February 24, 2011

I’ve been reading “The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use” by J.N. Liles, and while I’m not quite finished with it I am thoroughly impressed. Liles includes very specific recipes for dyeing cotton, wool and silk with plant/mineral material. He has personally tested almost every recipe provided in the text, most of which are based on his research into traditional dyeing methods. I particularly appreciate the detail and science-based aspect of the book; some might find it thorough to the point of being tedious, but the more geeky (or would that be nerdy?) among us will be fascinated.

The dye process is more complicated that I would have thought, had I thought about it before, which I had not. Most materials will not take color readily without a “mordant,” which helps the dye chemically bind to the fiber. Different mordants – examples include alum and tannin – are suitable for different fibers and also allow for variations in color. Typically a fabric is pre-soaked in a mordant before it enters the dye-bath, although of course there are exceptions. And that’s just a taste of  how complicated things can get! This book has given me a deeper appreciation of color and textiles, if nothing else.

Many of our favorite herbal medicines are also dye plants, such as goldenrod, dandelion, Queen Anne’s lace, black walnut, and turmeric. For the herbalist who is also interested in chemistry and crafting, traditional dyeing seems to be the perfect hobby. I saw my first dandelion of the season this week, and can’t wait until their sunny yellowness is covering the fields. I have plans for those flowers this year…

About Camille Freeman, DCN, RH (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and nutritionist specializing in fertility and menstrual health. I run the Monday Mentoring community of practice and also offer continuing education programs for practicing herbalists and nutritionists (Check out this year's Deep Dive!). I'm also a former professor with the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I taught physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating for 17 years. 

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