Book review: Dyes from Native American Plants

(I reviewed this on my old blog, but thought it worth repeating here, with a few edits.)

You know what the best thing about this book is? It gives a detailed list of plant materials that give little or no colour!!! That means less wasted time, fabric, heat and gathering 🙂 Though it’s a bit more geocentric than i thought it would be, given the slightly misleading title (covering mostly what grows in south-central US), a lot of the wild plants mentioned are widespread in North America, even up to Alberta. It does miss out on a few plants in the same species, but given again that it is geo-specific, that may be why–one variety in the species grows there, but not others. It’s also decidedly not a “kitchen scrap” book with claims of blue from elecampene, magenta from dandilion roots, green from spinach and lasting effects from turmeric!!!

No vinegar or salt “fixes” either–really, just go, run down to the corner convenience store, buy a bag of potato chips fer jeebly sakes, if you’ve got a hankering for salt and vinegar, and stop mushing on about how they make berries last longer and stops rust from rusting…….

The only true problem with this book, is that it doesn’t give any indication of what is light or wash fast. It does tell you *how* to do that, but there are no notes with plants what is worth the effort, and what is a waste of time, effort and resources. I truly believe too, that testing for these should be an INTEGRAL part of the dyeing process. Maybe then we’d see less of the Beet and Berry Brigade posting their results for the GaGa newbies…………… There’s also no mention of post modifying, an important and often surprising process that brings unexpected colour out.

So what else is in it?

It’s laid out with plant materials grouped by colour results, it has a comprehensive index with the Latin and common name (though the common nomenclature may be regional), there are photos of the plants mentioned. I would also recommend investing in a good geo-centric plant guide, like those published by Lone Pine Publishing, so that you know what you are looking at, and hoping to gather. The author speaks of responsible gathering and safe dye practices and it’s not dumbed down or too technical. My only complaint is the prevalent use of tin as mordant in a lot of the dye baths. Even in 2005 (the date this book was published), we knew this type of mordant was dangerous for the dyer, and best not used in the home. There are no “recipes” per se, for the novice, but the more experienced dyer will already know that as with most plant materials, your plant chunks ratio should be at least of the same weight as your fabrics/threads.

There were a few surprises with some of the flora mentioned. Certain plants abound here, and while i’m not going to get too excited about the possibility of using them, it does give me new hope for local colour. Many of them are also though, while “plentiful”, are in our National Parks–and i am never going to scavenge great quantities, because of that, and because they belong where they belong, period. If i find them in a ditch however and if it’s in my immediate environs, and i know it’s considered invasive or noxious, it’s fair game. I recognized a few varieties i had no idea would give any colour at all, but because of my frequent walks with the DogFaced Girl, i know that locally these are very very small ecosystems, and i would feel incredibly guilty if i denuded the area. I am passionately interested in using what i can find, but not at the expense of the primary reason why i do these walks and that is to appreciate what is there, not what can be taken away! You’ll note i did not mention any of these by name—–i don’t want to be blamed by the Cosmos for encouraging somebody sneaky to go and strip their area!

Of course, the preponderance of colour mentioned is yellows and browns, as few native North American plants have the tinctoria classification 🙂

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