Book Review: The Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth

In this blog (and in the field of theatrical costume production in general), there's not much focus on natural dyes. Costume designers are quite particular about color control, and most of the time when I'm asked to dye something for a show, I'm given a Pantone color or some other extant swatch to which I must color-match the yardage or costume piece. Color control can be difficult with any dyestuff--synthetic or natural--but natural dyes require significant experience to exert the level of control the theatrical discipline generally requires.

That said, I can envision conceptual productions or theater companies for whom natural dyeing was a conscious choice on behalf of the creative team or the organization itself. For example, imagine a costume designer who purposefully chose to create costumes only from naturally dyed fabrics/garments. But I'm digressing--I need to write a whole series on my thoughts (I have a lot of them) about sustainable theatre, separate and apart from this book review.

If natural dyeing is something you've wanted to try but found intimidating--natural dyes often require mordants or unusual processes to make the reactions work and the chromophores (colorizing elements) bond to the fibers. I've read enough natural-dye textbooks to empathize; it's complicated! Booth's book, however, is not. Her self-taught approach is very accessible.

This book is aimed at the home crafter with an interest in beginning to work with natural dyes. Booth focuses on things you can probably find in nature, or grow in your garden, or even stuff you might stock in your pantry. If your grocery store carries things like red and yellow onions, tea and coffee, black beans and purple cabbage, then you can get what you need to do the dye projects in this book.

After all, theatrically speaking, we DO engage in the type of natural dyeing Booth puts forward in the majority of the projects in this book, which is often controlled staining: if you've ever gotten the note "tea-dip white shirt" or "tech down white shirt" and done it with, yes, tea bags, then you've got the concept down for several of the types of dyes she covers: gentle colors, pastel saturations.

She does talk about iron as a mordant, but that's as complex as it gets, chemically. She doesn't go into vat dyes with a leuco- stage/form (like indigo); if, after you complete a few of the dye projects in this book, you want to know more about the many other types of natural dyes which are chemically more complex, you can start with the Turkey Red Journal and peruse their archives for some great book recommendations!

The dye projects are paired with sewing projects which are also quite simple--coaster, placemats, table runners...I think the most complicated things are aprons. But, since most of my readership consists of professional costumers, there's no reason why you can't use what you learn on more complicated garments or even scaled up on yardage. I mean, I have done the black tea process on a batch of six shirts in my 60-gallon dye vat with industrial sized teabags!

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


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