Wednesday, 31 December 2008


alternative to Procion (eg Remazol)

woad growing
indigo dyeing
carbon etc measuring

meaning... don't abandon everything from before. Some things must be retained or resurrected or re-energised. And I know what!
also meaning... lessen belongings. And I know what that means too!

move forward:
BWRT project
house on market

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

second woad harvest and process

On 14 October I cut and started processing the second woad crop. Possibly I could have left it for longer but with more bad weather forecast and as the plants had grown quite quickly since the last harvest in early September, I didn't want to risk losing them altogether.

In total from Helen's and my four pot plants I cut 625 grams of leaves, which is 125 g more than at the last harvest. However, I seem to have made only 1.4 grams of woad pigment, or as I should call it to be more correct, indigotin. Last time around it was about 2 grams. I have a couple of theories for this, some related to growing and the other to processing.

This time I didn't spend an hour beating the strained liquid trying to get the foam to go yellow. I beat it for only about ten minutes with the hand-wind whisk - thinking that as blue has come up into the foam that should be enough. I since have read somewhere that it's far better to whisk for much longer, even if your arms start aching (as mine did last September), because that way you get all the potential indigotin out. So, short cuts and laziness are not worth pursuing! I will beat until my arms go blue (again) next time.

On the growing side, the middle picture here shows two groups of short leaves and one of long leaves. The left hand ones I grew here, the right two groups Helen grew. Those on the far right came from one of several well-grown plants, grown on under an improvised cloche (a large plastic demijohn with base removed). These plants had begun to take on the expected shape and density of a woad plant, although were still smaller. But 'something' in or lacking in the soil has prevented the plants from taking up/creating blue pigment in their leaves - I believe they got more direct sunshine at Helen's than the plants outside my house (though being in front of a sun-trap wall may have made a difference to mine). But my woad plants also had an additional caffeine shot... topped up with more Rainforest Alliance coffee dregs. They also had orange street-light by night.

By chance, an official Met Office rainfall recorder lives in the village - he's been recording for over 40 years now. His recent article in the local newsletter gives July and August of this year as his wettest and fourth wettest ever. With the first week of September having a further 107 mm, those two months plus week gave the village around a third of our annual average, and in the usually drier months. So it was wet. Very wet. Luckily though, the rest of September was better - some very hot days (or was that in October?). Certainly I thought the drier sunnier days would help with 'bluing' the leaves. As they did - thankfully - with keeping the slugs at bay!

So I am surprised to have ended up with less indigotin from more leaf. I have some other thoughts about the growing process to go in another post later.

Monday, 1 December 2008

textiles now

Last Saturday this lovely book arrived in the post - Textiles Now by Drusilla Cole. I got so excited when I picked it up, thinking 'I can feel it! I can feel it!' and running my fingers across the textures while staring blankly into space. I'm not going to tell you any more about that so you can have the delight too if you get the book yourself or decide to hunt it out it in a bookshop or library. I do have a habit of feeling textures with the tips of my fingers. Sometimes it worries people! But texture is just wonderful, and touch/feeling an under-appreciated sense.

Textiles Now has around 250 pages of contemporary textile art. Gorgeous colour, form and texture in sections - 1 Constructed, 2 Dyed, printed and painted, and 3 Mixed media and stitched.

A couple of my river batiks are in the second section - Source of the Penpont and one with a long title that was abbreviated to De Lank Camel which will mean little to many but confuse North Cornwall folk who'll know it's the name of two major rivers (and yes, I am a little annoyed about the amendment). The full title is De Lank near the Confluence with the Camel. See them on my website here and here, but not here right now as the colours don't fit with those of the cover.

There are also batiks by Isabella Whitworth, Pat Hodson, Dorothy 'Bunny' Bowen, and Betsy Sterling Benjamin, and dyed felt pictures by Helen Melvin amongst other artists work or names I admire or recognise.

The book is not oriented to artists working sustainably or towards sustainability, but there are some included. For instance Helen Melvin's and India Flint's work is with natural dyes and Bunny Bowen has researched soy wax as substitute for paraffin wax in batik. At a stretch my river batiks also fall into the sustainable approach category by utilising whatever was around to apply wax for resist or, as I usually describe it, using scrap, found and home made tools.

It seems right to combine sustainable-approach art alongside - how to describe it? other art that hasn't deliberately incorporated such methods or materials, rather than keep 'eco-art' in an elitist niche. I know organic farmers who think this way... their approach is that it is just a different way of farming (though they obviously think it the better way!). By keeping in with the mainstream those others won't see organic as elitist so shouldn't feel 'threatened' or 'looked down on', and are more likely to be open-minded as to the benefits of organic and negatives of their own practice (and vice versa?). These farmers are good role models for me...

'Textiles Now' is published by Laurence King, where you can also view some pages. But you don't get to feel the cover!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

art, environment, politics

A few weeks ago I gave a slide-talk to a lovely art group in St Agnes (mid Cornwall) about my batik and inspiration. Hopefully they were inspired enough for a workshop next year!

