Books on Natural Dyeing Part Two: Traditional Dyeing

While I love indigo, there are so many other wonderful dye plants, yielding a huge variety of  natural dyes and colours and similarly, a large number of books (though not as many as the plants!) devoted to the subject, again each with a slightly different approach and style.

Jenny Dean is an English  natural dyeing expert, having worked with natural dyes for almost forty years. It is well worth reading her interview with The Wild Dyery at: http://thewilddyery.com/interview-with-jenny-dean/, as well as her blog at http://www.jennydean.co.uk/. In a post at the beginning of the year, she mentioned a tantalising One Year Natural Dyeing Course from March 2018 to February 2019 at Ditchling Museum in East Sussex, but given it started last month, I will have to contend with Jenny’s books instead, of which there are over seventy,  two of which I actually possess! I have also discovered that Wild Dyery runs 12 week online courses, which look really interesting as well. See: http://naturalfabricdyeing.com/, but back to Jenny’s books!

Wild Colour: How to Grow, Prepare and Use Natural Plant Dyes by Jenny Dean 1999

This beautiful hardcover book is divided into three sections:

Introduction: This important chapter covers the theoretical background of natural dyeing from its history:

Origins and evolution of natural dyeing techniques;

Development of medieval guilds of master dyers, trade routes and synthetic dyes;

Dye categories (substantive/ vat and adjective);

Other sources of natural colour: Tyrian or Imperial Purple from Murex and Purpura shellfish and a variety of reds: a scarlet Kermes Red, Red Lac and Cochineal from the bodies of scale insects, feeding on oak leaves/ fig and acacia leaves/ and prickly pear cactus respectively);

Specific plant dyes: Red: Madder, Brazilwood and Safflower; and Purple: Logwood and Lichens; and

Application techniques: Discharge Dyeing; Block Printing; Ikat Dyeing; and Blue Printing.

Dyeing Techniques:

Safety Guidelines: For use and storage;

Equipment: Drying and storing plant material; Camping stove; Water source; Stainless steel pots, only used for dyeing; Large bowls and buckets; Plastic containers for leftover dyes; Tongs  and log-handled spoons; Measuring jugs; Strainers or colanders; Weighing scales; Rubber gloves and oven mitts; Labels and waterproof markers; and Record book.

Water pH: Testing and adjusting it;

Materials: Animal and vegetable fibres and their preparation for the dye bath;

Mordants:

Natural: Staghorn sumac Leaves; Rhubarb leaves; and Oak galls;

Chemical Compounds: Aluminium, Iron and Copper;

Premordanting Methods:  To fix the dye to the fibres, including instructions for making mordant solutions, using crystals or your own ingredients; Calculating quantities of mordant required; Mordanting animal and plant fibres; Choosing a mordant; and the safe disposal or storage of mordants.

Preparing Plant Parts for Dyeing: Drying; Quantities; Testing; Experimenting; and Extracting colour from bark, flowers, leaves and berries;

Selecting the Best Dyeing Method: Cool Dyeing; Hot Dyeing; and All-in-One Methods;

Dyeing with Specific Plants: Safflower; Indigo; and Woad;

Colour Modifiers: To extend the range of colours from a single  dyebath to create a number of different shades, giving an example of 25 colours from the one dyebath:

Acidic Modifiers: Produce yellower tones;

Alkaline Modifiers: Usually creates pinker tones, but can change colours dramatically eg elderberry pinks and purples become green;

Copper Modifiers: Makes colours greener or browner in tones;

Iron Modifiers: Makes colours darker and more sombre, as well as improving the rastness of dyes;

Wash Fastness; and most importantly, especially if replication of results is desired,

Recording Natural Dyeing Results: Labelling fibre samples in a record book with the name of the fibre; mordant used; dyestuff; methods; and timing. Even information like the previous season and weather and location/ soil/ climate of the plant can be noted.

However, the largest section of the book is devoted to the Dye Plants themselves: all sixty species of them, with their scientific name and species, photographs, description and history of use; their cultivation and harvest; the extraction of their pigments; and dyeing procedures.

