Introduction to Natural Dyes

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Photo Courtesy Artisan Books
"Harvesting Color" identifies and explains where to find 36 wild plants that will yield beautiful natural shades and shows how easy it is to make natural dyes. Complete with maps for each plant's range, a master dye recipe and a knitting project for every time of the year, "Harvesting Color" is an essential guide to the growing field of natural dyes.

The following is an excerpt from Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess (Artisan Books, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction.

The cave paintings of Lascaux, the red woven strands of Native American basketry, and the bright fuchsia tones of Aztec cotton robes all attest to the eternal desire to express ourselves through the use of color. In fact, it seems as if natural dye processes are as ancient as the origins of human creativity.

For thousands of years, the art and craft of natural dyeing has connected our creative urges with the inner workings of the natural world. As humans dyed fibers and then turned them into textiles and a range of other useful everyday objects, they transferred color from the plant and mineral kingdoms into human material culture. The dye processes that have evolved through the centuries are an outcome of both human error and conscious creation.

The advent of the Industrial Age resulted in chemical experiments that altered how color was created. William Perkins discovered synthetic dyes in 1856, but the process relied on heavy resource inputs. The first synthetically produced blue, for instance, required 400 pounds of coal tar to create 1 ounce of dye powder (the heavy use of refined coal tar continues to this day in synthetic dye manufacturing). Nevertheless, because of suitability and ease of application, synthetic dyes quickly became favored by the textile industry and, as the Industrial Revolution continued, more people bought mass-produced garments made with them.

In North America, the natural dye traditions were kept alive only through a scattered network of artisans and individuals. Natural dye houses disappeared from the landscape. Only vestiges of the natural dye culture can still be seen in fields that host woad, tansy, and weld–former dye crops that have naturalized even after years without cultivation.

Although the Industrial Revolution enhanced the expediency of production, it took a massive toll on our air, soil, and water resources. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring detailed the rampant and destructive effects of synthetic pesticide use within the ecosystem. This seminal book brought attention and scientific evidence to the impacts of synthetic chemicals upon the health of the natural world, and in the decades after it was first published in 1962, the environmental movement was not only born but began to respond to the effects and dangers of the synthetic chemical culture.

Fiber farming–and textile manufacturing as a whole–continues to this day to rely on a host of synthetic chemicals known to have effects on human health as well as the health of the greater ecosystem. A recent study of Chinese textile manufacturing revealed that the biggest source of water pollution in the entire process was not the agrichemicals used in cotton farming, but the runoff from synthetic dye manufacturing centers. According to this study, done by the research wing of China’s state council, 90 percent of the synthetic dye runoff was flowing untreated directly into the environment, contributing to the larger health concern of safe drinking water (one out of every four people in China drinks water that is deemed contaminated). The magnitude of these environmental situations has inspired many individuals and organizations to seek cleaner and sometimes ancient alternatives.

The slow food movement, the reduction of one’s carbon footprint, and the vegetable gardens popping up in backyards across North America are examples of the very personal response of citizens to the ecological issues that we face. Returning to natural dyes after more than 150 years of relying on synthetics is garnering increased interest from a wide audience of environmentalists, artisans, farmers, and do-it-yourself crafters.

Making and using your own natural dyes can reduce your impact on the environment (textile production as a whole is the fifth largest contributor to CO2 in the United States), and has the added side benefit of some very pleasant time spent outdoors as you search for, gather, and/or tend to the plants that yield nonsynthetic color. Although our forebears on the North American continent did not need a handbook on where to look for dye species, or how to harvest them, this knowledge has largely been lost in the last 150 years. As a guide to natural dyes for the twenty-first century, Harvesting Color gives you detailed information on thirty-five plants that grow in various parts of the United States and Canada that will yield beautiful natural dyes. You can grow many of them in your own backyard; others can be gathered from the wild, and I’ll show you how to do that, while respecting the balance of local ecosystems and respecting the rights of others, including landowners.

Excerpted from HARVESTING COLOR by Rebecca Burgess (Artisan Books). Copyright 2011.