Always Becoming: Artists Nora and Eliza Naranjo Morse Returned to NMAI to Maintain and Transform a Series of Sculptures

IMG_3248Sometimes art conservation is about embracing change.  From a traditional, conservative conservator’s standpoint, our profession is about arresting change, or in some cases attempting to revert it.  We stabilize to prevent further loss, remove soiling and repair losses to bring the object back to a perceived point of significance.   We place importance on the piece as it would be represented in a single moment in time, not as a four dimensional object which is a product of all the moments of its life added up, which accumulate in physical alterations.  I don’t inherently have a problem with choosing a point of significance, and most conservators today will tell you it’s about context.  Sure, in a design museum, the design is paramount, and aesthetics are emphasized during treatment.  In a social history museum, we freeze that object so that it tells the story the curators want to illustrate.  But these examples have one thing in common: the object’s life ends when it enters the museum.

Artist Nora Naranjo Morse approaches things differently.  Her sculptures outside of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), entitled “Always Becoming,” but affectionately referred to as the Family, were created in 2007, and have been shifting, growing, and melting back into the earth ever since.  Made of unfired clay, wood, and stones, much of which has been lovingly collecting in her home of New Mexico and transported to Washington, DC, many of these materials cannot stand up to the yearly heavy rains of the region.  Each year, the environment slowly erodes the exterior of these pieces, picking away at the burnished surface, planting seeds in crevices, and weathering the wood poles.


Wasps have made their home in one of the figures of Always Becoming.

This change is part of the beauty of the work.  As the family settles into its home in DC, slowly easing back into the soil, Nora and her daughter and artist Eliza Naranjo Morse return annually for a reunion.  They use this time to observe, reflect, and alter the sculptures.  Nora allows the pieces to direct her action, observing what aspects must be let go, and what needs to be added.  This isn’t conservation in the traditional sense, but rather falls somewhere at the intersection of conservation, installation art, and spiritual practice.


Nora Naranjo Morse showing where she would like a new layer of red slip to be painted on one of her pieces.

Conservators, friends, and family join together each year for this special event, broadening the idea of family beyond the ring of sculptures, imbuing the process with deeper meaning.  The work is performed during regular museum hours, with visitors looking on, speaking with Nora, Eliza, and the staff, and occasionally joining in to help out.  Everything flows organically, and we must all be open to change and flow, just as the sculptures embrace their own transformation.


Letting go of what doesn’t work: a coating applied last year was removed under the direction of Eliza Naranjo Morse (far right) as it was not stable.  A new band of clay was placed over and beyond it.

The process is not simply a comment on decay, the destructive force of the natural world, impermanence, or the relentless passage of time.  It’s about shifting, adapting, moving, feeling, and becoming.  Based on how the pieces have changed, what parts have begun to crack, where an ambitious little sapling has rooted, or events in Nora and Eliza’s personal lives, the Naranjos take this time to work on the family.  This year, glistening micaceous earth mixed with flecks of mirror-like mica, a meaningful gift received by one of the artists, was mixed with the rich red clay gathered from a different area of New Mexico.  This slip was applied in bands, by the artists, conservation department, and friends to honor, unite, and encircle some of the figures.  This was not simple conservation—there was no attempt to halt or reverse change, but rather a continuation of the living artwork, as it passes through time.


The slow and meditative process of flaking apart mica.

This is one of the special projects that sets institutions such as NMAI apart.  Traditional Western museological concepts are challenged, and space is made for the voices and practices of indigenous people, so often muted.  For me, it was a moment of reflection, beyond just the role of conservation, but also on my own personal relationship with art.  It was such a privilege to be around such warm people, and I am so happy that I have now become part of the family.


The new bands of micaceous earth and red clay in progress, uniting the figures in an embrace.


Burs like stars in a dark New Mexico sky.

To watch some videos with the artist filmed during previous visits, click the two playlists below.


Quillworking at the National Museum of the American Indian

Surface decorating with porcupine quills is a beautiful and challenging technique that has been practiced in North America since at least 1300 AD.  While the oldest known example of quillwork has been found on a pair of moccasins, it has been used extensively on clothing, birch boxes, knife handles, tack, furniture, and just about anything that can be wrapped, punctured, or have a hide strip sewn into it.  Quillwork can sometimes be mistaken for beadwork, and it is truly amazing to see the transformation that a skillful worker can render with this stiff, pointy modified hairs.  In fact, much of beadwork styles that have come to represent classic Plains Indians aesthetics actually grew out of a quillwork tradition that predated the availability of the now prevalent glass bead introduced by Europeans.


Natural dyes clockwise from 1:00: indigo, cochineal alkaline, neutral, and acidic, Osage orange, yellow dock root, wolf moss, and copper acetate.

Quillwork styles vary greatly from the floral, curvilinear styles of the Eastern Woodlands, partially inspired by embroidery taught by French nuns, to the bold, geometric, and fully covered bands and plaits found throughout the Plains.  Colors too vary, with early dyes consisting of what was locally available such as shocking yellow wolf moss and orange bloodroot, to trade dyes brought by Europeans which introduced indigo blues, copper greens, and cochineal reds.  The advent of aniline dyes in the 1850s allowed for spectacularly cheerful colors such as magenta and teal, although unfortunately these early synthetics are severely faded and in some cases have gone completely white.  Azo dyes, which followed, were a little more light fast, and today some artists prefer to use drug store acid dyes such as Rit.

