book review · natural dyeing

Book Review: Harvesting Color

Burgess, Rebecca. Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes. Artisan, 2011.


I’m not sure where I first heard of natural dyer and local-fiber expert Rebecca Burgess, (it might have been this podcast), but for several years now I have admired her work with Fibershed, an organization dedicated to developing regional fiber systems.

Burgess is a major voice in the “local fiber” movement, which, like advocates of local food, encourages regional, sustainable, scaleable production of fiber and textiles. Fibershed orchestrates a network of ranchers, designers, farmers, manufacturers, and consumers. For all this scope and ambition, in several interviews Burgess has described how her early interest in more local, sustainable fiber systems was sparked by learning about natural dyes.

Burgess’s book, Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes, brings readers into the wonder and delight of this discovery. Like most books on natural dyeing (and there has been a spate of excellent new books on the subject in the last few years), Harvesting Color offers all the essential information on the subject: necessary equipment, information on what kind of fibers to dye and how to prepare them, and master recipes that will work with many kinds of dyestuffs. She also includes guidelines for the ethical foraging of wild species and the environmental considerations with dyeing even on a small scale.

What sets this book apart from most other dye manuals, is its attention to season and to place. The dye recipes are organized according to the seasons of the year, grouping its material in a way that is beautifully un-arbitrary. Looking through the recipes, one begins to imagine autumn hikes to forage for black walnuts and pokeweed. I bought this book shortly after moving to Texas, and it helped me find ways to mark and celebrate the seasons here. Even August–sweltering and miserable by most accounts–has become the time of year I hunt roadsides for goldenrod, eager for its brilliant yellow-green dye.

Within this larger seasonal framework, each plant profile includes a small map of the USA, indicating regions in which the dyestuff grows in the wild. Although the book includes plants from a range of regions–some spread broadly across the US, others limited to much smaller regions–simply including this element reminds readers that they can and should begin their search for color in their own backyard.

While there are more exhaustive resources for using natural dyes, I recommend Harvesting Color as a first resource to anyone interested in the craft. It is useful, it is true, and it cultivates a wise imagination. Just as a glossy advertisement might tempt me to think, “If I buy X, I’ll have beautiful friends and a happy life,” looking through the beautiful photographs of Harvesting Color makes me want to spend a late-summer evening foraging with friends. But of course, I have spent  such an evening collecting flowers with people I love, and I know that this desire is true and good, while the glossy ad may is, more often than not, a lie. Each season I sit down and look through this book again, reminding myself of which plants are coming into their own. Having filled my imagination with such good food, my attention has become more loving and hopeful. For example, when stuck in traffic, rather than noticing the ugliness of the gridlock or the debris of an urban road, I tend to notice wildflowers, useful berries, and windfallen treasures waiting for me to collect and use them. Frankly, this power of the book–to train vision and desire–makes it worthwhile reading even for someone who wouldn’t otherwise pick up a volume on natural dyes.

For its ability to help us love our place, our season, and our local colors, Harvesting Color is an essential volume in the Whole Cloth library.


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