be an old source is just as feasible as one developed from waste from another process or product.

Researching beeswax was so interesting I have become enthused to take up beekeeping! But compared to the small scale growing of woad I began last year, I think instead I will see if there is a beekeeper locally who would be happy for me to help and learn from them. As wonderful and interesting as woad growing has been, I feel it would be too big a commitment for me to try to grow as much as I envisage using, and beekeeping would be even more of a responsibility.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

a science of qualities

For much of today I've been thinking about scientific process, following my last post on wax temperature. I have been making batik since 1990, so that's nineteen years (wow! is it really that long!). For much of this time I've had a good feeling for when the wax is not hot enough, when the room/ambient temperature is not warm enough, when the wax has crossed the threshold of 'good', and so on. The same with dyes, colour mixing, in fact everything to do with the batik process. Some I learnt from my early tutors Jin and Latif in Malaysia, but most "knowing" has been gained intuitively, through practice and observation and awareness... and over time. For instance I've never needed a thermometer to know if the room was warm enough for batikking - I came to realise I just had to consider what I was wearing. Anything more than a t-shirt and sweatshirt meant it was too cold.

My experiment last Monday in wax temperatures at different Tixor Malam settings was generalised/experimental. It was not set up to be controlled and perfectly measured, because I was more focused on the artwork I was doing. My thinking today was that if it had been a perfectly measured and controlled experiment (when it would be hard to also focus on artwork) , then that would give me precise results for only those variables (eg that wax mix). Another experiment would be needed for each variable. How maddening is that?

But more than maddening, I feel such a method takes away knowledge and understanding rather than giving it. If I heat the waxpot from calculations based on test results rather than on an innate awareness of what is necessary, garnered from experience, have I lost something fundamental?

Which led me to thinking about A Science of Qualities. I first heard about this from Brian Goodwin, I think at a talk he was giving at the University of Plymouth a few years ago. It is akin to Goethean science, and draws on impressions, intuition, sensory perception and sensory imagination, context, history, seeing in beholding, appropriate response, dialogue and consensus, and evaluation. It was so exciting when I first heard of this approach - inside me was singing 'that's what I do!, that's what I do!', meaning it's how I approach working on a painting or design. Or visiting a place, seeing a new phenomena, travelling, whatever. I don't do it in such a structured coordinated way nor with an ability to add headings to each element of my process, but what I do resonates with the pattern.

The Science of Qualities allows both the essence and the bigger connections to be expressed, through seeing the whole rather than the parts (holistic versus reductionist). But somehow I don't think it is appropriate to demonstrate wax temperatures - but now I think: why not? Isn't it easier to tell someone that from experience I found if I am wearing more than a sweatshirt the room's too cool for successful batikking than to say from experimentation I found that the thermometer must be above a particular temperature? Although it's easier for them to measure their room with a thermometer than to get me to stand there with or without sweatshirt or more... the idea for them to learn their own clothing level is much better, as their space may have variables I have not accounted for (drafts, higher ceiling, different humidity etc).

I think why I've gone the reductionist route on much of my sustainability research is that, supposedly, there's more cred to the results. I can say x y z with certainty rather than 'in my experience' which anyone could dismiss as artist waffle. Sadly.

I dug out a few articles about A Science of Qualities - this one I've read before, it's long but page 3 has a few appropriate paras. There's also this and this. Page 5 here (scroll down) describes a newish book by Brian Goodwin which is now on my reading list.

Monday, 9 March 2009

wax temperature

waxed lines showing gap by joinNot very scientifically controlled, nevertheless I have been measuring the temperature of wax in my Tixor Malam waxpot. Usually I have had it at its highest setting (7).

When I learned to make batik in Malaysia, the wax was in a wok over a charcoal fire and was very hot, so hot that occasionally it caught alight. At those times everyone stopped work and piled sand from the floor on to the wok to put out the flames and prevent the atap (thatch) roof from catching alight. Because I'm sure a European designed waxpot would prevent wax from getting that dangerously hot, I have believed it best to set it to have the wax as hot as possible, thus staying hot and fluid in a canting for as long as possible.

More recently I have been questioning the wisdom of this logic. Firstly, if it's hotter than necessary then it's using unnecessary energy to be heated. Secondly, over-heated beeswax gets structurally 'damaged'. For sometime I have realised that long-term cooked wax goes brown, gets brittle and loses its resist qualities. More recently I have discovered (from reading) that the brown-ness occurs over about 120 deg C, and brittleness damage comes from too rapid cooling, ie contraction. A further reason for practical research into waxpot temperature is that noxious fumes are given off at 120C. Out in the open (eg in Malaysia) where fumes can move quickly out of the shelter into the general atmosphere, the chemicals can be quickly broken up, or down, by sunlight. Not so easy in a small terraced cottage in a Cornish winter/spring.

As a preliminary trial which may guide further tests, I measured the temperature of the wax at settings 1, 2, 3 and 4, over two separate meltings. The thermometer was hand held in the wax above the 'minimum level' line (ie towards one side rather than in the middle). The thermometer was held so the full bottom metal part was under molten wax. The quantity and recipe of wax were not measured, however around half was old, cooked wax, and half new. The new comprised two handfuls of Fibrecrafts batik mix (paraffin/microcrystalline mix) and one handful of Candlemakers beeswax (yellow). The ambient room temperature was 16-17C. The temperature range measured was

1 69-72C (156-162F)
2 79-84C (174-183F)
3 96-99C (205-210F)
4 110C+ (230F)

water leaking through gap in wax joinI can only speculate the temperatures above setting 4 as the thermometer stopped just beyond 110C. So approximately, 5 - 116-120C, 6 - 126-130C, 7 - 136-140C (240.8-248F, 258.8-266F, 276.8-284F). However here it says a Tixor Malam heats only to 135C.