Quillworking is not easy business, and it is no surprise that beadworking took over with its immediacy, although it too requires skill and patience.  The first step, acquiring quills, takes some courage.  Some prefer to work from the hide of a killed porcupine, these days often relying on road kill for supplies, while others collect them from living animals.  Collecting from live animals requires a bit of moxy, and techniques range from tossing a blanket over the animal and pulling quills left behind in the textile, to holding it upside down by the tail and pulling off quills.  Porcupine quills are barbed like fish hooks, and once they go in one direction, sometimes the only thing to do is to push them out the other side.  Ouch.


At the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian, where I have begun a two-year Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in Textile Conservation we had the fortunate experience of inviting the conservator and quillworker Nancy Fonicello to our labs to teach us techniques in making and conserving some of the quillwork in our collection.  She brought with her a bin of quills pulled from a fresh hide, which we separated from the guard hairs and fur, sorted, cleaned, dyed, and worked into our own quillwork samplers.  We experimented with different dyes and techniques, and learned so much by doing as well as gaining a new appreciation for the mind-blowingly incredible work done by people in the past.  In some cultures, such as the Blackfeet, quillwork was considered a sacred art and performed only by the initiated.  While many cultures across the northern half of the continent practiced quillwork, it was overwhelmingly done by women.


Undyed quills with some residual guard hairs in the mix

Nancy shared her vast knowledge and skill with us throughout the consultation.  We dyed quills with materials that likely were used pre-contact, such as wolf moss Letharia vulipina, a chartreuse lichens that grows it the Pacific Northwest and produces a similar color, as well as Osage orange (Malcura pomifera) bark, and yellow dock (Rumex crispus) root.  The basic dye method, which used no mordants although may have in the past, if only as a result of leaching from copper or iron pots, was to bring the dyestuff to a boil in distilled water, strain, add the cleaned quills, and heat just below a simmer.  Times varied, but it is important not to boil the quills.  For some unknown reason, these yellow dyes created quills that were a bit stiff and stubborn to work with, even after soaking.

Experiments with wild grape produced an amazing color but no fastness onto the quills.  We did not use any mordants on our dyes, and achieved incredible colors on all but the grape juice.  Perhaps grapes require further processing such as fermentation or mordanting with metal salts or tannins.

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We also dyed quills with cochineal, native to the Americas but actually introduced via Europeans through a large trade loop.  By manipulating the pH of the dye bath, oranges (acidic) to purples (basic) could be achieved.


Cochineal with acidic (left to basic (right) dye bath

To achieve greens, we tried out some copper experiments.  There seem to be two methods to achieving the lovely turquoises and teals produced by copper, via acid or base.  We started with the acidic method, which involved simply leaving apple cider vinegar in a copper pot for a little over a week until a really lovely (but toxic) copper acetate solution developed.  Next the quills were added and heated, then let to cool and sit for another day or so.  The results were truly lovely, and some of the quills that looked a bit worse for wear dried into a fabulous range of colors.  The quills took distinctively different colors, from seafoam to teal, which may have been a result of oxidation (quills at the top of the pool), heat (quills at the bottom of the pool), or natural variation within the quills themselves.

Tests with urine were a little more lackluster.  This may have been our fault- instead of obtaining a large amount of urine and boiling it down (ick), we simply chucked some quills in the urine in a copper pot.  Little boy pee is apparently the best, and ours was just from one bladder-full, so not much volume.  Some thing the age has something to do with lack of hormones or purity, but it may just be that boys are easier to aim and small children might be easiest to control.  Our results were a much grayer blue-green.

Working with quills is not easy.  They must be soaked before worked, but not for too long or their structural integrity is compromised.  Some stitches require the quills, which are tubular, to be snipped at each end and flattened, while others must be carefully worked without crushing.  Typically quills are stitched onto brain-tanned hide, which is essential as it has a strong fiber structure that is lacking in modern chrome-tanned leather, or coiled around rawhide, hair, or fringe.  Looms are also used, and resemble today’s bead looms, which were adapted from quill looms.  Quilled hide bands can then be stitched onto clothing.  If a garment wears out, the quillwork band can be removed and added to a new one. The styles and techniques of quillworking are vast, and much of the traditional knowledge has been lost.  Only a few guides exist, and most of what is known today has been learned by studying objects rather than through passed-down knowledge.  There are not many active quillworkers today, and many are not of Native descent.

Learning about quillwork was endlessly interesting and I look forward to honing my skill.  Additionally, the process underscored how important it is to understand how something is made in order to fully appreciate its conservation needs.  Many of the treatments that Nancy has done rely on her deep understanding of techniques and impeccable skill at working with quills.  She is able to work safely and effectively on damaged quillwork, and always ensures that any added material is either removable or recognizable, and never removes any original material.  In this way she restores beauty to a fragile art form without compromising its integrity.  I look forward to using some of her techniques on objects that I will be working on during my time at NMAI and beyond.

In time, I also hope to share some basic quillworking stitches with you all on this blog as well.

Hidden Gems: The Brilliant Colours on the Backs of Tapestries

One of the most difficult paradoxes of conservation is that every photon of light that allows us to view a work of art is simultaneously working to destroy it.  Some materials are more vulnerable to light damage than others – typically pigmented and organic materials such as textiles, dyes, some paints, inks, feathers, and wood are relatively fugitive, as is seen commonly in faded colour photographs, sun-bleached hair, and even seemingly sturdy paints like car and house paint that has seen better days.  Colour, one of the properties of art and cultural objects that is for many one of the most compelling aspects of it, is usually what is most vulnerable.

