gathering (sort of a book review too, “Spectrum: Dye Plants of Ontario”)

Though i love my “Grand teints” ( classically proven dyes like madder, indigo, etc) natural dyes very much, and disdain the current trend of throwing any and all “food waste” materials in a pot to use as a “dye”, there are also the  lesser known dyes foraged locally by many cultures . (“Petit teints” are  the non fast/fugitive dyes such as red cabbage, most red/purple/pink/blue berries, most red/purple/pink/blue flowers, black beans, beets, etc.)

Yes, some *will* fade, some are rather anecdotal and some are still being promoted but are folklore with no actual extant or provable results, and there are some that while they may not last as long as the classics, they are still viable dyes.

To that end, i bought a copy of the much vaunted “Spectrum: Dye Plants of Ontario”, reasoning that much of what grows in Ontario, grows also where i am (Alberta), so that it’s worth exploring. I *do* want to use local plants, whether grown in my garden, or foraged on walks and day trips. I have an older book that is dedicated to Canadian dye plants, written in ’78, and at best a good laugh, and at worst very confusing if you don’t have any experience at all, but i’ve heard much good spoken of this Ontario volume. There’s also a classic book, out of print now, “Dyes from Lichens and Plants: A Canadian Dyer’s Guide” by Judy Waldner McGrath, 1977, which is more geocentric as it covers mostly plant materials above the 55th parallel! Even though Canada is so large and we do have some vastly different grow zones, many “weeds” flourish in all or most of our varied climes 🙂 Indeed, many of these plants may be in most of North America, at least the northern zones of the US.


There are 300 plants identified. I question some of them, though helpfully, some are referred to in other dye books, included in the bibliography for cross checking. (Again though, some still questionable….) I highly recommend again using a good clearly photographed plant ID book, as all illustrations are pen and ink drawings, better than the ’78 book mentioned above, but still, not drawn by qualified botanists…. (Forget the damn “plant app” nonsense–most of the results with those are too vague, and possibly dangerous if a poisonous hemlock is identified as Queen Anne’s Lace!)

Being so late in the year at this time, i will have to either immediately use what i find, or chance drying it and using it through the winter. Some dye stuffs locally foraged will not give as good results when dried : solidago is notorious for poor colour when stored, for instance, though tansy is just as good in my books dried as fresh. Too, let’s face it, most dye plants give yellow, yellow, yellow or yellow 🙂 Different mordants and/or modifiers may give different hues, and sometimes there’s a real difference between “commercial” dyes like osage overdyed with indigo as opposed to tansy overdyed with indigo, so it is still a valuable colour library.

There are no colour photos in this book, so though the results are described, perceptions may vary on the difference between “old gold” and “brassy gold”! Obviously if you’re interested enough in the potential of each plant, you’d do your own tests and quantify those descriptors with photos 🙂 Results are described with alum, chrome (A BIG BIG NO NON NO, mentioned IN the book now as a black hand (literally) over each entry), tin, copper and iron. CAVEAT: ALL FIBRES USED WERE WOOL.

So, my dried materials gathered this fall will be chosen firstly because i *know* people have had reasonable outcome with them , and secondly because they are in my immediate environs (few day trips left in the year now due to weather, season and work schedules).

  • Rumex Crispus –tested before with poor results, possibly due to season
  • Arctium minus –tested before with poor results due to small amount gathered
  • Artemisia –not sure which species we have, but there are several, and HIGHLY invasive/spreading
  • Equisetum –must be aware of where gathering as chemicals are heavily sprayed where i have gathered before
  • Tanacetum vulgaris and Solidago spp–used many times but still want to work with more
  • Cornus stolonifera–craploads by the river 🙂
  • Geranium maculatum—in my garden for years
  • Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus—who knew?
  • Malus–might as well use the leaves and bark from the broken apple tree–more good than taken away, chipped and sold to rich ladies who want “artisanal” mulch—– BWAHAHAHAAHHAHHA
  • Well, etc etc etc! (All Latin you notice: THAT is how you identify plants correctly with good plant ID books


PS There are also “stand by’s” in this book: coreopsis, dahlia, eupatorium, solidago, tansy, and more.

I have dried already some tansy, artemisia and yarrow. With the recent e-garbage run (old electronics), there’s plenty of room down in the Dye Dungeon now for storing dried materials in bags and boxes. All  tests, information, results will be in the “Alberta dye plants” category, though as i  mentioned, many of these are not as geocentric as just Alberta.

Off now to gather what from a distance looks a huge expanse of Rumex!