While running through and updating 'the talk' beforehand, two slides in particular made me think. 'For Antarctica' was made in 1991 when I was back in England for a few months for family reasons. I had been living away, working and travelling, for over three years by then, including in Australia. In 1989, to show my support for the World Park Antarctica movement then in full swing in Australia, I handed in my letter to prime minister Bob Hawke on the afternoon I cycled into Canberra. To my surprise, the very next morning he announced that Australia would join with France and sign the Antarctica treaty. Of course it's unlikely it was my letter that had swayed it, but the timing made me feel good and that taking action brings results!

Two years later in Shropshire I was astounded, dismayed, aghast... British environmental groups were only just gearing up for the Antarctica campaign here! Feeling very emotional and energetic about the matter, I absolutely had to make a batik - my contribution to the campaign.

I've just remembered... I also made a second Antarctica batik using the same words as in the Hawke letter ("the purse may lose but the penguins will be happy") and sent it to the then British prime minister. I can't recall who that was off hand - Major I think. But it didn't have the same effect, there was no next day announcement. I'll see if I can dig a photo of the batik out and post it later.

The second batik is 'Pacific Revenge', made in 1996. It was a response to the latest French nuclear testing in the Pacific, something that made me really angry yet feel so helpless that the only way I could express the anger constructively was through art.

I have a deeper connection with the issue of nuclear testing in the Pacific: in 1985 I was staying in France with a former French neighbour when the Rainbow Warrior was blown up in New Zealand. My friend was a member of Greenpeace in France (as was I in Britain) - she was distressed but unwilling to translate the newspaper front pages for me. Of course I didn't understand until I got back home and learned the French government was responsible.

In late 1987 I arrived in New Zealand and heard that the Rainbow Warrior was soon to be towed out to sea to be sunk to form a living reef (and memorial). I paid my respects in Auckland harbour beforehand, an emotional time (even all these years later).

So, by the mid-90s, the last thing I and many others expected was the French to carry out more nuclear tests in the Pacific. I kind of thought nations had grown up, beyond all that aggressive stuff, things they'd never use anyway (after Hiroshima). So this symbolic batik emerged: it's a shield bug on a french bean. The bug has been genetically modified by Pacific Islanders* and is now indestructible... and so that's it for the bean crop.

GM was another environmental issue of the day (and still is sadly) and like nuclear a technology that can be put to evil as well as good purposes. As much Pacific art stems from family, ancestry, generations etc, it seemed appropriate to bring this into the art.

Anyway, back to my thoughts of a few weeks ago when looking through the slides. Over the last few months a lot of my time has been spent analysing the Environmental Statement (ES) for a local windfarm proposal. I am without doubt a supporter of wind energy, but not at the cost of nature and ecosystems. This site is renowned for various species, including wintering golden plover. Several years ago I'd assisted the RSPB with a new survey of these birds and so I knew of the importance of the site. I had expected only to spend a few days getting a response together but the ES was so big and complex that it just went on and on... other than woad processing I have got very little proper work done in this time.

The windfarm response went off last Monday, and I have learned my lesson: don't take on stuff that's above my abilities! And, if I again feel that emotionally strongly about something, make a batik instead! Art is what I do!

*not to suggest that Pacific Islanders were thinking of doing this, but I wouldn't have blamed them if they had.

Monday, 3 November 2008

spirit of mystery

In the past (and hopefully again soon) I have given school batik workshops – they are hard work (preparation) but always good fun. Onesuch was with Kea School, as shown in these photos, for a Sense of Place project. The theme was 'The Voyage of the Mystery', and the batik style/approach was Aboriginal Art.

The Mystery was a Cornish lugger, a traditional small fishing boat, that in 1854 sailed with seven Cornishmen from Newlyn bound for sunny Australia. The journey to Melbourne took 115 days. Indeed it seems a miracle it even arrived – the boat was only 33 feet long (about 10 metres) with a beam of 11 foot 6 (3.5 metres). It wasn't meant to be ocean-going, and indeed most men on board had never been out of sight of land! At the time, the Mystery was the smallest boat on record to have made such a long voyage. Read more about the voyage of the Mystery here.

Now, in 2008, the Spirit of Mystery rides the waves. Pete Goss has built a new lugger to the same specifications, and along with several family members is re-creating the journey made by those Cornish fishermen 154 years ago. They are using the same navigational tools and technology as then – no modern gizmos. Other than communication tools that is, so they can update their blog (and stay in 'instant' touch with family). They already have had ups and downs (in wind and seas) but the boat is running as well as the original Mystery.

So where is the connection with Sustainable Batik (other than through school workshops)? For starters, a quote from today's entry is a good one for natural dye growers to remember: "Mother Nature rules out here and you just have to make the best of what you have."

There is something more, that I'm not sure I can explain well in this blog. It is something about pride and community, pride that Goss has taken this on, has recognised our forefathers did something quite immense as well as brave, and is re-living it for us, bringing part of our history alive.

It's my hope that my own experiences from living in Australia in the 1980s and introducing Aboriginal Art (as far as I am able to understand it - another blog!) into schools also brings something more meaningful and substantial than just playing with wax and dye.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

frugality (blog action day - poverty)

"Frugality does not mean poverty or deprivation. It means the wise use of resources."

Paul Hawken in 'The 11th Hour'.
For full quote, see NPQ (4th from bottom).

Rather than write about poverty, the theme of this year's Blog Action Day, I thought instead I'd consider the wise use of resources as the means to avoid it. Partly I am inspired by that wonderful organisation Practical Action which devises and/or introduces very simple technologies to lift struggling communities out of dependency or poverty.