Most of the tapestries that are on display in museums and historic houses have a characteristic blueish cast to them.  I’ve discussed this to some extent before.  Some compounds are more prone to losing their colour producing (chromophoric) properties than others, with yellows and purples tending to be the most vulnerable.  When you take these colours out of the picture or dial them down, you get an image devoid of greens, oranges and purples, leaving the picture cold when it should be rich and vibrant.

As an aside, part of what I find so fascinating about colour is the fact that it actually doesn’t exist without light.  Even more real than the tree in the forest adage, the emission of waves from a coloured surface is only made possible by the interaction with a photon of light.  Sure, the molecule exists as one that is capable of displaying colour when excited by a photon but in the dark nothing is happening.  It’s not that we can’t see the colour because of the dark, it is actually that the colour is not being produced for us to see it.


This 14th century tapestry shows typical fading patterns: reds and blues have remained fairly prominent while everything else has faded to shades of pale brown.  From the Burrell Collection.

When a photon hits a chromophoric molecule, it enters what is known as an excited state, and subsequently releases back that a wavelength that most of us can see as colour.  But this has the potential to cause damage, especially in the higher energy UV range such as is produced by the sun and unfiltered artificial lights.  Therefore act of making colour can be destructive on a molecular basis, breaking down the chromophoric properties of the molecule and, after enough exposure, damaging enough molecules in a surface to deaden the colour entirely.

This feeds into the general dichotomy of access verses preservation, two important aspects of cultural objects that are often frustratingly at odds.  How and where to draw that line is a fascinating topic, but far too broad for today’s discussion.


Fading has resulted in loss of detail and form, causing confusion in this scene as image is flattened and foliage is flattened.  Yes, that is a dog in armour attacking a bear cub.  Medieval Europe was confusing.  From the Burrell Collection.

Back to tapestries.

Since tapestries have a clear front and back side and tend to be displayed flat against a wall, an exciting opportunity is created.  The backs of tapestries sometimes can give glimmers into how fabulous these astoundingly expensive wall coverings were (Henry VIII paid significantly more for his tapestries than for even the famous Hans Holbein portrait).

While the Burrell Collection building in Glasgow is undergoing construction, a unique opportunity to conserve and examine its tapestries is underway.  A previous tapestry project had been undertaken some years ago to document the amazing tapestries of the Burrell.  This included removing linings and photographing the back.  To prepare these fantastic textiles for redisplay when the museum reopens, many of these tapestries are being cleaned, supported and re-backed.  This protects them from soiling, and more importantly adds a layer of strength to the 500-year old yarns that are stretched and strained under their own immense weight.


Reverse (left) and front (right) of tapestry.  Note how the loss of yellow turns lush greenery into dull blue flatness.  From the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.

The above 16th century tapestry is pretty spectacular, even from the front.  Despite some typical reweaving and repairs, whole tapestry is very well preserved.  The skill in design, details, and chiaroscuro in the shading is impressive.  The colours on the front seem in good condition as well, but when compared to the back, it’s quite surprising.  The overall dulling of the front remains, but the loss of greens and oranges is the most striking.

Seeing the foliage and landscape transform from a lifeless blue and brown into bright green and shocking yellow brings the image alive.  The contrast of green makes the figure’s salmon outfit pop even more, providing a greater sense of depth.  His cheeks gain a rosy glow.  Figures in the fields suddenly are noticed, where from the front they appear more as dull blobs.  The blue in the distant background is also pulled into greater contrast, showing the artist’s skill and understanding of atmospheric perspective.  Shading becomes more subtle and space is better defined, and details are rediscovered.


Detail of back (left) and front (right) highlighting the effect of light on oranges, pinks, and greens.  From the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.

While the back must be covered again for conservation, being able to access it gives a fuller understanding of how rich the past was.  Far too often movies show historic dress as drab – not so!  While today these textiles look a bit dim, it’s pretty clear that colour was used, and was often ostentatious.


Back of another tapestry during conservation – support layer has been added, and the tapestry awaits a final lining. Excess fabric in this layer allows for shrinkage and expansion from humidity fluctuations.  Colours are now covered but safe.

The added knowledge allows for better interpretation for the public.  Understanding original use of colour can help with visual aids such as accompanying images with enhanced colour or colour projections on the surface of the textile, and instead of relying on imagination can be produced based on the actual reverse image.  It helps our understanding of the past, as well as guides our future practice in preserving our heritage.

Alkanet Root Dyeing

Alkanet dye is derived from the root of the Alkanna tinctoria plant, a lovely but unassuming plant with periwinkle flowers typical of other members of the Borage family.  Other names include anchusa, from the Greek anchousa, to paint, and its Latin name tinctoria similarly suggests its long history as a dye plant in Europe.  In India, where it is more commonly used in cooking, it is called Ratan Jot.  The colour produced ranges from wine reds to greyish blues, and has been used to dye plants, colour curries, stain woods, and ease the symptoms of leprosy.

The main colour compound is alkannin, which can range from red to violet depending on acidity.  It does not appear to be one of the most important historic dyes, although it has clearly been in some use.  This may be due to issues with lightfastness.  While orchil dyes also produce a purple that is notoriously prone to light fading, the colour it produces is more dramatic and vibrant, which may have been another point against the use of alkanet in the past.  Due to the questionable light fastness, I will not be offering fibres dyed with this yarn in my Etsy shop, and would encourage others to do the same.


Alkanet dye is not particularly soluble in water, and for best results an alcohol extraction is required.  I did this by filling a jar up with 100g of the chopped, dried roots that I purchased from George Weil and covering with really cheap vodka.  I left this for two months in a dark place, out of laziness rather than determination.