DogFaced Girl loves these expeditions, so no complaint there 🙂






“True Colors” book review (or how to make yourself even *more* unpopular)

Firstly, i’m ambivalent, PERIOD, about posting this review. I realize it may have been a deeply personal choice of the editor/writer to make these particular inclusions in the book. I’m also rather curious how some have been given the title of “World Master” as well. But honestly? I wouldn’t recommend buying unless you’re one of those people who has to have *EVERY* book on a subject: borrow from the library when it gets there.  (Petition your library: they are always open to reasonable requests for aquisitions, and it’s still a sale for the writer/publisher.) It’s not that it’s expensive (it isn’t by a long shot) but you’d be better off with other more historically “slanted” books, like Dominique Cardon’s epistle, any of Yoshiko Wada’s beautiful offerings, Jenny Balfour-Paul’s indigo histories, and many museum guides online and sometimes available as catalogues.




This is the first natural dye book i’ve ever been ambivalent about. On one hand, it’s exciting visually, a cornucopia of natural colour use around the world, illustrated gorgeously with close-ups and atmospheric scenes. Spotlights are on cultural meaning and history, empowerment of indigenous people, and the uses of ethno/geo-centric dye materials, in traditional and in cutting edge directions. The many facets of indigo are intriguing, and in some cases jaw dropping in the dedication to preservation of a skill, and in the use of aeons old techniques and materials for contemporary art applications in other media. The indigo sections in particular opened my heart to appreciate *all* the permutations of blue possible and to embrace the vagaries of the vat, finding beauty in the palest to darkest, no “wrong” blue as a result. The book should have been edited then and there, to be finished.

The reverse side of the coin however is the inclusion of erroneously labelled “sustainable” branded “dyers” who promote the use of food waste, fugitive dyes and the instant gratification element of DIY, with no actual historical data. This isn’t a recipe book by a long shot, but i would have expected a disclaimer by some, (even one!) of these currently Popular Girls, about dyes that last, are done correctly with proper mordanting, with light and wash fast tests, instead of “seasonal colour” that essentially wastes more resources by the very fact that they have to be redyed over and over to have colour. I feel that these chapters are puff pieces only, designed to fill the book, with no actual value added, but since there are only a couple of these artistes included, there is a small blessing in that.

As i said, this isn’t a recipe book by a long shot, and was never intended to be, but in giving the title “World Masters” to some of the included artists, it cheapens the whole field, promotes bad practice, and encourages questionable business models. It’s unfortunate that the classic dyers, innovative artists and contemporary uses will be glossed over by many in favour of the easy to do fugitive. A coffee table book, and it may pique some interest in those who intend to get serious, but in the end, not a reference book, not destined to become a classic, and not very useful for the most part, except perhaps as a “Digest”.


Unfortunately, or funnily, or strangely even, i cannot post this review on Amazon, because the book hasn’t been “released” yet. Really? I got my copy 2 days ago!

You’ll note too that i actually was rather mild in my condemnation for fugitive dyes, and mentioned no names 🙂 These ARE *MY* personal opinions, and whilst many think i’m a Know It All, i have never steered anyone wrong, deliberately or otherwise, with information i have shared. “The facts, Ma’am, just the facts.”


my drawers will never be empty (book review):The Art and Science of Natural Dyes

JUST when i had got all my dye stuff and tools and pots back down to the Dye Dungeon, this arrived in the mail 🙂 I pre-ordered this last July, the moment i heard it was finished, and have been anxiously waiting for it. I pretty much snatched it out of the postman’s hands!

The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: Principles, Experiments and Results  – Catherine Ellis and Joy Boutrup

I’ve already had 3 “AHA” moments, and i’m only half way through. It’s not a book you read once and then sporadically refer to, so fortunately, it’s also spiral bound so it stays open to the page you want. (Terrific, now i have to dig my book/magazine holder back out of the “donate” box….)

It’s not so sciencey that it can’t be understood, but it’s also not a skim it and do it manual. It covers the “classic” dyes, none of the usual beets, beans and berries nonsense, so don’t bother if you’re interested only in sauteing up some food waste, throwing in a cute baby onesie and staging artful photos for IG. If you’re serious about natural dyeing, and i don’t mean Total Scientist Mode but are a dedicated hobbyist/artist/small business owner, this is the book to explain WHY things work/don’t/happen. I still recommend Jenny Dean for basic, accurate dye recipes and processes, but this one will give you insights into the many variations that can and are encouraged to happen with skillful, knowledgeable hands.

