In the Dye Studio: The Modern Natural Dyer Form and Function

"The unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in properties, the unknown, the unfamiliar; its where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own."

-- Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost


I am still working my way through A Field Guide to Getting Lost and loving every page. I savor it. Only reading it when I can truly take the time to digest her writing. So the process of reading is slow but meaningful.

When I set out to write The Modern Natural Dyer, I had a distinct idea of how I wanted the book to function. I wanted to write it similarly to how most cookbooks are written: project-based. There are many process based natural dyeing books where typically the main goal is to review various plants and list the colors each is known to produce. I adore these books and my work has been built upon them. Though, through working at Verb, I know how motivational it is to fall in love with a project. And my goal is to create more natural dyers and more appreciators of natural dyeing. So, in this book, there are twenty projects. Each demonstrate a different aspect of the dyeing process. Some of the projects use blanks for example, socks, a baby onesie, and placemats. Other projects, in order to complete them as written, involve sewing or knitting. There is actually one project that involves sewing and knitting. And it is a garment. The perfect project for the over-achiever ;)

Probably one of the most common things I hear is - Oh, I will never dye anything. This may be true. So another goal of mine was to write for the armchair dyer, to make the book as beautiful as possible, to give historical information, to frame the process, so the armchair dyer can go along for the ride. As the bulk of the work lies in the projects, one could use the book solely for the sewing and knitting patterns. It could be fun to use naturally dyed yarn and fabric - dyed by others, like Verb or Sincere Sheep - and be familiar with the process of natural dyeing leading to a deeper connection to one's project.

One thing is undeniable, color has a tremendous impact upon all of us. We have a distinct connection to it. Color brings forth emotion. It signifies events and reminds us of stages in our lives. It has a tremendous history, people as far in the past as 3000 bc, attached meaning to color, and once color had meaning, it instantly became a guarded secret as to how to get that color (drama and intrigue). The search for color, more explicitly for more types of plants which would produce even more potent colors, was what sent Europeans traveling around the world (travel and more drama!). So, whether or not one wants to dye, color, and the process of how to coax it from nature is endlessly fascinating. I consider the process used to get that color, adds even more meaning to a project.

In The Modern Natural Dyer, I wanted to include both types of natural fibers: protein-based and cellulose-based. Protein-based fibers come from animals and insects - so wool, alpaca, cashmere, and silk are examples. Cellulose-based fibers are plant-based: cotton, linen, hemp, etc. In theory, this is ideal because there are so few natural dyeing books which cover cellulose-based fibers. And in the shop, we are constantly asked how to dye cotton. However, in practice, especially in light of how I wanted the book to be project-based and accessible, this was challenging. Because of their composition, dyeing protein-based fibers is pretty much entirely different than dyeing cellulose-based fibers. 

So before the reader can dive into the projects, there is a bit of groundwork to be learned. Because, while most of us have grown up around cooking, we haven't grown up around dyeing. And then there are those, perhaps hard for us knitters and sewers to grasp, that are coming to natural dyeing as their first foray into a fiber-based practice - and some whose natural dyeing is their sole form of fiber art. I know. Hard to imagine but true. (And rad!)

The book opens with the Dyes from Nature which I lovingly refer to as the Catalogue of Color. This has been in my mind's eye for years. I chose to highlight 20 dyes which I feel are accessible. This means that they can be purchased in many forms: whole dyestuffs or concentrated, powdered extracts. For those dyes that can only be grown or gathered, I chose plants which grow throughout most parts of the Western Hemisphere. For the most part, each dye has its own page, and features the plant form and an array of dyed samples so you can get a sense of the color the plant provides. Gathering the materials for this was great fun. We grew most of the plants ourselves. Adrienne harvested the cochineal from her parent's backyard in Palm Springs. For some of the trees found in Central and South America, we worked with wood collectors.

Now that you a sense of the dyes and colors possible through natural dyeing, in the next chapter, Choosing Fiber, you learn about the types of natural fibers available. The type of fiber you plan to dye is going to direct your course through the process. So learning about the different types of fiber and becoming familiar with their characteristics and what they lend to the dyeing process is an important skill to develop. 

Then comes Dyeing 101, this teaches you an overview of the process. And this section gives you detailed directions on how to prepare your goods for dyeing and for creating long-lasting color, in other words, how to scour and mordant.

And now comes the projects! I start close to home - using something commonly found in all of our pantries, tea. From here, we expand to thinking about the garden, and what grows there that could be a dye plant. Then, to the forest, and finally to imported whole dyestuffs - and how to use them - specifically one of my favorite whole dyestuffs, cochineal.

Then the focus shifts to natural dyeing extracts. These concentrated powders are easy to store and use. The first part of this section focuses on using them with protein-based fibers, the second part, on cellulose-based fibers.

Indigo, my favorite dye, is the next subject. This was tricky. There are numerous ways of working with indigo. It was very hard to decide which way(s) to use. I decided to provide two recipes and to use recipes which required as few tools as possible and are the fastest methods of using indigo. In this section, you will learn how to use indigo on both protein-based and cellulose-based goods, fabric and yarn. And there is a project dedicated to using, what we call, indigo overdyes, in other words, where we dye first with natural dyes, and then overdye with indigo, to create even more varied and beautiful colors. If you are interested in dyeing with indigo, I think the recipes included provide a solid foundation to explore other recipes for making indigo vats.

The final chapter of the book is all about surface design. There is one project about painting fabric and yarn with natural dyes. The rest of the projects in this section focus upon resist-dyeing, in other words, the act of applying temporary pressure to the fabric, so that dye can not reach the fabric. Once the dyeing is complete, the objects causing the pressure are released, and a pattern emerge on the cloth. It is a tremendously satisfying process, with an element of surprise. 

So reflecting on the quote at the beginning of this post, the process of writing this book was so tremendous. The act of taking a theme as gigantic and nuanced as natural dyeing and curating what to include and why. To know and finally accept that everything can't be included, nor should it, and that there is hopefully time to explore the many other aspects of natural dyeing. To hope that The Modern Natural Dyer will reach many different types of people. And the excitement, to watch, as people take this book, and make the work their own.


Coming up: One of the most exciting things about traveling is deciding what to make to wear.

Pre-order The Modern Natural Dyer and receive a fun, interactive gift.

Join me on my New York book tour:
Oct 17 - 18 NY Sheep & Wool, Rhinebeck
Oct 19 Textile Arts Center, Mahattan
Oct 21 Haven's Kitchen

Party with me and the Verb crew in Oakland:
Oct 24 - A Verb for Keeping Warm