Dye should then be strained and enough water added so that the wool can move about in the dye pot.  I have to note that due to mental frailty caused by jetlag, I did not strain the fibres and for some cockamamie reason chucked it all in the pot together.  Do not do this unless you want to be picking out pieces of root from your wool for the rest of your days on this planet.


I dyed 155 grams of my handspun organic merino wool, which put me at about 65% WOF using all of the dye extracted from 100g of root.  I mordanted the wool in the bath with alum, using one heaping tablespoon of alum and cream of tartar.  As I’ve previously mentioned, volume is not my preferred method, but for the time being I lack a scale.


I diluted the dye liquor 1:3 with water, which with all the root pieces, was really not enough space to achieve an even dye.  I was worried about too much dilution, as I wanted a strong purple.  This, along with the debris, resulted in an uneven colour, which is admittedly not unpleasant.

I warmed the dye and kept just below a simmer for 45 minutes.  The deep purple colour did not start to develop until about a half hour in, up until which point it was a light, dull, blueish grey.  Mixing seemed to help.  As an aside, I wonder if there is some indigotin present in the root, as I noticed a change from purple to yellow as I decanted leftover liquor, which is typical of the oxidation reaction that occurs during indigo vat dyeing.

The yarn was pulled out, left to cool, and rinsed as per the usual procedure.

As mentioned, the skein was unevenly dyed, with some areas being more blueish and others more red.  In spots where a piece of root became imbedded into the wool, there was often a red stain.  It should knit up quite nicely, although there is still a smell about it that I can’t quite get behind.

Exhaust Dyeing

With the remaining, now strained liquor, I decided to see what would happen from an exhaust dye.  Using a portion of some self-striping yarn I was making, and had previously dyed a portion of with madder, placed part of a skein of organic merino wool into the leftover dye.  I followed the above procedure.

It is clear that alkanet gives most of its colour the first time around, and I only achieved a slightly purple light grey that I will likely dye over.


Self striping organic merino wool dyed with madder (red) and alkanet (grey). Alum mordant.


  • Poor lightfastness
  • Best extracted with alcohol
  • Lovely range of violets to dusty periwinkle with alum, more blackish greys with iron
  • Do not boil
  • Keep below simmer for 30-60 minutes
  • Good colour requires 60-150% WOF
  • Poor exhaust results


Note: WOF refers to weight of fibre, which is the amount (g) of dye/mordant/additive per weight (g) of fibre used.  Madder at 100% WOF would mean 100g of root for 100g of fibre, while 50% WOF means 50g madder root for 100g of fibre.

Things That Madder: Dyeing with Rubia tinctorum Roots


Madder (Rubia tinctorum), as a natural dye, has been around since at least 3,000 BCE. It, along with the usually cooler, more magenta insect dye cochineal, is responsible for most of the reds in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East before the invention of synthetics, and it held its ground into the 20th century. It’s the main component of the famous Turkey Red, coveted for its bright colour and supposed superior light fastness on the notoriously tricky to dye cotton fabrics.   The recipe was important enough to be kept a secret, although it slowly trickled through from Asia to Europe, where it became an important industry here in Glasgow by the 19th century. Although several compounds produce the orangey-pinks to scarlets, alizarin is the most prominent, of which a synthetic version was developed in 1826.

My recent bout of tonsillitis provided a great chance to play around with madder I had lying around. I started with 300g of spun wool fibre, consisting of wool, although one skein had a combination of 68 grams of wool and 15 grams of soysilk. The breeds were blue-faced Leicester (BFL), and organic merino, both of which are considered luxury breeds for their softness, lustre, and warmth.   The BFL, sourced from the UK, had a much creamier colour, while the organic merino was very pure white.


I used an alum mordant, and opted for an imperial/volume ratio of 4 tablespoons alum, 4 tablespoons cream of tartar, and 4 gallons of water per pound wool. I generally prefer weight as it is more accurate, but a scale was not available. C’est la vie. With 300g of fibre, that worked out to 3 tablespoons each and about 3 gallons of water, but let’s be honest, I didn’t measure the latter.


I added my pre-soaked, pre-scoured yarn to a bath of hot water with the above measured ingredients, already dissolved. This was brought up to a simmer slowly then simmered for about 30 additional minutes. Apparently the “natural” soysilk had been dyed a cream colour, and it turned the skein it was spun into a pleasant pale pink.

Madder Dyeing

Dye Preparation

Following from Gwen Fereday’s instructions from Natural Dyes (2003, British Museum Press), I took my 100g powdered madder from George Weil and slowly added water to make a paste. I used hot water, although in retrospect I wonder if I should have used cold. This looked like brownie batter, and it was very difficult not to eat. I transferred the paste to a metal pot with the help of a silicone spatula, and added about a litre of cold water.


This was placed on low heat and brought to a low simmer. Fereday warns not to boil, as this will give a more yellow, dull red. She didn’t say how long to do this for, but at 20 minutes bubbles were just starting to percolate and the whole mixture was very red, so I turned off the heat but left it on the burner to continue to do its magic for another 10 minutes before removing to cool.