There are useful Colour Swatches for each plant entry, showing probable results when certain techniques are used: Firstly, the Dye Colour on Fabrics (black bucket symbol); Adding an Alum Mordant Before Dyeing (white bucket symbol and Using an Iron Modifier After Dyeing (shaded bucket symbol) or Combinations of all three approaches. The number of different shades and colours, which can be achieved from the same plant is amazing! While some plants like Comfrey (grey-greens), Yarrow (beige, soft yellow and soft khaki green) and Hollyhock (maroon and mauve shades) produce only a limited palette, others like Saint John’s Wort (yellow and gold, green and deep red and a range of browns); Walnut (soft browns to gold, kahaki shades and a deep brown) and Apple (a wide range of different browns and khaki golds to pure gold, scarlet and green) yield many different colours.

Some produce different colour ranges according to :

Part of the plant used : In Betula (birch) and Prunus (cherry, plum, peach, almond and apricot) trees, the leaves produce soft yellow to green shades and the bark a range of pinks, while Eucalypts yield rich rusty reds and deep browns from the leaves and a range of greys from the bark;

Method Used: The colours from dyeing with the leaves of woad vary from blues to pink skin tones and greys, while those of Japanese Indigo (Polygonum tinctorium) produce a wide colour range from warm and cool browns to blues and purples, according to the method used.

Some plants are surprising. I would have expected ivy berries and leaves to produce green colours, but the berries only do so with the use of mordants and modifiers, their original unadulterated colour being a soft grey and the leaves yield a range of browns- no green at all!. I also anticipated that pomegranates to produce a red dye, where in reality the fruit and outer skins yield soft ochres and browns, so lacking in brilliance that they are often mixed with turmeric to brighten the colour, however they are rich in tannins, which improves colour fastness and can also be used as a mordant. Rhubarb is a particularly useful plant, as its leaves are a natural mordant and produce greeny-yellow shades, while its roots yield a range of yellows, golds, greens, browns and oranges.

Each page also has an inset box detailing each plant’s range, availability, growing habits, planting and harvesting times, dye stuff (as in flower/ roots/ bark/ leaves and berries) and dyeing instructions.

It is a fascinating and inspirational book, which really makes you want to start experimenting immediately!BlogNatlDyeing3018-02-07 15.25.09

The Craft of Natural Dyeing: Growing Colours From the Plant World by Jenny Dean 1994

My second guide by Jenny Dean is a simpler paperback form covering much the same subject matter: Materials; Equipment; Safety notes; Dyeing a skein of wool or cotton; Record keeping; Mordants; Mordanting techniques; Dyestuffs; Extracting dye colour, Testing for colour fastness; Dye mixing and overdyeing; Colour ranges; and Dye plants to grow.

I found the sections on Mordants and Plant Parts particularly easy to understand in this book and the colour divisions give a quick idea of suitable plants to try. For example,

Yellows and Golds: Weld, Fustic, Safflower, Onions and Nettles;

Greens: Logwood mixed with Weld; Fustic or Onion skins; or overdyeing yellow with indigo; and using an iron modifier on yellow or a copper mordant;

Blues: Indigo and Woad;

Purples, Lavenders and Greys: Cochineal, Logwood, Alkanet and Elderberries;

Pinks and Reds: Cochineal, Safflower and Madder;

Oranges, Rusts and Browns: Annatto, Cutch, Henna, Lichen, Onion skins, Weld, Cochineal, Walnut hulls and leaves, and Madder; or using an iron solution; and

Blacks and Neutrals: Logwood overdyed with indigo or premordanting with tannin (oak galls) and iron.

Overall, an easy introductory guide to natural dyeing, but if I had to make a choice and only have one of her books, it would have to be the more comprehensive Wild Colour.BlogNatlDyeing3018-02-07 15.23.47

Natural Dyeing by Jackie Crook 2007

Another useful guide with a slightly different approach. While the chapter titled: How To Dye covers much of the basic information on dyeing equipment, precautions and techniques, I liked her step-by-step instructions with clear photographs of each stage for cleaning and premordanting, not just wool and cotton, but also silk, as well as the different methods of dyeing (hot water, cool water and vat).

