Book review: Natural Dyes (1978)

One doesn’t really need another dye book for the library, but i couldn’t resist, as this one was written by an Albertan, Hermine Lathrop-Smit, and is touted as “specific” to Canada.

Actually, it’s pretty much North American–most of the plants are available throughout a number of climes, and are not particularly geo-centric. It’s a funny little book, given when it was written, and some of the plant materials are specious in one way or another–beets don’t give red (i was QUITE shocked to see that entry, though she does mention that it’s not colourfast….), berries used are rarely light or washfast,Β  and no mention that lily of the valley and bloodroot are poisonous.

Illustrated with black and white drawings, i would recommend referencing an actual plant guide with colour photographs and full descriptors of leaf, stem, flower and seed, and growth habit (is it a bush, a vine, a flowering plant, field, mountain or water sited? These guides always mention toxicity as well, very important in the wild. Wouldn’t want a bear to eat Poisoned Forager (sub-species, varietal) πŸ™‚ .Β  I use field guides for Alberta, and the Rocky Mountains, from Lone Pine PublishingΒ which can be found in most garden centres, Walmart (!) and sometimes National Park gift shops. Some entries in these books will mention whether or not the plant has been used “historically” as a dye material, but don’t take that as a rule of thumb, as some of that is based only on hearsay and old wives tales! Lone Pine has a number of geo-specific books, so look for your area. You can also order online, if you can’t find them locally.

These drawings are rather vague, though she does give Latin names. I wouldn’t however have been able to determine WHAT these were from the drawing.

Buffalo berry/Shepherdia canadensis

actual photo:

Queen Anne’s Lace:

This plant is particular is dangerous to identify from a drawing only, as there are many similar plants that are HIGHLY toxic. *I* know what QA is but that’s because i grew up with it. (Even it can bother some people, though NOT as much as the others!)

Birch. Seriously? While some know that birch is “peelable” bark wise (DON’T, unless it’s a dead tree or a broken branch!), most don’t know the difference between birch and aspen. And no one is really going to be able to positively identify this:

Heck, you might even think it’s alder. Below, the real thing:

You also need to watch out for common/colloquial/local names–one person’s bluebell is another’s Polemonium. Latin is the same EVERYWHERE.

I realize too, the cost of colour photographs was probably rather spendy as all was film in those days, but don’t depend on these for proper identification! The drawings especially of Queen Anne’s Lace can be very misleading, as there are a number of very similar plants, in the same family and in others, and some are extremely dangerous to human and animal. (I can’t reiterate that enough. Too many associate natural with “safe”– arsenic is natural too….

The use of alum is rather heavy-handed as well: 50gr to 200gr of wool, since most modern recipes recommend 12-20% WOF for “regular” alum (aluminum potassium sulfate ), and 5-8% WOF for aluminum acetate (THE recommended alum for cellulose fibres). Mention is also made of mordants we now try to avoid, like tin, chrome and copper sulphate. Note though, that some dyers with caution, expertise and experience still use these. Rarely do we use Glauber’s salt either–though maybe we should!

This book could also be confusing for the novice! There’s a chapter on mordanting that precedes the actual dye plants, but in many of the recipes, she adds the mordant to the dye bath, or no mordant at all, giving the impression that some don’t need it. Since none of the plants mentioned, except for walnut, are substantive (meaning needing no mordant), this gives the impression that these plants will give colour that stays, and that will be strong from the “get go”. Honestly, i mordant EVERYTHING, even for indigo, madder and walnut, not because they need it, but because having a stash of premordanted fabrics on hand means i can dye with anything, when i feel like it, and have it take the colour. Mordanting doesn’t hurt substantive dyes, so rather than take the chance of accidentally getting something unmordanted and going in a dye material that needs it, i figure it’s best to be prepared.Β  I do keep bags labelled with each type of mordant however, as mordants react differently to dye materials. Post mordanting *is* possible, but in my experience, the colour is not as strong. Overdyeing of substantive colours is also possible, but then they must be mordanted for the dye type being added over the substantive dye.

There’s a list of suppliers in the back too–when i searched, most of them are of course gone. Funny that one of them was Wide World of Herbs Ltd, in Montreal, the place where my 33 year old madder came from! Also included in a ONE page appendice of dyeing with lichens, very uninformative and vague.

So, in the end, this one stays in my library anyways, as a bit of history, a bit of useful information and a bit of a laugh.



PS DO NOT click on ANY of the “free PDF downloads” if you search for Ms Lathrop-Smit, as they are probably toxic malware sites!!!!!!!!!! I could find NO actual information about her, or any mention by anyone in article, blog, research site or history of the area.

6 responses to “Book review: Natural Dyes (1978)

  1. Hi Arlee … I appreciate your crtique of this book … you are nothing if not honest !
    Can we expect a book from you soon ?
    Just letting you know, as well, that I have a new blog …Threadpainters Art II @ πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: gathering (sort of a book review too) | albedo too

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