Again following Fereday’s recipe, I diluted the dyebath to enough liquid to cover my fibres, brought slowly to a simmer for one hour, and then kept at or just below a simmer for an additional hour, making sure never to boil. The main dyepot had 150 grams of fibre in it, and I scooped out about a cup or two for dip dyeing skeins in an ombre and self-striping technique.

preparing dye liquor: madder root powder in the dyepot

self-striping dye with madder

Afterwards, I lifted the wool out with tongs, let cool, and rinsed thoroughly, making sure not to wring or felt the fibres.  Because the root was powdered, rinsing took quite a while.  Skeins were squeezed in a towel and hung to dry.

after dyeing with madder, ready to rinse

The results were a bright, rich orange-red, and even the soysilk was dyed, which was a surprise since this is a cellulosic fibre.

wool and soysilk dyed with madder and alum mordant

Before dyeing, I wrapped one of the skeins cotton twine at regular intervals in order to create a resist dye technique. It worked quite well, and I am now considering if and what I want to overdye with. I will also be contemplating what other dyes to use on my ombre and self-striping skeins. I have alkanet, weld, and a reduced indigo/pomegranate, so I’m looking at purple, yellow, or blue-green. My vote is for alkanet, but that requires some preparation, most likely alcohol extraction.

I froze my remaining exhaust dye liquor, which wasn’t huge in volume at this point, for later experimentation should I chose do go for it.

Two of these skeins are available here and here at my shop, Quercus Fibers.



Art Conservation As Art

Those who cannot do, teach, and those who cannot make art, conserve it? Hardly.

Conservation of cultural heritage draws on a wide range of skills, from craftsmanship to polymer science, social history to fine arts, international law to mechanical engineering. Conservators come from wonderfully diverse backgrounds, and many of them have been or continue to be involved in the process of art production.

But what isn’t usually discussed, especially outside of the conservation community, is the beauty and art that can be found in the process of conservation itself.

The first comes from the act of looking. Really looking. Seeing the ravages of age, the patterns of surface texture, the fractals of corrosion. The object on the conservator’s table is often beautiful on its own, but the passage of time written into its molecules lends a layer of meaning and wonder. The concepts of decay, time, and destruction are not rare in many art forms, and seeing the way they mar or enhance cultural objects is a lesson in impermanence in miniature.


Inherent vice: some processes, such as silk weighting, cause catastrophic degradation over time.  As far as we know, this process is irreversible.  However, sometimes destruction can be beautiful, as is seen here where the newly exposed weft threads offer a shock of pink against the faded satin, and chaos slowly eats into the meticulous embroidery. 

Some of these changes can be seen with the naked eye. The blackening from carbon pollution, a by-product of change and human ingenuity, obscures objects of manufactured beauty. This is commonly seen in the stunning shadowy skeletons of gothic architecture throughout Europe. Other decays can delight under magnification, which is frequently used to better understand degradation and materials during the course of treatment. The world opens up under the microscope, as what seem to be solid weave patterns transform into regular grids and mazes, and layers and textures otherwise unseen come into sharp focus.

Images from treatments often emerge, moments of beauty, the inevitable force of entropy, and scenes of our battle against it. Couching threads, tediously stitched by a conservator to hold together a fabric that, by the very nature of its composition, is doomed to continue to disintegrate, sometimes feels like a study of human nature, the fight against death, the cult of materialism. But also the desire to preserve and share, to teach, to learn, to interpret, discuss, and experience. In short, it feels a lot like art.


Diagram for Japanese embroidery

In a more concrete way, perhaps, even the basic tools we use to describe treatment and condition, such as diagrams, become lovely drawings that stand alone as objects to appreciate. Diagrams of patterns, surface decorations, embroidery techniques, layers of patches, lines of creases, and soiling patterns have their own beauty. They are interpretations of an object, simplifications but also explorations of an aspect that affects the whole. The unnecessary is stripped away, and an essence is captured or facet amplified.

Every time a conservator acts or chooses not to act on an object, the course of its history is changed. This is part of why we all hold advanced degrees—it’s an ethical as well as practical decision every time. So if our treatments, often conducted tucked away in a secure lab, alter the object we work on, then they must become part of that object. Even if our actions are reversible, a standard that is often aimed for despite the realities of the concept, we are acting on the history of that art piece. So why not appreciate what we do, what we contribute, both as a part of the original work but also as acts of art in their own right?

Dyeing with Annatto- Orange You Glad I Hate Cheesy Puns?


Annatto is most commonly used today to dye foods rather than textiles. In fact, it is responsible for the classic orange colour in American cheddar cheeses, and that bright hue can also be applied to textile fibres.

Bixa orellana, known as annatto in English (roucou in French, and orlean in German and Dutch), is native to Central America. It has historically been used as a dye in the Americas, with evidence of its use spanning back to ancient Peruvian graves.  It entered the European market at the close of the 16th century. It never became an economically important dye, however, although it did have home use. While easy to use, annatto is not particularly lightfast, and like orcein dyes, has a history of being outlawed by dyer’s guilds.

The main chromatophoric (coloured) chemical component of annatto is bixin, which is isolated from the small fruits of the tropical shrub. Depending on the concentration, mordant, textile makeup, and length of dye, the colour can range from orange to red. One such colour, typically used on silk, was known as aurora or morning red, and evokes the brilliance that can be obtained.

IMG_0031Dye Experiment

Always wanting to try my own hand at things, I took it upon myself to dye some blue-faced Leicester (BFL) wool yarn that I had previously spun on my handy top whorl drop spindle. I used whole annatto seeds and an alum mordant. While annatto can be used as a direct dye, that is one without the chemical binder known as a mordant, it is possible that the use of alum can provide a more even distribution and better colourfastness. It also appears that annatto, like many dyes, was fermented before use in the past, but I believe my seeds were simply dried.