There’s a small section on testing the dye potential of local foraged plants, minimal though helpful, but not the focus of the book. That being said, those tests could lead to work with those plants, following the advice for the classics. It’s all grist for the colour mill!

I’m not about to dissect any “recipe” in this reference manual: A.  buy the book, i don’t like spreading out the photos of pages i find interesting, as i’d rather you support the authors, and their research and B. the recipes are classic anyways, BUT with much new information that can be digested fully with the book in front of you 🙂

There’s a LOT of excitement about this book in the natural dye groups, and rightly so: it also supports all the things i, and others, have said about what constitutes solid, legitimate dyes and the techniques used to create these wondrous rainbows. I have to laugh though in one sense, because i just know that the new catchphrase is going to be “Welllll, Boutrup Ellis says……..” This book should be MANDATORY reading for anyone who goes near a natural dye pot.

It’s not a cheap book, but then it’s not a cheap book, like so many of the Popular girls are publishing right now. I’m about to settle in with another cup of coffee and a pack of stickit thingies to mark pages, and do a little dreaming and planning.

Edit: After 1000’s of hits to this blog post, it occurred to me that there really should be a link here to the book! Beware though–already some are claiming it in their “used but good condition” racks at two and three times the price!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

EDIT: Feb 9/18WHOA! “#1 best seller” in dyes at Amazon, sold out of a lot of places, and the bloodsuckers have moved in with their jacked up prices because they bought several copies deliberately to re-sell. Good for the authors, not so much for the buyers!

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 🙂

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,  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) 🙂 .  I use field guides for Alberta, and the Rocky Mountains, from Lone Pine Publishing 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.  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.

Book Review: Natural Dyes by Gwen Fereday

Note to self: this is the last natural dye book that will be bought for the Stately Barr Manor Studio!

On the advice of someone on the FB Natural Textile Dyeing group (someone i trust 🙂 ),  i ordered a copy of Gwen Fereday’s “Natural Dyes”.

It’s available through used book sellers, but i bypassed Amazon as it was rather expensive ($55-158!!!!!) , just in case it was garbage. I bought mine from Abe books, from the  seller Broad Street Book Centre (an actual bricks and mortar store in NJ Hereford, an actual real live book store!!!),  and was happy to pay slightly less than 30US including the shipping from the US. EDIT: This seller is in the UK! And them sending on the 18th of December, to arrive here on the 27th was impressive also.

And it IS worth the money. Very clear, as the author is also a well respected teacher at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design at University College in the UK, it explains everything from proper pre-treatment of fabrics, both protein and cellulose, to specific dye types, and through to the most wonderful colour plates with “recipes” for achieving the colours. Best of all, as much information is presented for the cellulose as for proteins–while i like wool, and am happy with my results, i prefer to work with cellulose, specifically cotton, and let’s face it, most natural dye books barely give a passing mention to anything but wool!

For the longest time, my cotton results were frankly, lousy, because there was little clear information. I did hunt around and eventually found the tannin/alum method for cellulose (Turkey Red Journal), and that made a world of difference. I still felt there had to be more out there–let’s face it, the average dyer of yore would have been working with linen, cotton or local indigenous fibres, not silk, and possibly not even wool, depending on the geographics.

Even more specifically, and exciting, is that decent mention is made of Turkey Red Oil, a type of sulphated Castor oil, often used historically to deepen reds from madder, hence the “Turkey Red” (not the bird, the locale!) I found a near by supplier–REALLY near by, as in 20 blocks away!!!! It can be used with other colours/dye materials, so i want to play with it, and buying a SMALL bottle of it will mean that effort/expense/extra steps are not wasted or being committed to.

But i digress 🙂 The only point i don’t like about the book is the extremely heavy WOF of cochineal used: 60%!!!!!! as opposed to the usual 3-10%WOF!!!!!!!!!!! (EDIT: JAN 10/17 Actually a lot of her recipes are really heavy WOF’s (500% madder????)—i’d say overkill in some respects, as fibres can still only uptake so much before it’s wasted effort, materials and EXPENSE. And if it crocks after, well, big problems.) And yes, a lot of the info contained is also in other respected books in my library, but the extras i needed are what’s made it worth adding to the shelf. If i *didn’t have any of the others, it would be a fantastic start to the library too. And best of all, no wasted pages on “projects”: really, i’ve said it before, if you didn’t know you could actually MAKE things out of what you dyed, WTF are you doing it for then?

Anyhoo. The next step is to figure some time management so i am not obsessing about one thing, as i am wont to do :), but dividing my efforts between this, and some serious stiching again, so that both are “sustainable”, i.e. they get DONE, not just blethered about.