While Jenny based her divisions on plant or colours produced, Jackie has divided the next section based on the plant part used, incorporating 30 different plants and projects, with brief descriptions, requirements and methods, as well as tips, photographs of examples and a colour chart of the effects produced by different mordants (Alum, Chrome, Copper, Iron and Tin). They include:

Roots: Madder, Alkanet, Turmeric and Rhubarb;

Woods and Barks: Brazilwood; Logwood; Cutch; Buckthorn; Sanderswood (Red Sandalwood); Osage Orange; and Querbracho;

Flowers: Gorse; Goldenrod; and French Marigold (Tagetes);

Leaves and Stalks: Henna; Weld; Tea (Thea sinensis); Stinging Nettle and Tansy;

Fruits and Vegetables: Annatto; Elderberry; Walnut; Blackberry; Red Cabbage; Onion; Avocado and Ivy.

There is also a section for Special Colours: Indigo, Cochineal and Lac.

In the back is a simplified chart for quick easy reference of all the material covered, including common and Latin names; their suitability for dyeing silk, wool and cotton; and the form of their dye eg fresh,  dried  or frozen roots/ berries/ tops/ skins, powder; concentrated extract; chips;or teabags, as well as a colour chart showing the colours obtained by using five different mordants (alum, chrome, copper, iron and tin) with each of the 30 dyestuffs.

A useful addition to the library, as it covers slightly different plants (eg Red Cabbage, Avocado, Sanderswood, Osage Orange, Querbracho, Gorse, Tea and Lac) and mordants (chrome and tin).BlogNatlDyeing4018-02-07 15.25.14A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot: Growing Dyes for Natural Fibres by Rita Buchanan 1995

If you are a keen natural dyer with a large garden, this little pocket guide  is perfect for you! I think that often one of the hardest things about gardening is having the space and the right requirements (sun/ shade; damp/ dry; soil type etc) to fulfill all your needs from aesthetics (garden design) and productivity (fruit, vegetables and herbs) to fragrance, recreation areas, floristry, and of course, dye plants!

Rita is an American dyer with a similar natural dyeing pedigree to Jenny Dean, with over forty years of experience.

The first part of the book is devoted to chapters on :

Plant Choice;

Propagation and Cultivation;

Planning a Dye Garden, including plans for a Daisy-Shaped Bed; a Raised Bed; a Mixed Border; and a Production Garden, as well as a guide to the spacing and yield of dye plants;

Basic Plant Dyeing: Equipment and Materials; Mordanting; Harvesting and storage; Making a dye bath; Dyeing yarn; Additives and afterdips; and Dyeing with indigo and woad; and

Colour and Colours: In this section, Rita explains the myriad reasons for colour variations, including:

Soil type;

Moisture and temperature during the growing season;

Stage of maturity and growth;

Plant part gathered;

Used fresh or stored;

Length of soaking or simmering time for the dyebath;

Mineral content and pH of the water used;

Amount and type of mordant and when and how it was applied to the yarn;

Type of fibre;

Ratio of dye plant to fibre;

Temperature and length of simmering or soaking time for the yarn,

and how this great variation allows for extended experimentation and constant awe, interest and inspiration. It’s certainly a very exciting field and is easy to see why my retired chemist mentor got hooked, line and sinker!

The last and major part of the book presents a portfolio of dye garden plants, suitable for the home garden, including their photo with brief details of Common and Latin names; Climatic Zone; Height; Spacing; and Yield, followed by longer descriptions and notes on related species, cultivation, propagation and dyeing, complete with side panels of colour swatches of the results from using different fibres,  different parts of the plant, different mordants, unusually short or long simmering /soaking times; and different additives or afterdips. Again, a slightly different list of plants, including Garland Chrysanthemum; Sunflower; Zinnias; Purple Basil; Purple Loosestrife; Marjoram, Hops, Bronze Fennel; Peppergrass; and Broom Sedge. In the back is a list of Mail Order Suppliers of Dye Plants and Seeds, though this is possibly out-of-date by now!BlogNatlDyeing4018-02-07 15.24.55With regard to the history of colour, it is also worth reading Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay, which I have already reviewed in: https://candeloblooms.com/2018/01/23/craft-books-colour-design-and-inspiration-part-one/. Next week is my final post on this subject : Dyeing Down Under!

6 thoughts on “Books on Natural Dyeing Part Two: Traditional Dyeing

  1. I just happened to be pruning barberry today. It reminded me of dyes. The only dyes I have used were brown from black walnuts hulls and valley oak leaves. We got ink from inkberry, and it oxidized to a nice brown as well.

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