Recipe and Procedure

2 skeins BFL handspun yarn, totalling 160 g, mordanted with 15% weight of fibre (WOF) alum and 8% WOF cream of tartar (done by these methods).
100 g whole annatto seeds
Tap water (unknown pH, from a soft water source)


First, I brought 100g of whole annatto seeds in water up to a gentle simmer. After just over an hour of hovering between 90-100°C, I let it cool slightly and strained the seeds out. I returned the dye liquor to the bath, added enough water to fully cover my yarn, and added two skeins of still-wet alum mordanted fibre.


After a low simmer for about an hour, I was dissatisfied with the depth of colour, despite having read that a 1:2 dyestuff to fibre weight was adequate. I decided to grind up the annatto berries, place them in a pantyhose foot, and return them to the dye bath with the yarn. While this may have contributed to unevenness of colour, I found it to create a much deeper shade. I tried to gently turn the fibres throughout the process, but still ended up with darker areas. Which looks nice, so no worries there.

I let the dye liquor and yarn barely simmer for about three hours, then killed the heat and let the yarn sit for another 4 hours, turning occasionally.

Afterwards, I did the usual rinsing, adding a small amount of soap to the rinse to encourage out any excess dye.

Exhaust bath


Not wanting to waste anything, and curious about the result, I did a cold exhaust dip dye on another 80g skein of handspun BFL. This was a simple procedure, which just involved taking the remaining liquor, pouring it into a pickle jar, and placing one end of a dampened alum mordanted skein (15% WOF alum 8% WOF cream of tartar) in it. I left it for about 10 hours before removing and rinsing.


The colour is pretty lovely, and in the future if I dye with annatto I will grind the seeds up right off the bat to ensure that more of the bixin is released into the dye liquor. My main concerns, however, are about light fastness, which unfortunately I only discovered after my dyeing was already underway.


First dye bath with annatto and alum mordant

The exhaust bath created a pleasant, if very mild creamy orange. I will play around with this skein more and see what colourway I can come up with.


Exhaust dye cold bath (alum mordant)

Sources and Further Reading

Maiwa Guide to Natural Dyes

Grackle & Sun: Dye Day #1 Results: Annatto Seeds

Hofenk de Graaf, J. A. Natural Dyestuffs: Origin, Chemical Constitution, Identification. International Council of Museums Committee for Conservation (ICOM CC) September 15-19 1969, Amsterdam: Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science

Loss and Dyeing: Fading, Conservation, and Orchil Dyes in Tapestries

This is the first of a several part series of posts on textile conservation at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. 

Go into any historic house or museum with tapestry displays, and you will likely be confronted with beautiful and strange landscapes of cool colours. The current rotation of tapestries 16th-17th century tapestries at the Rijksmuseum from François Spiering’s atelier is no exception to this. Blueish foliage, grey-skinned classical figures clad in indigo, tan, and maybe hints of pink or rusty orange line the room. The detail is exquisite, the colour subtle. You may find this beautiful and calming, and won’t be the first. William Morris found inspiration in this palette and used it frequently in his famous 19th century designs.

The thing is, you and Bill are seeing it all wrong.


Typical blueish foliage found in many Renaissance era tapestries. This is a detail from a piece Spiering’s studio designed by van Mander c. 1617. It is currently undergoing conservation treatment. The pin is marking an area to be conserved with supportive stitching.

Dye fading is arguably one of the most noticeable and difficult problems with textiles, and often a large problem with any object or artwork that contains pigments. Light is the most common source of colour loss, which presents a challenge when considering conservation versus access. In a very literal sense, colour does not exist without light, although the existence of light has the ability to destroy the parts of a dye compound that are perceived as colour.

When a photon of light hits certain compounds, the energy becomes absorbed, electrons enter an excited state, and energy is emitted back from the molecule. If this light energy has a wavelength of 390-700nm and is directed to the lens of a normal human eye, it is translated by the brain into what we call colour. In darkness, colour does not exist because no photons are present to stimulate electrons into an excited state. Call me a geek, but I find this pithy.

The catch-22 is that this energy, especially if it is in the form of high-energy ultraviolet light, has the ability not only to produce what we perceive as colour, but also can provide the energy required to break up bits of a molecule. There are certain characteristic structures that result in emission of light in the visible range, and it only takes a very minor disruption to alter or destroy a molecule’s chromatic properties.

This, by the way, is why most rooms in museums with tapestries are pretty dark. It’s just damage control.

While colour is an important aspect of all dyed textiles, the pictorial aspect of a tapestry makes it particularly crucial. Aside from adding a little physical and visual warmth to a cold castle hall, tapestries are essentially large pictures, which informs conservation decisions. A paintings conservator, for example would not typically choose to conserve the weave structure of the canvas at the expense of the oil painting above it. Conversely, an historic costume often is still very meaningful if the cut and construction are intact, even if the original colour has been lost.


Tapestries can be amongst the oldest non-archaeological textiles in museum collections, generally ranging from the 16th century onward. That’s a lot of years to hang on a wall, and a lot of hours of daylight to slowly strip away the image that hundreds of hours of weaving created.

The tendency for dyes to fade was not unknown to dyers and weavers of the past. Certain dyes, although they are temptingly brilliant when fresh, were known to degrade quickly and significantly, and there were often strict regulations on what dyes and recipes were acceptable. Indigo, while a complex dye to produce, creates a brilliant blue with good lightfastness. Yellows, conversely, are on the whole more prone to fading. This partially explains the cool palette of many tapestries. Many greens were produced by overdyeing indigo and yellow (often from the weedy plant weld); as time passes the yellow compounds degrade and only blue-jeans blue is left.