A recent mailout from Practical Action describes a fish-rice culture introduced to Bangladeshi rice farmers. A minor re-design of rice fields allows fish to also grow there. The rice thrives from the fish naturally fertilising it, consuming insect pests and circulating oxygen, giving an apparent 10% increase in yield and savings in purchased pesticide and fertiliser. As well as having fish to eat, the farmers now also grow vegetables and bananas on the dykes.

Fish-rice culture reminds me of the traditional silk production cycle – silkworms feeding on mulberry bushes, the cocoon waste following silk harvesting fed to fish in the pond, with fish waste being scraped from the pond floor annually to fertilise the mulberry bushes.

My dream is to find a similar cycle for woad production. At the moment, in theory, I can use organic chicken manure to fertilise soil (for nitrogen content). Perhaps chickens will eat post-extraction plant waste, but there isn't much of it (currently it goes in the compost bin). Perhaps as woad is such a slug-magnet there'd be mutual benefit with poultry living alongside? Whether simple or complex the cycle turns out to be, I said it was a dream and probably it will stay that way. I don't have and am unlikely to ever have enough land to grow enough woad for all my own dyeing – I will always need to buy it in.

Earlier in the year I visited Ian Howard in Norfolk, who's been at the forefront of woad revival in Britain for some years now. Since processing my comparatively meagre crop a month ago I have thought a lot about the time and effort he must put in, leading to the high cost of woad-sourced indigotin. Occasionally I've wondered whether it is really worth it... but then think back to Procion dyes and the minimal information available about its production. It means so much more to know who has grown and produced the dye and where, how, and why! To know this farmer has and is increasing specialist knowledge of the crop, knowledge that would have been garnered over generations of past woaders. To trust that he knows he needs to take care of his land in order to continue to grow it, and to maintain both quality and financial return. That must mean a wise use of resources.

Synthetic dye... dye with no entity, no place, let alone no place in nature, and virtually no history. Dye without a soul. Manufactured anonymously somewhere in the world from petrochemical from somewhere else in the world, packaged up and sold on somewhere else again. There is no trail, no depth – any dyeing from this becomes just a colour, nothing more. So how to be sure resources have been used wisely? Impossible, it seems, with Procion MX.

One is cyclical, working within nature's limits; the other based on linear production. Cyclical is frugal, implying taking only what nature can afford – some years not much, but in others a bonanza. In comparison linear can only ever lead to poverty somewhere for someone, surely?

update, midnight at end of Blog Action Day

Having spent the last hour reading other blogger entries for this day addressing poverty, I have felt moved enough to do something more (the concept of Blog Action Day works!). Instead of occasional donations I am setting up a regular payment to Practical Action. Their donation page says the following:

Please do something special today. Offer the hand of friendship to poor communities by making a regular donation by Direct Debit. Be part of the solutions that will change the lives of people in poor communities day after day, year after year.

For over 40 years Practical Action has been investing in simple and extremely effective technologies that give determined people the power to change their lives. Our experience tells us that you can’t solve poverty by giving handouts – instead we work together with people in their homes and communities, listening and learning from them. We work at the heart of desperate communities across the world, helping people to find simple, sustainable solutions to problems they face.

- We don’t believe in imposing quick fixes. So we make sure that all our projects are sustainable, use local materials and are organised and run by local people
- We overcome poverty across the world using practical, tangible and often innovative solutions. We use simple technologies and share our knowledge widely.
- We make sure that the money that funds our work goes directly to our offices in that country rather than the government, so you can be sure the money goes only to the people who need it.

Monday, 6 October 2008

quality not quantity

I woke up yesterday morning thinking about my two grams of extracted woad pigment... of the amount of work involved in its production. And, even allowing for the cool wet summer's affect on growth, how disproportionate is the effort to the result.

Later I read this article about Cornish vineyard Camel Valley Wines. The weather knocked out nearly 80% of their grapes but also created circumstances for those remaining being ideal for their sparkling wine 'Cornwall'. So if 'Cornwall' can compete with Champagne (as the vineyard owners believe), then I shouldn't be at all despondent about my measly woad pigment result...

Quality it is then. Not quantity.

. . .

While writing this I've been wondering whether there's a connection between grapes getting extra fizz from the particular circumstances of this year's summer, and the exuberance of foam I got during woad processing, also experienced this year for the first time by Helen Melvin (in North Wales) (see previous post and comments). Is it an omen of the champagne of blues to come?

Sunday, 28 September 2008

getting blue!

On the tray is all the woad cut at Helen's on September 4th, about 450g. Several plants had grown better than mine, that is, they had bulked out though were still not as fully grown as expected. Others were middling, like mine, with a few well and truly eaten! But only three caterpillars emerged during the wash!

The four pots from my front garden yielded a further 50g, so in all I had about half a kilo. About half I'd been hoping for – but quite acceptable considering August's lousy weather. The left hand pile is good wholesome leaves, the top those that were fairly battered, bruised, part-eaten and part-rotting (bad bits later cut out). Can't quite remember what the right hand pile is – possibly small and slightly battered leaves.

