Dye books for everyone: for makers, botanists and historians
In my workshops, which are now on hold due to the pandemic, there is more than just dye pots and learning through making. I always share lots of dye samples to look at, and books about dyeing with plants for inspiration.
The plant dyeing workshops are more than just learning and discovering together. They can be s space for community and exchange (something that we probably all miss in this time of zoom conferences); trying something without having to buy a lot of tools or materials beforehand; rummaging through various dye books, and perhaps discovering exactly the book that suits you. And at least the latter might work quite well here too!
Are you looking for a book that you can immerse yourself in, perhaps during lockdown? I've already got a number of books on plant dyes on my shelves, and still quite a few on my all-time wish-list ... But I've also been a real bookworm ever since I was able to read. Choosing my top five picks wasn't easy, but here are the ones I keep going back to most often Some of them are unfortunately only available in German, but all five are great to browse for a variety of reasons.
Jenny Dean: Wild Color. The Complete Guide to Making and Using Natural Dyes
There are several editions of this book (mine is from 2010 Watson-Guptill Publications) - as far as I know, they are largely the same in content. (Please let me know if I'm wrong.)
This is my big recommendation to start with plant dyeing. The book begins with a historical introduction, and then offers a really comprehensive overview of different fibers, plants, methods - it remains easy to understand even for beginners. But even with ten years of dyeing experience, I still go to this book to look some things up, so I think it is a great choice.
I especially like the second part, “The Dye Plants”. On one or two pages there is background information on plants, cultivation, harvest and dyeing. Also a photo and a small color index on the edge. With all the variables in plant coloring, it is clear that the index is more of an inspiration than the exact tone you will be coloring yourself. But I still find it very helpful and inspiring when leafing through.
Not entirely unimportant, the author is British and dyes primarily with the plants that surround her - but the plant part is still relevant for German readers. With the exception of a few historical dye plants from Central America, almost all of them can also be found here. Unlike, for example, some books with a focus on North American flora, which are beautiful and interesting, but work with plants that simply do not grow here and need to be imported.
A recommended book for everyone who wants to start dyeing with plants. And for those who already have experience but would like to have a good standard work on the subject, too!
Eberhard Prinz: Färberpflanzen. Anleitung zum Färben, Verwendung in Kultur und Medizin
So far this book is only available in German. It is a great book for anyone who wants to forage for plants for dyeing themselves. It begins with chapters on the various natural dyes, dyeing and auxiliary substances. But the majority of the book is made up of the chapter “Dye Plants”. And that's also the part that I keep browsing.
There are plant portraits on 250 pages (in my 2014 edition). A full-page photo of each plant, a brief description of how it can be used for dyeing, often classifications on lightfastness, and information on other cultural or medical uses. If a plant is poisonous, it is always pointed out - a very important topic that's sometimes easy to forget in the excitement of discovering botanical dyes.
For each plant there is a short profile with the origin of the plant, the approximate colour range, more details on the most important dyes it contains and an overview of countries in which it was traditionally used.
A nice dye book for your (German) botany-obsessed friend!
Joy Boutrup, Catherine Ellis: The Art and Science of Natural Dyes. Principles, Experiments, and Results.
I find this book outstanding. The authors bring together decades of experience and specialist knowledge from textile art, chemistry and textile technology and historical dyeing techniques.
I would rather recommend it to those who already have some experience with dyeing and want to deepen their understanding. Because in addition to practical instructions, this book explores the “mechanisms” in dyeing: why does something work this way, not another, and why only on some fibres? It also discusses printing with dyes, and indigo organic vats in detail.
All subjects are illustrated with photos and a few illustrations, but overall it is a very text-heavy coloring book.
Would you like to explore complex textile techniques with plant dyes, combine different colors and techniques, print, dye, discharge? Then you will find this book very helpful. Otherwise it is the ideal dyeing book for all chemistry enthusiasts (as myself).
Helmut Schweppe: Handbuch der Naturfarbstoffe. Vorkommen, Verwendung, Nachweis
1993 Nikol Verlag
Another book that's only available in German: This book is only available to buy second-hand, but often at a reasonable price compared to other books that are out of print - and at 800 pages it is a real tome. I also wondered if that's why it should be on this list at all.
But I am sure it wasn't only me who – before the internet changes things so drastically – liked to browse lexicons, study illustrations and get to know previously unfamiliar words, places and people - and this manual is just perfect for that!
Today we can find almost anything online with a search engine, but leafing through a thick encyclopedia has a very special charm. The history of natural dyes from "very early" until the 19th century is dealt with with many tables of the plants used. It lists the different groups of dyes in nature, also with structural formulas (and that on about 400 pages). The last part deals in detail with the various ways in which these dyes can be detected. This is not so relevant for dyers in everyday life, but it is very exciting, because it allows historical fabrics or textile fragments uncovered by archaeologists to be examined and determined.
This book is the right one for those who like to browse and read across a long book, or who want to look up specific plants or regions from time to time.
Dominique Cardon, Iris Brémaud: Le Cahier de Couleurs d’Antoine Janot. Workbook, Antoine Janot’s Colours.
Hopefully more will follow this little booklet about historical coloring with plants. It is a bilingual edition. In French and English there is an insight into the work and color palette of the French master dyer Antoine Janot from the first half of the 18th century.
With a lot of research, the authors have put pieces of the puzzle together and supplemented written recipes with preserved textile dye samples. When reproducing the colors, great importance was attached to being as close as possible to the original.
The book is intended more as an inspiration than a guide, some of the ingredients are no longer in use today. The wonderful colors and their names between pictorial, poetic and drastic (Dead leaf, Rotten olive green, Wine soup) are a pleasure. And the small glimpse into the precision with which the dyer Janot worked and figured out color recipes is really impressive.
This book is for you if you are interested in the history of this craft.
Keep reading and learning new perspectives
This list is of course not intended to be exhaustive or exhaustive. There are a few other books about dyeing with plants that I find very valuable, and some that I'm still very curious about! Maybe you have another book tip that you want to share? For the next year I have decided to look especially for books with a different perspective on the topic - for books on the topic by BIPoC authors - feel free to write to me if you have a recommendation!
Are you more interested in historical dyeing, but very practical? Jenny Dean’s "A Heritage of Color. Natural Dyes Past and Present" is also a booklet worth reading. Here the author approaches experimentally and practically, how (and which) natural dyes were uses on the British Isles historically.