Reds provide another challenge. Madder is a solid and important dye plant, although the red it produces is often more bright and orange than deep and luxurious. Some tree barks produce excellent and rich reds, becoming accessible for Europe as certain countries expanded their mercantile and colonial power. Brazilwood is one such example, eventually becoming so economically important that the Portuguese named their colony after it. Safflower can also produce beautiful colours from yellow, to pink to red. None of these dyes aside from madder, however, stand up very well to light exposure.

Lichens dyes are another route to achieve stunning reds and purples. Orcein, derived from orchil, sometimes called archill, is a derived from a group of Roccella species that can produce a truly astounding mauve. It does not require a mordant, but instead relies on the ammonia found in stale urine to produce the colour, making it much cheaper to produce than the rare and exorbitantly expensive Tyrian purple. In a basic environment, the colour turns richly purple. As it becomes more acidic, orchil turns red. The Dutch historically called this plant litmus. The eponymous test still uses filter paper soaked in this dye to establish pH.


Cephalus and Procris, 1549-1631. Designed by Karel van Mander Workshop of Francois Spiering.

Despite the stunning colour, orchil dyes are sadly far from colourfast. In fact, it was among the regulated dyes, and its poor resistance to light fading was well known amongst dyers and weavers guilds. This brings us back to Spiering, the Rijksmuseum, and why we are all wrong about how tapestries look.

Francois Spiering (c. 1576-1630) moved from his native Belgium to the Netherlands in 1591, where he established a highly successful tapestry studio in Delft. His studio was known for producing technically excellent work with an impressively detailed painterly style, with colours to rival contemporary oil paintings. Karel van Mander the younger began his career with Spiering, and was responsible for the cartoons of many of the workshop’s excellent tapestries.

Spiering undoubtedly knew that orcein dyes would fade, yet analysis shows that he used them extensively. Perhaps it was his artistic sensibility, perhaps he just didn’t care. It’s slightly possible he didn’t know orcein dyes were used in the yarns he purchsed, but I find this highly unlikely. The result is that today, while the subtle modelling and minute detail are still evident, the overall impression of the tapestries is dramatically altered.

When looking at Renaissance and Mannerist paintings, the richness of colours, particularly reds, is apparent. This was part of the aesthetic of the day, and tapestries would have been no exception. Our experience of them is tainted by the passage of time, degradation by light, and the inevitability of chemistry.


The Worshipping of the Golden Calf.  Karel van Mander, 1602 .Oil on Canvas This painting was done by van Mander, who designed many tapestries in Spiering’s studio. Notice the similarities in composition and style. While the distant landscape is indeed blueish, there is a richness of colour that likely has since vanished in his tapestries. It is also worth noting that pigments, paints, and varnishes are all susceptible to changes from light exposure.

As conservators, usually the most we can do is try to keep these factors at bay. Reducing light levels and eliminating UV while on display and rotating collections can reduce exposure. Maintaining stable humidity and temperature can slow photodegradation. Sometimes a look at the back of a textile gives better clues to how it may have originally looked. However, no physical intervention can ethically and realistically restore a tapestry to its former glory.

Some institutions are beginning to play around with exciting digital options. While the textile itself remains unaltered, digital reconstructions with the use of programs like Photoshop can provide an image that may reveal original dye colours. Light can be projected onto the textile itself, producing a superimposed image of the imagined colours. Experimental dyeing, translations of old recipes, and chemical analysis all provide clues that can help us revisit the past.

Even if what we see now isn’t what was intended 500 year ago, the images are still beautiful masterpieces. Our experience today is inherently different from what it would have been in 1620, if we were ever so lucky as to see such an item of luxury. Investigation and preservation are crucial in maintaining and understanding our cultural heritage, but it’s also important to not mourn the losses. Change is inevitable, degradation is certain. So go to room 2.2 in the Rijksmuseum and see some incredible works that have faded in colour but absorbed five centuries of history.

Further Reading:

Bobbin Lace

IMG_2902Bobbin lace has been a serious bucket list textile technique of mine. Unlike tatting, filet, crochet, and needle lace, which rely on a single thread worked in a series of knots and loops, bobbin lace is created from a series of threads that interweave around each other. Think a cross between macramé and weaving. These threads are wound around small bobbins, traditionally made out of wood or bone but now commonly of plastic, giving the technique its name.

17th century bobbin lace collar

Portrait of a Lady. French School, Early 17th century. Oil on Panel Christies (

Bobbin lace seemed to gain popularity in the early 17th century as an edging for collars, cuffs, and gloves. While larger panels of bobbin lace can be made, the technique lends itself particularly well to long borders. Different styles of lace eventually developed, originally named for the place where they were first made but later simply donated a particular aesthetic. Bobbin lace, like many other lace-making techniques, began its demise in the 1870s when machine lace was introduced.

I embarked on my bobbin lace journey earlier this month, when my starter kit package fiiiiinally arrived. It consisted of the necessary tools to get started: a covered “pillow” (cloth-covered foam block), pins, cotton thread, 5 pairs of bobbins, a pricker, and a small instruction booklet. I combined the first few projects to make a little sampler of the stitches.

Bobbin lace is mainly constructed of variations of two stitches, Half and Whole, to produce a variety of textures from the woven Cloth Stitch to the pretty octagon net of Torchon Ground. The challenge lies in keeping straight what each bobbin is doing, and preventing a catastrophic disaster that would tangle them all together. I confess to making a mistake or two in these first projects, but hopefully you won’t spot them.