While washing my leaves I felt they were more blue-green than Helen's, so compared them. One-all I think, if mine are bluer but hers grew better. I'll come back to the growing stuff later.

Half a kilo of chopped leaves - including stalks. I reckon stalks must contain some indigo too, and having so few leaves/weight I couldn't afford to be discriminatory.

Whisking time is telling time... when the alchemy works or doesn't. In my case I was leaping with joy to see so much blue pigment (indigotin) in the foam, and appearing so quickly! I was expecting the foam to turn 'back to green' within 10-20 minutes of whisking, but all I was getting was more and more foam, and blue. The bucket was less than two-thirds full of liquid - top third all foam! I tried scooping it off and re-whisking, I tried mixing the foam back into the liquid, I tried giving it a break for some minutes. But still foam came up good and blue. In the back of my mind was a vague memory from one or more of the various indigo workshops I've been on, where a similar stage in vat-making required stirring to introduce oxygen - and being told soon after that it had worked and I could stop stirring. And so an hour later I convinced myself that I surely had whisked enough, there certainly was blue there (and everywhere!), and I could move on to the next stage - bottling. The memory of stirring at an indigo workshop remains vague and, in the light of day (I stopped whisking around 1 am!), not making sense. Either I was confusing the process with another, or we were processing woad (or other) leaves to make indigotin without me realising. Anyway, whatever it was, it helped me at that time - I had started to think about what I was doing, the process that was happening, instead of just following instructions!

This yellowy-green is the colour of the liquid going into the jars.

Total of seventeen jars. At this stage I deviated from the instructions, which called for periods of settling and siphoning off of the top liquid, followed by a consolidation of all bottom liquids into one container, with the top liquid being diluted with water and siphoned. Each time I pulled off the top liquid it was greenish, making me suspect there was 'blue' in there too. I saved all siphoned liquid, letting that too settle before re-siphoning. In all, I had three separate siphoning stages. After a few days of settling, some jars were showing a central body of amber liquid, surrounded by greener tinted liquid and a strong blue bottom layer (see previous post). It demonstrated to me that my earlier instinct was right, that the top greenish liquid had contained some blue pigment, and a longer settling time was all that was needed.

All liquid from the last siphoning went into the bucket, and a few days later when its top liquid was siphoned off it revealed yet another bottom layer of blue!

Although it obviously wasn't traditional to use filter papers, I did think it was perhaps the modern take on a traditional filtering technique - and had read it would yield more indigotin. I also thought it might yield more if I didn't repeatedly 'water down and re-siphon' the liquid, as early on the top liquid had proved to also contain blue pigment. So I started filtering undiluted liquid - some greener, some bluer. My instinct paid off again - see how golden it came out (in a beer glass from a Bodmin Beer Festival, and looks good enough to drink!).

Filtering started at a rate of about two drops a second. By the end it was one drop a minute, which is why by then four filters were on the go! But slowness wasn't the imminent problem. Soon after starting the filtering, I was wondering how to get the pigment off the paper at the end. The more I thought about it the more I wished I hadn't started down this route. Perhaps an upside is that it made me concentrate on related chemical processes to look for a solution. There may be one but far too long-winded to take seriously, though I might check it out sometime.

Two dried filter papers with skims of pigment over some, and a crust in parts. The crust cracked up like dried mud. If it had been thicker it might have picked off cleanly, but for me it took some paper fibres with it. The very thin layers I scored lightly with a scalpel before brushing the fine powder away. But some paper fibres went too. Pigment and fibres weighed in at two grams.

Four filter papers, as much pigment as possible removed. Took about a day. Now, had I followed instructions to consolidate the bottom liquid more and dilute it down with water, this end result might have been different. Probably I'd have had just one filter paper, so the pigment on it would have been thicker and more easily removable. Possibly it would have not seeped so far into the paper had the pigment been suspended in water instead of the remnant alkaline solution. Possibly... probably...

One thing is for sure though: a lot of pigment remains on the paper. This macro-shot shows how much is wasted. Criminal considering time and effort - mine, Helen's and nature's. I won't be using filter paper again.

With thanks to Teresinha Roberts, Helen (in North Wales) Melvin, and Ian Howard for various processing instructions, guidance and encouragement; to Ian Howard, Isabella Whitworth, Vivien Prideaux, and Abi Evans for past indigo workshops which helped develop my understanding of the indigo-making process; and to Ian who supplied the seed I grew. And not forgetting members of the Natural Dyers list. Special thanks go to my good friend Helen (in North Cornwall) for patiently growing, watering and de-slugging my woad plants over the last few months.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

indigo pigment settling

Not particularly beautiful jars but against the light the process can be seen of indigo pigment settling out from woad-steeped liquid. The centre top of the liquid clears to amber, while the glass edges seemingly attract pigment or somehow otherwise slow it sinking (greener colour). Temperature difference? Anyway, there's a nice pile of blue building up at the bottom - I was so excited when I saw how much!

I haven't yet finished the woad processing - I will post again when it's all finished.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

straight and curly, and thin green lines

These photos were taken on August 2 (4 weeks ago) as I'd noticed a variation in the woad plants. Some plants had straight edged leaves, others were wavy. Helen (growing most of my woad) has also noticed this. I wonder if it's a genetic mutation, or a natural variation...

