Twenty years of “Wild Colour”

My book “Wild Colour” was first published in 1999, with a revised edition in 2010 so, to my amazement and delight, it has been around for 20 years. It therefore seemed a good time to write about the production of the book and some of the issues which arise when a book of this kind remains available for such a long period of time.

There are many factors which come into play when producing a book commissioned by a publisher, as “Wild Colour” was. I suspect most readers have little idea of what goes on behind the scenes during the production of such a book and some may assume that, as the author, I would have control over the content of the book. However, this is not necessarily the case, as publishers usually have a clear idea where they want a book to fit into the market and the author has to comply with their wishes in most instances. If one is lucky, it may be possible to make compromises but often the author is the one with the least control over what goes into the book. even over the title; in fact the title “Wild Colour” was selected before I was asked to write the book and I had no say in the matter. As it turned out, it has proved an excellent title choice, as it clearly distinguishes it from other natural dyeing books.

This lack of author involvement also applied to the selection of the North American consultant, who was appointed even before I was approached to write the book. The UK publishers made it a condition of publishing the book that a North American edition should be published at the same time as the UK edition. So a consultant was required to supply a name that would be recognised in North America and lend validity to the contents of the book. Without this consultant, “Wild Colour” would probably never have been published, so I am grateful to Karen Casselman for allowing her name to be associated with the book. However, the book is entirely my own work and Karen cannot be held responsible for any of the contents. 

Another area where the author may have little influence is over the design of the book’s cover, although I was shown the cover design for the first edition for my approval and was quite happy with it. For the recent re-issue of “Wild Colour”, I was sent several suggested cover lay-outs, some showing fabrics clearly not dyed with natural dyes, some showing a variety of tie-dyed garments and some showing random plants or flowers, such as rose petals, that bore no relation to the plants featured in the book. I sent the design team some images showing suggested lay-outs but they insisted on producing the cover image themselves. In the end, to avoid wasting more time on explaining why what they had selected just would not do, I posted a box of dyed materials and dried dyestuffs to the design office and they commissioned a photographer to use these to produce a cover. Even then the odd plant part crept in that I am unable to identify!

The commissioning editors of “Wild Colour” knew very little about natural dyeing (indeed, why should they?) and were rather surprised when I informed them about mordants and the difference between true dye plants and any old plant one might come across in the garden or the wild. They seemed to have the idea that they could select some pretty plants at random, preferably familiar ones with flowers that would photograph well, and whatever they chose would produce a dye colour and probably one close to the colour of the flower itself. If only!

Firstly, I selected the traditional dye plants that I felt had to be included and added some more fairly common plants that could give reasonably reliable colours but I kept being asked for more familiar plants that could be grown in the garden or gathered from the wild. In addition, as many plants as possible, preferably all, had to be available or capable of being grown in North America. Also, if one of the editors had read somewhere that a popular and attractive garden plant could give colour, they wanted that plant to be in the book, even if it was not really a useful dye plant. So I had to fight a few battles to maintain some kind of control over what got into the book and, with one exception (see below), I tested every plant for its colour potential.  However, I had to compromise and agree to include some plants that I would personally not use for dyeing.

The majority of plants tend to give yellows but, although yellow is the simplest colour to achieve, it is also a colour that fades quickly unless one chooses the reliable sources of yellow, such as weld, dyer’s broom and buckthorn (Persian) berries.  I rarely use any other sources of yellow, except sometimes dyer’s chamomile or goldenrod, if I have these in abundance in my garden, and then not usually for items that might be offered for sale.

In order to have some colour samples that were not some variation of yellow, I was urged to include colours from berries such as elderberries and blackberries, both of which I would personally never use, and in the text of the book I made sure to mention the unreliable nature of dyes from most red, purple or black berries, especially elderberries, and the tendency of colours from blackberries to fade was also mentioned. Unfortunately, some readers look at the book but don’t study the text closely and assume that, because a particular plant is included, it must therefore be a useful dye plant. Of course, if one is dyeing for one’s own pleasure and not with the aim of producing items for sale or display, colour fastness is less of an issue but an understanding of the variation in degrees of fastness remains crucial.

To limit the expense of photography, the publishers decided on colour swatches rather than photos of the dyed samples, so each of my dyed samples had to be carefully matched against a Pantone chart and given the appropriate number. My heart sank when I received the first colour print-out of the plant pages, as many of the colours didn’t look much like the colours I had selected. I asked for these colour samples to be changed but because of the cost I was only allowed to change colours that were impossible, not those that were not “quite right”, so some of the colour swatches don’t really match my dyed samples, although they are colours that could be achieved from the plant in question.

