Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Copyright August 2016
Natural Color is an astounding visually appealing book which provides the reader with a highly concise introduction to the fascinating world of natural plant dyes. Contents of the book are beautifully interlaid with vibrant and gorgeous photography, allowing the reader to fully immerse oneself in the world of rich and natural colors. The book is incredibly straightforward and highly accessible, with the text and information, recipes and instructions easily decipherable, and thus ideal for the new plant dyer hobbyist. This is an excellent book that qualifies as a great addition to a craft enthusiast's bookshelf.
Plant dye projects in the book are beautifully and seasonally segmented. The spring palette involving plant sources such as the calendula, the oxalis weed—or sour grass—, and rose petal; the summer palette including the eucalyptus bark, aloe, weld, and indigo; the fall palette consisting of for example, the madder root, persimmon, black walnut, and onion skins; and the winter palette involving the likes of pomegranate, blue spruce, and redwood cones.
Each and every project contains varying, but mostly short and sweet, introductory information on the individual plant sources, the level of content of which is ideal for the beginner. Though considerably brief, the select pieces of information furnished will bound to thrill the aspiring plant dyer and/or budding nature lover. Redwood cones for example, are said to be a great exemplification of “a bioregional dye color” of Northern California; the most commonly cultivated persimmon tree, Diospyros kaki, is expounded to be native to Japan, China, Burma, and northern India; onion skins are considered one of the “most wondrous compost colors;” and mint is noted as a Mentha species.
Venturing a step further in efforts to directly connect with the intended and potential target audience, though rather subtle but still somewhat conspicuous, the author includes language that draws parallels between cooking and plant dyeing, thus allowing the transition to the new craft to be even smoother for those who already have some experience in cooking.
The book indeed gives the impression of covering mostly, or even only, the most salient pieces of information essential to the art of plant dyeing. Most fascinating is the coverage of the “ancient primaries” of the red madder, the yellow weld, and the blue indigo. The author clearly distinguished metallic from plant-based mordants; metallic mordants such as iron, alum, and aluminum acetate, and the plant-based mordant of tannin, naturally occurring in for example, avocado pits, sumac leaves, eucalyptus barks, oxalis in the form of oxalic acid, and its ability to be made from the needles of the juniper tree. Not to mention the beginning of the book which contains a compact section briefly detailing a few examples each for animal-based fibers—for example wool, angora, and cashmere—and plant-based fibers such as hemp, linen, and nettle.
Other pieces of information in the book are distinctly inspirational. The aspiring plant dyer might experience a motivational urge to act after learning of the fact that the author, in her home dye garden, grows the Japanese indigo—Persicaria tinctorium—, the yellow aloe—Aloe cryptopoda, a South African species of the aloe plant—, and the madder root. On the other hand, the reader might be amazed by revelations involving iconic figures such as the Robin Hood, whose “famed” solid green outfit apparently was “dyed in a sequence—first weld, then European woad for blue.”
The book notably contains a particularly interesting diagram, specifically a seasonal color wheel for the San Francisco Bay Area, and an intriguing section on “the art of medicinal dyeing”—a sampling of common medicinal plants such as dyer's chamomile, Saint-John's-wort, yarrow, and sage, and highlighting some colors derivable from them. Certain information in the book are very aptly presented in the form of concise bullet points, for example in denoting the general plant dyeing process, or even presenting to the reader a short list of color-producing weeds—dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).
For the reader who thrives on quick summaries of novel information, or who takes pleasure in ingesting relevant, new and interesting concepts, some mini subsections in the book could turn out to be highly treasured gems. One such subsection introduced the reader to the intriguing notion of “phytoremediation palettes.”
Also worth mentioning is the inclusion in the book of some supposedly trivial, but immensely helpful tips courtesy of the author's accumulated experience in the craft. The author appropriately suggested an alternative to the black walnut hulls should the reader, or the recipient of the dyed product, is allergic to walnuts. The reader might also appreciate instances where the author mentioned a potential substitute for a specific dye source, for example beluga lentils in place of black beans, with comparable results.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review.