At setting 4 (110C) I was able to wax acceptable lines on cloth (prima cotton, very fine). However, at the same temperature, further lines crossing these weren't hot enough to 'close the gap', meaning dye would leak through the closed sections of the grid. The first picture shows the reverse of the fabric with gaps by the overlap, the second picture has water seeping from the first square into the next through the gap.

I explain this to myself as, when viewing in cross-section the first line of wax (as a circle, ie the line disected) has partially penetrated the fabric but most wax is still above, because it cooled and hardened before being able to penetrate. In contrast the circle from a hotter wax line would appear more evenly above and below the fabric. When the next wax line crosses the first, it does so at a higher angle than if crossing a line sitting lower on the fabric. The leap from cloth level to top of wax line means a gap is left without wax, and additionally, wax coming from the canting cools before it can reach, never mind penetrate, the fabric. Wax applied hot enough will reach the fabric and also partially soften and merge with the previously applied wax line.

So, I turned up the heat, to setting 5 (though later viewing showed it slightly over, say 5.2). From across the room I could see fumes emerging heat-haze style, but the room didn't cloud up (the fan was on). At this temperature (approx 120C) I was able to draw new wax lines adjacent to the previous lines, and they seem to have penetrated successfully. However I was using a wide spout canting and as I had to draw slowly to ensure wax penetration I could not always make the width of the fabric before the wax had cooled. So at 5 the temperature is sufficient perhaps for small detailed work but not ideal for longer smooth drawing of lines.

update 11 March 2009
The second lot of lines drawn at 5.2 temperature crossed each other fine, but in places were unable to cross smoothly/warmly enough the earlier 4 temperature wax. A few leaks have shown up. But it's only a colour testing cloth, so nothing drastic!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

woad - and spring?

woad plants March 2009Although there was some more snow last night, the more recent pattern has been of warming weather, that joyous feeling that spring is on its way. The woad plant that was out all winter (in the black pot) has put on a spurt, whereas the greenhoused plants don't seem to have grown so much. More than this, the out-wintered woad's spurt loks suspiciously like a flower stem is on the agenda. The in-wintered plants have more bulk still though. The same pattern can be seen at Helen's, where those that had been under demijohnish covers until about a month ago have more and larger leaves, but those without cover have a definitive upward growing shape.

woad plant March 2009
photos taken 1 March 2009

woad plants March 2009

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

... and through the square window

View through studio window - snowGazing out of my studio window is one of the pleasures of this workspace. For many years I've marvelled at how the seasons affect this same view - the changes in colour and atmosphere. My future studio space may not have such a luxury unfortunately... there might be no view of nature at all, what a depressing thought. The snow here was from earlier in February.

View through studio window - snow

View through studio window - snowing

woad and snow

snow melting on second year woad plantsThe (now second year) woad plants were covered in about four inches/100 mm of snow for a few days earlier this month, and also survived a very heavy frost (for Cornwall). The smaller of the plants has been out all winter, the larger-leafed in a plastic greenhouse since December. I found Helen (the Hort) had done the same at hers by covering a few plants. But I hesitate to leave them under cover too long in case they don't get enough daylight and sun to develop blue in the leaves, so all are now uncovered. Some seeds that didn't sprout last year may be doing so now - or the plant is dividing itself below ground and resprouting.

Photo taken 8 February 2009

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

water - carbon cost

While working out my carbon footprint earlier this month I also mentioned my annual water consumption, and started pondering the carbon cost of water. I emailed South West Water, the water company for Cornwall and Devon, and fairly soon after received a reply from their Carbon Manager David Rose (impressive they have a dedicated Carbon Manager but apparently many similar companies do now).

Clean water delivered: 173 grams CO2e per cubic metre of water delivered to your tap.
Waste water returned: 870 grams CO2e per cubic metre of waste water returned to sewer.

(CO2e = carbon dioxide equivalent)

This equates to 1043 grams CO2e per 1000 litres for combined clean and waste water supply - I have to admit to surprise for the low delivery figure for fresh water. But then, water arrives freely from the skies. It doesn't (here anyway) need to be pumped up from the ground.

If there is a message to be read from these figures it's that the less 'contaminants' we put into the waste/sewer the lower their clean-up costs, and this might help lower emissions. David explained that the waste figure includes methane and nitrous oxide emissions from the recycling of waste water sludge to land. Or muck spreading as I've always known it.

My household carbon contribution from water use then is:

34,527 litres
= 34.527 cubic metres x 1043 grams
= 36011.661 grams CO2e
= 36 kg CO2e pa

Thirty-six kilograms, or 0.036 tonnes, sounds not very much in comparison to other emission costs, such as heating water or travel. So it seems best to retain focus on reducing quantity of water due to its eminent predicted global shortage.

So, over the next year I should aim to reduce consumption, and consider what gets disposed down the mains that needn't and other options for disposing of it (or do away with it altogether?).

Emission levels from all UK water companies are shown in Figure 4 on page 12 in Water UK's Sustainability Indicators 2007-08 Report.

United Utilities have a user friendly (figure-phobic) water use/carbon calculator here but be aware the final figure includes not just the carbon cost of water supplied/taken away but the carbon cost of heating it.

Update 14 February 2009
South West Water have announced plans to trial a rising block tariff. There will be three blocks, the first low rate 'essential use', the second standard rate 'safety net' and third premium 'non-essential use', with the first block charged at 27% less than the standard rate.

For a one person household the essential band is 1-8 cubic metres/quarter, the standard 9-13, and premium 14 and over. So I'm thrilled to see that my existing quarterly use only just flips over the essential use level!