The lace is constructed from a pricking, which is essentially a pattern with little holes in it to indicate where to place your pins. Thread is wound around bobbins in pairs, which are worked downward and secured with pins.

Making a bobbin lace pricking

Making a bobbin lace pricking

In-progress bobbin lace.  Yes those are clothes pins!  I ran out of proper bobbins.

In-progress bobbin lace. Yes those are clothes pins! I ran out of proper bobbins.

Bobbin lace in progress

Ready to be tied off and pins removed.

Hard work is rewarded!  This sample shows cloth stitch diamonds on a Torchon ground.

Hard work is rewarded! This sample shows cloth stitch diamonds on a Torchon ground.

After a little more practice, I would be delighted to provide a tutorial!

Further Reading

The Lace Guild – Great information on many forms of lacemaking

Kantcentrum – Really cool resource from Belgium lace centre.  Make digital bobbin lace or browse their lessons.

Natural Dyeing- Comparing Mordants

Natural dye tests with alum and iron on silk and wool

Synthetic dyes have only been around for about 150 years, which is relatively short in the timeline of textiles. Dyeing with plants, lichens, and insects has been practiced for at least 4,500 years. Although textiles are notoriously absent from the archaeological record, some conditions have allowed for the preservation of fabric that still retains evidence of being dyed. Early Iron Age bog finds from Northern Europe and woven textile scraps from the Hallstatt salt mines in Austria dating from as early as the Bronze Age show the use of natural dyes. In ancient Egypt, cloth from about 2500 BCE has been found to contain dyes, and additional records of dye recipes support the existence of the practice. It is likely that people had been experimenting with dyeing for much longer than this.

While the use of natural dyes is uncommon as a conservation technique due to their unpredictability, it is important to understand the process and its conservation implications. Dye fading, usually by light and UV, can erase or dramatically alter original colours in both natural and synthetic dyes. Seeing what an original colour may have looked like before time took its toll is informative, although it must be noted that the actual hue produced can be incredibly variable based on the species, origin, and growing conditions of the dye material as well as an almost infinite combination of dye processes and recipes that depend on concentration, impurities in water, temperature, dyeing times, and nearly any factor imaginable. Undertaking your own dye experiments certainly gives an appreciation for the expertise of dyers from the past!

Fabric is generally dyed by one of three processes: direct, mordant, or vat dyeing. Direct dyeing is the most straightforward, requiring only the fabric, water, and the dyestuff. Turmeric is a common example of this, although it should be noted that it has poor light-fastness, which means that it is likely to fade when exposed to any source of light, natural or artificial. Vat dyes, such as indigo and woad, rely on a more complex chemical process that allows a dye compound that is originally insoluble in water to chemically change and become attached to the fibre.

Mordants, from the French mordre, or “to bite,” are compounds that bind to both the fabric and dye compound, creating a bond strong enough to prevent the dye from being washed away and result in fading or loss. While these compounds are usually metal salts such as iron, tin, and alum, tannic acid has also been used.

The choice of mordant affects both the colour achieved and the strength of the fibre itself. Iron is what is called a “saddening” mordant, as it tends to produce colours that are duller, cooler, and darker than alum, even when the same dyestuff is used. It can be utilised to produce the somewhat elusive black. Unfortunately, iron mordants often cause weakness within the fibre. This can sometimes be seen in printed textiles and tapestries when only a certain colour such as black or yellow appears to have deteriorated.

Despite the impressive range of hues achieved in historic textiles, the number of dyes actually utilised is relatively small. For one of our last days of the term, we got the chance to play around with some of these dyes. In addition to dyeing cotton with indigo, we also carried out mordant dyeing with iron and alum on wool and silk. For reds, we tried the oft-used madder root and the insect dye cochineal. We also tried out old fustic for yellow and logwood, which was often used to produce a range of blues, purples, greys, and blacks.

Madder root

Dried madder root, used in dyeing oranges and reds.

The end result was an interesting comparison between mordants and materials. Side-by-side, it was easy to see the “saddening” effect of the iron mordant, which produced a more sombre set of colours than the cheerful red, yellow, and orange created by the alum mordanted fibres. The rich red and sunny orange produced from cochineal and madder on alum turned to a warm brown and blue-grey with iron. The silk, with its smooth and glossy surface lent a lustrous richness to the colours that was dampened by the rough surface of the wool fibres.

It was interesting to be able to sense the weakness introduced by iron mordanting even on new fibres. The wool in particular seemed “fuzzier” than its alum counterpart, and it was easy to see how the fibres would be more prone to breakage. Despite some of the beautiful complex colours created by the iron mordant, this experiment has actually nudged me away from using iron in my personal dyeing, as I have concerns for the longevity of my products.

Although I have done some natural dyeing myself, each time is a learning process. Of the four mordant dyes, I had only ever used madder with alum, and actually achieved a much calmer red as compared to the bright orange that we got in the lab. That alone highlights what is so difficult but interesting about natural dyes. The unpredictable nature is both nerve-wracking and delightful. I am looking forward to using beautiful, rich cochineal and subtle logwood purple in future projects, as well as trying more overdyeing combinations.

For a little more dye history and chemistry:

Natural History Museum – Seeds of Trade

Encyclopaedia Britannica – Dye

Some more on natural dyeing:

Paradise City Homestead- Dyeing with Marigold. Although marigold isn’t an historically important dye, it does produce a beautiful, cheery golden yellow with alum on wool.