The plant that was bitten to the core by slugs is growing back well (leaves still small) (see bottom photo in last post), the other three have been chomped away at relentessly throughout August. There is less of them now than there was at the beginning of the month. In recent days I've been thinking caterpillars are more the cause than slugs. A Cabbage White butterfly was around and on the plants around the beginning of August, as were little yellow dots of eggs on the underside of leaves. I thought I'd got all off but no, every so often a tiny green line would show itself... a few days ago one thin green line was nearly up to full blown caterpillar size! (When very small I squeamishly have squashed them, but larger ones I take up the road to take their chances in the verge vegetation).

The August weather has been atrociously wet and cool, with a few February-like gales. Only occasionally did the sun shine but it was hardly ever summer-hot. I'm sure this won't have helped the crop either - I feel it's the cause for the (former) large outer leaves to have dried up, died in parts, or yellowed. The inner newly sprouting leaves are all good and healthy. Just right for nibbling. Undoubtedly. Hmmph.

None of the woad has had (nitrogen oriented) fertiliser in its soil, though Helen's beds had before she grew the earlier potato crops and mine had a good portion of home-compost. Perhaps fertiliser would have helped the plants gain strength. I've found an organic chicken rearer who I hope to get well-rotted chicken manure from next year. And perhaps next time butterfly netting would keep off the cabbage whites... Though most of the growth problem could be caused by their late start in life. They must be sown at the right time next year!

I am gearing up for harvesting and processing the leaves in several weeks time - acquiring equipment and organising workspace. And am working on batik drawings so I have cloth ready to dye soon after.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

shredded woad

Helen, who is growing most of my woad for me, emailed a bit despairedly on Monday. Slugs being the main cause, and her concern that I wouldn't have any leaves left come harvest time. I popped over that afternoon, the following photos are from that visit. These first four show various stages of shreddedness... but most plants were doing just fine.

And so... slug control: Helen has access to sawdust, I have access to coffee grounds so we are trying both. The coffee was applied just before this photo around up-till-then unprotected plants. Most successful seems to be a copper ring (top and bottom right), but only a few plants have these, and only one has broken eggshells (white). Research suggests that coffee grounds release nitrogen into the soil, an element apparently loved by woad - or rather its uptake increases eventual pigment quantity. I've also read that coffee grounds have an anaerobic effect if applied too thickly, and that it's either acidic (which can't be too good when your soil is already acidic) or breaks down to neutrality (which shouldn't matter). There is more to consider though than woadish preference - nitrogen broken down by bacteria forms nitrous oxide (N2O), a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Not being a chemist I'm really not sure of the pros and cons of using it as slug repellent and soil fertiliser, or even of growing nitrogen-loving woad itself... but I will find out! At least the coffee grounds (like the sawdust) are already waste products that would eventually decompose anyway.

Helen has created three plots for the woad. The first is in a spare part of her raised walled veggie garden - I think she said courgettes were growing there until the slugs got 'em. The next is a raised bed that last grew potatoes; and the third is part of the bank that had been covered by carpet to kill couch grass (roots were dug out before planting). All sites get loads of lovely sun... and rain, it being the Cornish summer holidays now.

And finally, four of my five potted plants. Three are teenagers now and allowed out all night but the fourth (back left, in ceramic pot) is still a kid and comes in around midnight. A few days ago I came home feeling so unwell I didn't have the energy to bring it in... and yes, the slugs took advantage. But it's still growing. The fifth plant is elsewhere with the tomatoes and aubergines, a different mini-climate, so I can see how location changes growing patterns. All of mine have had coffee grounds protection from their first venture outdoors.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

cost of boiling out wax an interim stage of wax removal in the Feeding the Ducks batik:

Ten litres of cold water in the Burco took 23 minutes to reach boiling stage, and the (metre square) batik was submerged for a further 22 minutes with the power intermittently on. The total 45 minutes 'boiling out wax' activity used 1.4 kwh of electricity. Translating to 0.6 kg CO2.

Starting with warm or even room temperature water would have saved a little energy, but more would have been saved if the batik hadn't needed to boil for so long. Sometimes a few minutes dip is enough to melt and remove wax but other times the wax leaves a yellowish residue that takes longer to shift. It's often only visible when the batik is wet but can affect subsequent dyeings, such as had had happened with this last dyeing.

Experience suggests this happens when wax has been 'well cooked', turning brown, and where used has lost some ability to repel water/dye. In turn, being well cooked could mean the wax is being heated too high, ie where it touches the hottest part of the bowl it's getting hotter than ideal. But if I have the pot at lower temperature then the wax isn't hot enough for fast canting work.

I removed the 'old' wax, cleaned the pot and replenished it with new wax to the same recipe (100 g batik mix, 20 g white beeswax). This time I used half quantity, ie half filling the pot and heating at setting '5'. Always before I've filled the pot to ensure a consistently heated supply of wax, but my thinking now is that if there is less wax to start with then the pot needn't be set so high to get the ideal wax temperature. The wax is both less likely to be 'cooked' on the hot part and - importantly - used up by the time replenishment is needed!

I am truly shocked to find that of the 240 g of wax heated last time round, 145 g was removed too 'well-cooked', meaning only 95 g was used for the batik. I have been very very wasteful of resources and am determined to get this amended.

