Category Archives: indigo

the conserved Bacton Altar cloth.

Queen Elizabeth I dress (The Bacton Altar Cloth)

By Ashley Walker
Copyright 24th February 2020

Inner courtyard of Hampton Court Palace with Henry 8th Great hall on left.

We saw the social media posts about this 400 year+ old textile and noted the brightness of the green embroidery silks. Unusual we thought. The longest lasting green dyes are combinations of a yellow dye with indigo. Indigo we know can last for many centuries but what was the yellow dye? Most yellow and green natural dyes do not last long and old textiles end up in various shades of blue (from indigo), red (from madder or an insect dye) and brown from all the other dyes which have faded.

blue and red the only colours to survive on old tapestries

This is one of the many rich tapestries from Hampton Court Palace. Typical of tapestries of this age, only the blue and red dyes have survived.

We arranged with a friend to go and see the dress at Hampton Court Palace. Where colour is concerned you really need to see it with your own eyes. There were some disappointments on our way there, notably the cost of getting into the Palace – ouch! Then there was the ‘No photography’ policy and the general lack of information available on the textile’s construction. No souvenir leaflet or postcard to take away or purchase either. According to one red-coated guide, the owners of the textile (the local diocese of the Church of England) had insisted that no financial gain was allowed through merchandise. As it turned out the palace guides were not enforcing the No Photography policy in any way, so I was able to get some good pictures.

Unfortunately the reverse side of the fabric, which has the brightest colour, was not on show but the faded side was still quite colourful and the greens still discernible.

For a general history of the textile, look at the links at the bottom of this post. The articles are highly recommended. We were impressed by the skill and artistry of the original embroiderer. This master craftsperson had embroidered the entire design straight onto the cloth of silver. The plant based motifs may have been inspired by illustrations from a Herbal (a contemporary plant guide) but could also have come from other textiles of the period. Many of the plant motifs are entirely recognizable and have been worked with a fine outline and fill of very closely spaced “seed stitch”. At some point additional, embroideries were added to the dress but these are of much lesser quality and were, according to historians, done by Court noblewomen. This secondary work consists of various animals, many of which are insects. Caterpillars are particularly common. These animals, and the odd tree, were placed in the white areas between the plant motifs, seemingly at random. This lead to a rather chaotic appearance, which to my eye, spoiled the entire design. I would not be surprised if this “fault” had resulted in the fabric’s survival. Just picture the scene – Elizabeth is shown the reworked dress and notes its chaotic design. She smiles and says “thankyou ladies that’s just lovely”. Then as soon as they are gone she thinks “Oh, what can I do with it now, I can’t give it to anyone in court as it’s just too opulent, I know, I’ll send it away up north as a remembrance gift for my lady companion Blanche Parry. That way it will never be worn again”. That’s the beauty of history, you can fit any story you like to the facts.

Detail of the Bacton Altar Cloth showing floral and animal motifs. The greens and yellows on this faded side of the textile retain some of their colour, probably the result of being kept out of direct sunlight in a church for 300+years.

without the animal embroideries the design is much nicer

I have photoshopped this to show the textile as it might have appeared without the extra animal embroideries.

Portrait of Elizabeth 1st wearing a similar dress

This highly symbolic portrait of Elizabeth shows her wearing a dress of similar design to the lost dress.

Borago officinalis

So, what about the dyes used in the dress? After searching the internet, the only dyes mentioned are cochineal from Mexico and indigo from the far east. This means the blue probably comes from from Indigofera. The silk cloth (Cloth of silver) itself was probably sourced in Italy, so it is likely that the dyed embroidery thread was also sourced from abroad, which opens up the dye possibilities enormously. I would not be surprised to learn that the master embroiderer was also European, rather than English.

I have enquired with the conservators at Hampton Court about the dyes used, but as yet I have not had a reply. However, I have been in contact with Natalie Walker (no relation) who has done some research on this textile and tells me the chief conservator at Hampton Court will be publishing a paper on the subject soon. If I find out any more I will update this blog with the results.

The visit to Hampton Court Palace was a timely reminder of what can happen when extreme wealth and power is held in the hands of a tiny group of people. Queen Elizabeth II is still the official owner of the Palace.

Note: All the photos in this post were taken by the author.