Now I have a confession to make. One plant the publishers finally insisted should be included in the book was hollyhock, which I had never tried for dyeing. However, by the time that had been decided, it was not possible to find hollyhocks in flower anywhere, so I could not produce any dyed samples and had to rely on information from reliable dyers elsewhere. The information I found, including in Dominique Cardon’s wonderful, comprehensive book “Natural Dyes” and in Rita Buchanan’s book “A Dyer’s Garden”, indicated that deep red hollyhock flower petals could give purple and blue-pink shades, so I matched the colour swatches for the hollyhock section from photos of dyed fibres in Rita Buchanan’s book.  After the publication of “Wild Colour” I managed to grow hollyhocks with deep red flowers in my own garden and conducted some experiments. However, despite many attempts, I have never personally succeeded in obtaining pinks and purples from hollyhock flowers, only greens. So I hope other dyers have had greater success and have managed to achieve the promised shades of purple and pink. I offer my sincere apologies to those dyers whose hollyhock dye baths have, like mine, resulted only in greens.

Where I was truly fortunate was in the publisher’s choice of designer for the book. Colin Walton did a superb job and I am sure the success of the book owes a great deal to his design talents. He was meticulous over every detail and his photography is wonderful. He was a delight to work with and nothing was ever too much trouble for him. We have remained in touch and he also manages my blog for me. My only slight niggle would be over the placing of the code for the dye pot symbols that accompany the swatches on the plant pages, as this tends to be discovered only by people who bother to read the whole book and I am regularly contacted by people grumbling that they can’t find out what the dye pots mean. The information is on page 21, by the way, and I suspect this was the only place where there was a gap in the text that could accommodate it.

In the twenty years since the first publication of “Wild Colour” my own dyeing practices have developed and one or two have changed, so some of what appears in “Wild Colour” does not entirely represent my current practices. These are best described in my most recent book, which is the second revised edition of “Colours from Nature” and which I publish myself, thereby retaining complete control over what is included. My blog also contains my latest experiments and is a way of bringing people up-to-date with my practices. However, the information in “Wild Colour” remains accurate to the best of my knowledge and ability. Even though I may not personally use every method described in the book, these methods all remain in practice among experienced dyers and readers can select the methods and recipes most suitable for their own needs and purposes.  For example, I now no longer use alum with cream of tartar when mordanting animal fibres and prefer to mordant using 10% to 15% alum alone. I also personally rarely use rhubarb leaves as an alternative “mordant” or base for other colours, except for about 5 recipes which appear in “Colours from Nature” and which give certain colours on a rhubarb leaf base. Indeed, I doubt if it is really accurate to refer to rhubarb leaf solution as a “mordant” and I prefer to call it a base for other colours.

Although I mordant vegetable fibres with aluminium acetate without first using tannin, I notice that some other dyers seem to use a tannin mordant first, as one would with alum sulphate on vegetable fibres. I have conducted tests using aluminium acetate both with and without a tannin pre-treatment and I can’t honestly say I notice any difference in the quality of the results. To me, the main reason for using aluminium acetate, rather than aluminium sulphate, to mordant vegetable fibres is the fact that it removes the need for tannin first and I am still not convinced that the tannin step is necessary when using aluminium acetate. “Dunging” or using a calcium carbonate after-bath following an aluminium acetate mordant, is also not a practice I follow and perhaps this is something I need to experiment with. I tend to feel that if my methods give good results, and they are also recommended by other experienced dyers, there may be no need to change them but I am always ready to experiment with new ideas or methods and to adjust my methods if necessary.

My knowledge of chemistry is limited and I learn by experience and experimentation, rather than by applying scientific knowledge. I imagine this is how the dyers of the distant past would also have worked, drawing conclusions from their results to help them improve their skills. I often wish I had a deeper understanding of chemistry and I try to learn when possible.

I hope all this helps people to understand a little of what goes on behind the scenes in the production of a book like “Wild Colour”. Although I may have sounded critical in some of my comments, I am very grateful to my publishers, Mitchell Beazley and Octopus Books, for listening to most of my requests and for enabling me to write a book that has proved so successful over such a relatively long period for a book of its type. Above all, I am truly grateful for the wonderful design skills of Colin Walton, whose talent played such a large part in the success of the book.