Another thought I had for saving energy with boiling out wax is to insulate the Burco boiler. Followed by hesitation from the likelihood of getting the insulation both very wet and coated by molten wax spluttering over the Burco top. And from remembering the hint from Paul Mobbs that beyond a certain depth (0.2m) loft insulation becomes carbon-uneffective (production etc cost outweighing savings). But, in my loft some old futon cotton-wool sheets are stored some of which might be adapted for this purpose.

This Ducks batik has already required three or four interim boilings out, and will need two or three more before the end. I don't usually work like this, believing it goes against the nature of batik if you can't go forward with the design in one go, with only one boiling out at the end. Somehow this design got too complex. I will be glad when it's finished!

images: top - over-cooked wax; middle - new wax pellets half filling wax pot; bottom - interim stage - Feeding the Ducks batik

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

energy update - and carbon panic!

The Beeb's online news states that a Brit's annual carbon emissions are 2.67 tonnes (US 5.6, China 1.1, India 0.3, Kenya 0.1). My latest electric stats showed 2.8 tonnes for the year - how could this be? How could I be using more than the average person just on electricity alone? How had I not sussed this before? Further research makes the difference between carbon emissions and carbon dioxide emissions apparent...

Average UK emissions of CO2 were between 9.1 and 9.5 tonnes annually in 2005 (see here and here, both quoting from same source), which translates to 2.6 tonnes carbon annually per person. I was relieved not to be worse than average, but not for long... Monbiot's article reminded me that the goal is reducing to about a tonne of CO2 equivalent pa. There's a long way to go.

My electric usage seems to have stabilised at 2.7 to 2.8 tonnes CO2 annually (to work out yours multiply your total kwh by 0.43 for kgCO2, then divide by 1000 for tonnes CO2. Or see Carbon Trust for more info). There's not much more switching off of unused or unnecessary appliances and lights, or other chipping away I can do. It's time for substantial changes... and investment.

A joiner has advised that all my single glaze windows can be converted to double glaze - they are well-made wooden windows, only 14 or so years old and in good condition. I'm just waiting for the quote now. The past two years I'd put up temporary double glazing film, like polythene taped to the frame, and they made such a difference to heat retention that double glazing is a must. Can't think why I've delayed so long (other than house selling intentions). The studio has had lined curtains as well as blinds for the past two years, and a thermal-backed blind arrived yesterday for the (double glazed) skylight. Before the winter I want to get lined curtains up in every room.

But still all this won't be enough. Especially if Peak Gas is on the horizon, never mind Peak Oil. Paul Mobbs, whose talk on Energy Beyond Oil I went to last week, suggested 58% of domestic energy consumption goes on space heating, with water heating at 24%, lighting and appliances at 12% and cooking at 6%. My house is all electric, heating is from storage heaters (two modern, one old) with a blow-heater in the bathroom and for back-up. As I work at home they seem practical, place is nice and warm for starting work in the morning. But I have two lovely open fireplaces (sitting room and kitchen), desolate without woodburner or (wood-fired) rayburn. Apparently woodburners make storage heaters less effective - as one starts cooling down at night, the other is gauging how much work to do to get and keep the place warm - and can't help but get it wrong. Can only be one or the other. But I'm going to investigate this further... if power rationing kicks in in a few years time it's good to have an alternative ready! And I like the idea of (slow) cooking or keeping the kettle warm on top. There's also an innate good feeling from seeing/hearing flames.

Solar hot water is another option to investigate. But the shower does its own heating (very practical this time of year when luke warm is all that's needed - a luxurious 15 minute shower uses less than a unit), and there are no radiators to fill. It would be good for boiling out wax of course, but other than washing and washing up there aren't many other needs for hot water. Cooking? Coffee?

Think I'll concentrate on curtain lining and double glazing this year, and (unless I've moved) come back to technological matters next year.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

procion dye shelf life

Procion MX one year shelf life? Tosh! Who started this myth? I've tested it using 18 month old magenta (red MX-8B), yellow (lemon yellow MX-8G) and black (Kenactive black K2647) and 11 month old cyan (turquoise MX-G) - all acquired at the same time (I think). They looked fine after painting, but once boiled the cyan obviously didn't fix well, as shown in the first photo. (I made the colour wheel ten or more years ago - the centre has 100% strength primary and secondary colours, with tertiaries also showing in the outer ring. The two in-between rings are primary and secondary colours at different dilutions).

I wasn't convinced by the depth of the test's black either, but serious-black always has been an issue with Procions.

Tucked away on the studio dye shelf were several pots of older dye, some even dating back to 2004 (first opened date), and some unopened pots. I was surprised to have such a collection - usually I only look when ordering new dye. There's also a stack of empty pots. Well-meaning I've intended to send them back to the supplier for re-use but haven't yet taken the final necessary step. Perhaps I should make this a little job for this week. Luckily I had an unopened cyan (though different supplier) and black (and magenta).

I ran a further test, as shown in the second photo where the year of first opening a pot is also shown. Even when painting the cyans the 2007 pot could be seen to be lighter than the 2005 and 2008 pots. To ensure it wasn't a mixing error on my part I made up a further pot of 2007 cyan, shown above the magenta where it (erroneously) says 2008 - I decided against opening a new magenta as the 2006 colour was fine.