See very good posts by Natalie Walker, Hampton Court and the Crown Chronicles on the Bacton Altar Cloth here:

A Mark of Craftsmanship?

https://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/whats-on/the-lost-dress-of-elizabeth-i/#gs.xdatlg

The Bacton Altar Cloth – Elizabeth I’s only surviving dress – now at Hampton Court Palace

Madder red and indigo bluedyed handspun and knitted jumper

From fleece to jumper in 6 years

By Ashley Walker
Copyright 11th February 2020

Ever since starting to grow our own dye plants I have wanted to create something I could wear, something that had been created from scratch. In the past I have been quite content to use bought materials to create works of art and craft but as I got older this has appealed less and less. I used to be confused by people who wanted to go back to creating the raw materials of their crafts. I thought that the raw materials were just tools to aid creativity and it was easy to buy the best. I never concerned myself about where they came from or how they had been produced. In time something changed and the thought of creating the raw materials myself began to be more important. I do not really understand the reasons why.

Growing our own dye plants was at first a sort of curiosity but one that propelled us into the world of spinning fleece. After all if you are prepared to grow your own dyes then it no longer seems right to use them to dye commercially manufactured textiles. What would be the point of that? So fleeces were obtained and Susan set out on the road of learning how to clean and mordant them. Later came carding, spinning (drop spindle and wheel) and plying into yarn with diversions into weaving and peg loom weaving. But learning all the steps to achieve a finished dyed garment has turned out to be a steep hill to climb.

Once I had learned how to spin I decided to dye sufficient fleece to make a jumper and trusted to my ability to learn how to knit when I had enough yarn.

Red madder dyed fleece being carded into rollags and spun into yarn

Red madder dyed fleece being carded into rollags, spun and wound into balls ready for knitting

The first photo I have of the beginning was taken in 2014 and shows some of the madder dyed fleece and yarn. However by the time this was taken I had probably been at it for quite a while. The dyeing process was done very carefully so as not to felt the wool. Chopped root was heated to about 60ºC and the fleece added. The dye pans were then placed in a hay box and left overnight. The next day the fleece would be removed and the chopped root at the bottom of the pan was pounded to help release more alizarin (the chief red dye of madder). The pot was then reheated and fleece reintroduced. This might be repeated 3 or more times before a suitable red was obtained.

Slowly, slowly I built up a good stock of dyed fleece to spin. The shades of red varied so I tried to blend the darkest with the lightest to obtain as even a result as possible. Even so the yarn shows a variation in colour which results in the very pleasing stripes of the finished jumper.
Once I had enough I needed a knitting pattern and I quickly found out that knitting patterns are created for consistently even commercial yarn, not home-spun. But with help from our good friend Brian Bond and a few test squares of my own knitting I ended up with a ‘sort of’ pattern I thought I could work to. This was adapted from a cardigan design in one of Brian’s books that I liked the look of. But that’s where it all came to a bit of a grinding halt. I started on the indigo dyed blue rib of one side of the jumper but after several weeks of trial, with much undoing I had barely got into the red. The level of concentration needed to knit was so great that the slightest distraction caused dropped or added stitches or some other mistake. Even when I thought I was concentrating I would often find myself knitting the wrong stitch and all this before I had got to the point of having to reduce the number of stitches or do any of the fancy edging. It was too much.

shows blue rib and a bit of the red dyed yarn knitted on circular needles

This is as far as I was able to take it on my own.

The wool and the bit of rib stayed in its bag for months until Susan took pity on me and decided to have a go herself. Susan can knit but has no experience of knitting with irregular yarn. So what did get knitted took a long time and wasn’t remotely the right shape or size. Susan was canny enough to know that sewing the pieces together would have resulted in an unusual jumper to say the least. So back into its bag it went. Then along came Tracey Ballard who said nonchalantly “Oh yes I’ll finish that off for you if you like”. It meant that my dream of doing it all myself was truly out the window but by this time I was a pushover to accept any help.

No doubt after much remedial work (we suspect more than has been admitted to) Tracey turned up with the finished jumper a few months later. It was exactly as I imagined it. It is heavy and warm and it fitted perfectly. It is the first new jumper I have worn since one my mum knitted me many years ago. I failed to do it all myself but the feeling when wearing it… well it’s indescribable. The colour red is bold and bright. Red was my fathers’ favourite colour. He would buy me red shirts for Christmas which I would never wear. Now I have a totally unique red jumper, one that could never be bought in a shop and one that I will be proud to wear and show off for the rest of my life. No doubt my Dad would have approved.

Ashley wearing the newly delivered jumper

The smile says it all.

Thanks to Susan and Brian for encouragement and advice. Special thanks to Tracey for finishing it off. It is friends and the small things that make life worth living even if they do take 6 years to complete.

shows rear of red madder dyed jumper with red stripes - the result of uneven dyeing

The back of the jumper showing the stripes produced by variations in the dye.