Wednesday, 23 April 2008

first steps with woad

Over the winter I read everything I could find about woad, including what must be my longest ever loan from the library (nearly five months... so far): Jamieson B Hurry's 'The Woad Plant and its dye', originally published in 1930 and apparently considered the resource on woad. It covers the biology of the woad plant, its cultivation, manufacture of woad dye, mediaeval and 'modern' dye vats, woad history and economics, use in art and medicine, the word woad in language and place-names, and the bit I still have to read: "the death of a great industry".

Ian Howard of Woad-Inc has a mission to return woad to its status as a great industry. I had joined a morning workshop at Woad Barn in Norfolk to learn what I could. Ian outlined his experience of growing the plant including how he got into it in the first place (even before the Spindigo Project!), and later learned the process to make woad (indigo) pigment, and from this to dyeing with it. Woad-Inc now sells various woad/indigo-dyed clothes and soft furnishings, soaps, candles, and knitting wool as well as the pigment and woad seed. While the other participants prepared silk scarves for dyeing with shibori I snuck off with Ian to put my organic cottons through the test, plus a four-dip trial on prima to compare with that done last year in indigo. I'll post about these soon. In terms of doing-the-dyeing there doesn't seem much difference between working with a woad or indigo vat (I think) but it was definitely worth going to learn first-hand considering Ian's years of experience with all aspects of the dye. I have bought a jar of pigment and some seed and now need some equipment and, ahem, a suitable place to keep the vat. I have a cunning plan...

It was also good to have a week's holiday: the weekend was spent in Norfolk with an old student friend, and I visited friends and family on the way up and back. It's a long time since I've travelled around England, I had forgotten what a lovely place it is. Taking time, I pootled around on A roads, through towns, villages and forest parks. This way I could really appreciate changes in regional character crossing from one county into another. So much of English (Western) culture is the same but architecturally regional differences are something to be cherished.

Pictures. Top: Dyed scarves and my test pieces airing and drying outside the dyeing room at Woad Barn. Bottom: Tidal markings in mudflats at Holkham Nature Reserve, Norfolk.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

soda ash - where from, how, and what is it really?

The early part of February was taken up with investigations into soda ash, that versatile white powder used not only with fibre reactive dyes as a "fixative" but also as a traditional and versatile household chemical. The article was published in the March 2008 Batik Guild magazine and is also available on my website. There was a lot for me to get my head around, and indeed I needed (repeated) assistance to grasp some of the chemistry. Looking back to my first delvings into soda ash last July I realise that what the article doesn't do is assess the sustainability of using the chemical - in end use in dyeing and scouring (or by inference household use) and through sourcing and manufacturing. The trouble is I'm not confident or clever enough to draw conclusions, only to take them from published research. And I don't know if there is any.

However, I have no problem 'feeling' my way... science is all very good and proper but there is nothing like trusting instinct for getting it right.

After I'd finished the article I sat back and while resting my tired brain considered my earlier thoughts on the white stuff (pre-July 2007). I hadn't really thought about it, of course, but had a vague inkling it was naturally mined something like salt, say. But without any regard for resource sustainability. So my research has left me gobsmacked!

Of the three processes - manufactured (as in UK), mined (as in eg, US and Kenya), and 'gathered' from kelp or salsola ashes (the Old Days) - I cannot say with any certainty or feeling which is the most sustainable. But I've a feeling that at quantities produced globally today, none are. In line with everything else... I feel very uncomfortable at the thought of ripping out Mother Earth's innards, as required to retrieve limestone and rock salt for manufacture (but recognise my hypocrisy as today I put 33 more litres of petrol in my car without flinching). I'm less sensitive to surface mining of trona or natron as they are naturally renewing resources, but I feel Nature is hard pushed to keep up with our consumerist demands. Burning plants would seem the most eco-friendly resource as their annual replenishment is easy to gauge and thus Nature would set the limits. But... 'society' would collapse and (new) resource wars break out if this became soda ash's only source.

I need help to get answers, obviously.