In the past twenty years or so, interest in dyeing yarn has skyrocketed. And at the same time, environmental concerns have led more and more dyers to think about using natural substances instead of man-made chemicals to dye their textiles. Way back in 1999, Jenny Dean wrote a book called Wild Color, a very useful and thorough handbook for those interested in using dyes derived from plants.
Things have changed a lot in the years since that book was published, and so Dean's publisher decided it was time for a revised second edition. Although not a knitting book, the topic of dyeing is so closely intertwined with yarn that it makes sense for a knitting blog to take a look at the new and improved Wild Color, Revised and Updated Edition: The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes (Watson-Guptill 2010).
Wild Color is a paperback, approximately 144 pages long, and it's full to bursting with swatches and photographs of the plants and other ingredients used to make the dyes. It also contains photographs showing the equipment used for dyeing, textiles dyed with natural dyes, and yarn. (As noted above, this is a dyeing guide, and not a knitting book, so there are no knitting patterns or knitting techniques covered in it.)
The book begins with a lengthy introduction, then the remainder is divided into two sections: "Dyeing Techniques" walks the reader through the process of gathering the ingredients, making the dyebaths and specific techniques for dyeing, while"The Dye Plants" is a visual index to the plants and other substances that are used as sources for the dyes.
Dean's introductory material is really an historical overview. Dean notes that the use of man-made dyestuffs is a relatively recent development, beginning in the mid-19th century. For thousands of years before that, humans used plants and other substances found in nature as the source of their dyes. Dean goes on to discuss how techniques of dyeing developed, and then divides natural dyes into three categories. "Substantive" dyes are those which bond by themselves to fiber and do not need a mordant to fix them permanently to the fiber. "Vat dyes" also do not need the assistance of a mordant to attach to the fiber, but they are tricky because the dyestuffs aren't soluble in water. They depend on a process like oxidization to develop their full color and become permanent. The third category of dyes are called "adjective dyes," because they need a mordant in order to get the full effect of the color and for the color to be fixed permanently to the fiber. Dean next discusses some non-plant based dyes, including a purple dye that comes from a kind of shellfish; dyes derived from insects, like cochineal; and then covers plant-derived dyes, organizing them by color. She finishes by discussing methods of applying dye, such as block printing and ikat techniques. There are photographs of various historical textiles interspersed in the text.
Would-be dyers will want to jump right into the "Dyeing Techniques" section. In this section, Dean gives an overview of how to use natural dyes on cloth and fiber. She reviews the necessary equipment; discusses the composition of the fibers and textiles that will be dyed; tells how to prepare the fibers, test the pH value of the water, and use mordants*; she discusses several methods of applying the dye; covers special types of dye, like indigo and woad; and discusses colorfastness. She also includes tips on how to modify dye colors (along with a chart); a chart showing the best dyeing methods for specific natural dyes; and ideas for recording one's dyeing results.
The heart of the book for the fiberista who wishes to use natural dyes, however, is the second section. Beginning with Acacia catechu (a plant called cutch) and finishing with Urtica dioica (nettle), she covers over 60 plants and trees that can be used as sources of dye. Some are common garden plants (like the daffodil or dahlia) and trees (oak, birch), and some are food plants (blackberry, elderberry), while others are what some call weeds (dandelions). Each one-page entry includes a photograph of the plant to aid in identification; color swatches showing approximate shades that can be obtained (and where necessary, there are different swatches for different part of the plant, so that if the leaves give one color and the bark gives another, two sets of swatches are included); growing tips; and hints on how to dye with it.
The book ends with a bibliography and index.
This book review is a bit shorter and different from my usual ones, because Wild Color isn't a knitting pattern book or even a knitting book at all. What it is, however, is a very thorough guide to growing and using natural sources, mainly plants, to dye textiles. It's a wonderful resource full of information for the dyer wishing to try plant-based dyes, and I think it's even an interesting read for gardeners and/or herbalists who are interested in the uses of various common plants and trees. Kudos to Dean for providing dyers with a thorough look at the most frequently-used plants for dyeing, along with helpful instructions to get the dyer started.
*Dean discusses the use of aluminum (some aluminum-containing substances are known as "alum," copper, and iron (chemical mordants) as well as staghorn sumac leaves, oak galls and rhubarb leaves (plant-derived mordants).