A surprise was to find the 2006 black I was previously unsure of now looking better/darker than the old 2005 and newly opened 2008 batch. The 2003 magenta looks as good as the 2006 one, and all lemon yellows (2004, 2005, 2006) looked equally good - though as demonstrated in the colour wheel differences in tone of yellow aren't easy to grasp. For many years I have mixed lemon yellow (and advised students similarly) at a slightly higher concentration than other colours, because it seemed to need it. Perhaps I once had a 'dodgy' yellow and needed to then but this test shows there's no need to. Well that's good for resources and pocket!

To sum up, three dyes opened 18 months ago (at time of purchase) have lasted longer than one opened within the last year (also bought 18 months ago). Another dye just opened (purchased in last year?) is also inferior to that opened 18 months ago. Dyes can fix quite adequately even at five years old.

How to ensure newly purchased dye will be of a higher or equal quality to that 'past its shelf life'? I just don't know. You rely on being supplied with fresh stuff; suppliers aren't likely to tell you if it isn't.

Over the years I've bought Procion MX from three British suppliers. I used to buy cheaper dyes from one just for workshop use (when I was running lots of workshops), but wouldn't use them in my own work because the colour intensity wasn't as good. I shrugged that off as inevitable considering price difference (the 2008-opened cyan and 2005-opened yellow are these dyes, and yes I think the 2008 cyan is marginally lighter than the 2005, but not as pale as the 2007).

Maybe it all began changing when ICI's patent on MX dye ran out and anyone could then manufacture them. One company has been more open than others saying their MX is manufactured in Indonesia and naming the company.

For sure Procion does have a shelf life, though. I found out the hard way in my early years of batikking. It was a commission for a magazine front cover, with the possibility of the next two issues too. I was chuffed, flattered and very scared to have such a prestigious (and well-paid!) job to do. Very close to the deadline I went to boil out the wax - and one major colour bled bled bled! All the impact of colour A against colour B was lost - the design balance skewed and it just didn't buzz any more. There was no time to re-do it, I was too tired and wouldn't have had the subtlety for fine canting work at that eleventh hour. Devastated and despondent I had to explain what had happened. As expected they decided not to go with it despite me asking them to adjust the colours digitally back to how they were originally (at that time I had no computer and no idea whether it could be done). I felt so unprofessional... But a happier ending - some months later they came back to me - they'd decided they liked the design and would attempt colour correction. It was published but the colours they came out with were different from mine.

So... the conclusion on Procion MX dye shelf life is: demand suppliers state how old the dyes are when you buy them. Write not just the date of opening on the pot but also the date of purchase and manufacture. Test them immediately - if they are weaker than the 'old' dyes, hmmm... Don't want to fall out with the suppliers, but really I think they would need to give an explanation.

Of course, if I become a 100% woad dyer, I won't have this problem. Or rather, I very probably will but it's different as variations in woad colour will be as much down to nature and the annual crop - not wholly the grower's responsibility. Synthetic dyes are meant to be consistent.

Friday, 20 June 2008

waxing relief!

I was getting so despondent - why was I waxing only wobbly lines not smooth ones like I used to. I even bought Green&Black chocolate yesterday to see if that helped. I cleaned the canting (boiling all of them in water and poking the spouts with wire) and changed the wax (I wasn't sure how old or how cooked the previous lot was, but could tell from the colour and depth in the bowl it wasn't that new). I wondered if my worktop had originally been made for me working in shoes (I'm usually barefoot in the studio) and so tried with my flipflops on, half or an inch taller.

I tried changing position. I tried changing tool. I varied working from left to right (over the curve) and up and over to down and under. I tried every variable I could think of.

Suddenly I got it. Suddenly it was happening, suddenly smooth curves and smooth lines and I could follow the pencil lines easily. Oh joy! I was so happy and felt like celebrating! And I have no idea what I did, just that it all came together.

So... I had to go-for-it and do those not-at-all-scary-now spirals for the birds batik (see yesterday's post). I did them straightaway, and they are fine! A doddle!

Such a relief! I thought I'd need to practice for days to get that knack back!

Yee ha! Big smile! Chocolate time!

Thursday, 19 June 2008


The woad is growing nicely now, and it's time to get waxing to have something ready for dyeing. Here's one just finished, taken from a sketch of the Brown Willy skyline (Cornwall's highest peak) at sunset from a favourite perch, Black Rock. Because woad-dyeing will be a learning process I want to keep the first ones simple in terms of waxing - so less wax is wasted on (possible) disasters. A series of batiks of moorland peaks may not be particularly creative or ambitious but is a nice excuse to get out for some longer walks than I've been doing lately! Also, being nearly midsummer, my mind turns to our inherited stone circles and other monuments with solstice and equinox alignments. Roughtor (second highest hill) was, apparently, very important to our Iron Age forebears. So respecting their beliefs and knowledge by focusing on views of Roughtor from prominent peaks and places doesn't seem quite so shallow after all, and maybe I will learn something too.

Minimal lines will also help me get a feel for predicting balance of (should I call it 'colour' or 'tone'?) after dyeing - the impact white lines in a deep blue will have. At least I hope to get deep blue!

Also, as many of my past batiks have treated wax as though there's no tomorrow, literally swamping the cloth with it, I need to start from the opposite extreme of less is more. I do now recognise there are limitations to the amount of wax I should use per batik, as there are limitations to the amount bees can be expected to produce annually (on the one hand) and availability of paraffin wax relates directly to availability of oil stocks (on the other). And production of paraffin wax contributes to global warming, but all-about-wax is for another post another time.

A new problem hit just after I'd waxed this piece - where to store it? Up until now I've worked on just one or occasionally a few related pieces at a time - waxing, dyeing and finishing - before moving on to the next. But not now... I will need a number of pieces ready for the woad and then do the dyeing in a batch. The cloth can't be folded and put in a drawer - the wax would crack on the fold lines. It really needs to stay flat. My mind sees it hanging from one of those coat hangers with clips on but I don't have any, nor a bound-to-stay-clean and unlikely-to-get-bashed (=cracked wax) spare hanging place in the studio, or house. I'm trying to approach this sideways, hoping tangentiality will let the obvious solution slip into view.

There's another reason for waxing these pieces now. Before I start any woad dyeing I need to finish the birds batik mentioned back in January and to do that I need to get some canting practice in for very long smooth curved lines - requiring a move of the whole body in sync with the line. Like all craft skills, you have to keep practising - stop for any length of time and you get rusty. Like me. The design calls for two perfect spirals within the white circle - any imperfection would just kill the picture. So I'm nervous and need to get confident before starting.

I also mixed up some Procion dyes yesterday and am running a fastness test on them. Three of the colours were first opened about 18 months ago, theoretically past their shelf life, the fourth is about a year old. I really don't want to buy new Procions just now... but the thought of having to re-wax because the dyes didn't fix is too scary!

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

research on bees - a petition

Beeswax is one of my raw (and most valued) materials, and the historic resist for batik, so can I urge all UK readers to sign this petition.

Think not only of their wax and honey, both ancient traditional natural materials, but also of bees 'services' to agriculture. They fertilise up to a third of our crops - if bees seriously decline there will be disastrous repercussions for crop fertility. A beekeeping friend indicated his more experienced neighbour lost 23 out of her 40 hives last winter.

The petition is asking for
funding for research into the rapid decline of honey bee colonies

and runs until June 11th (a week left to sign).

The following came in the original email I received (Mark: hope it's OK to quote you):

"Quick background. I'm an erstwhile beekeeper, and this year painfully aware
of the lack of honey bees around. I leave a clump of brassicas on the
allotment every year for them to feast on, but until yesterday i hadn't seen
a single one. This combines with a local newspaper article (I live in
Warwicks) that colonies in this area - in line with the national average -
are down by 30 per cent. With no reserves in the 'British' wild (even more
serious news) I hardly need reminding anybody who is making connections that
this is part of and parcel of a bigger environmental catastrophe. I do not
use that term lightly - but without honey bees - even looked at in the most
blatantly pragmatic sense of 'eco-services' provided, our daily diets are
going to be seriously narrowed in terms of the vegetables and fruit we will
no longer be eating.

It goes without saying that last year's disastrous weather is a major factor
in the bee collapse. In other words, continued anthropogenic climate change
may spell the end of the British honey bee. The request for research money
may not help that in itself, but it might remind government on the
connectedness of all things, including the small but essential ones to our
bodies and souls, we tend to forget.

Sign the petition please, if you will!
cheers, mark"

More about bees at the British Beekeepers Association, whose site pointed me to this recent Daily Mail article about the funding situation by an enlightened (on this) politician. Last Saturday's Guardian had this informative article "Last Flight of the Honeybee". And here, a link to the government's response to an earlier bee research funding petition. Read it. Need I say more...

more woad pictures

For an agonising ten or so days only one woad seed had sprouted, but now of the five pots/ten seeds I still have here five are growing (one since thinned out). My friend Helen took in the other forty or so pots a few weeks ago to grow them on for me. They're in her greenhouse at the moment.

It's years since I've grown anything from seed and as I seemed to do OK before without too much effort, was panicking that something I'd done was wrong and I'd end the summer with no woad to dye with at all! Only a couple germinated at Helen's too and after analysing possible reasons, we decided we were being too precious with them, trying too hard, taking too much care and concern. My pots go out on the windowsill when I'm here but come inside at night, only because I worry they might be blown off! It was a mistake to start them growing inside the house - the first spent so long straining for the light that its stem is ridiculously long. I had tried to counter this by turning the pot by 180 degrees but won't again. The others are faring better by being outside from an early age, and from the pots being tilted to the light when inside. Ten days ago at Helen's I saw a good number of sprouts.

The difference in timing has surprised me and pleased me. Surprise as I assumed if conditions were right - light, warmth, moisture and whatever else makes seeds tick - all would come up within a few days. That they don't is great - they demonstrate the resilience of nature! Spreading your bets must give better chances than blowing it all on one seemingly good day. With woad's determination to do its own thing and not conform I feel confident we will have a great relationship!

images - the top one is from 20 May at 11 days old, the last from 30 May at 21 days old. It's my impression that the younger sprouts are producing new leaves faster, maybe because they weren't wasting time spurting stem, or maybe in response to climatic conditions. The point is that 21 days may be exceptional for this first sprout to be starting on its fifth pair of leaves.