In the Civil War, certain Confederate soldiers were called “butternuts.” Believe it or not, “butternut” was not (just) old-fashioned trash-talking. The term referred to Confederate soldiers who wore naturally dyed uniforms.
In an earlier post about our June workshops, we briefly featured a class on Natural Dyeing for Book Artists. Here, we’ll talk more in-depth about the history of natural dyes, some technical details about it, and artist Natalie Stopka, who will be instructing our workshop.
A Very Brief History of Dyes
Natural dyes have been used by people since ancient times, recorded as early as 2600BCE in Ancient China. Alizarin pigments made from madder plants were used to dye fabric in Ancient Egypt. Ultramarine was a the most expensive pigment in the Mediterranean region through the Renaissance. While pigments were synthesized as early as Ancient Egypt, synthetic dyestuffs became highly commercialized in 1857, when William Perkin accidentally synthesized mauve.
No two plants are alike, and as expected, natural dyes have various levels of potency. Some plants yield vivid colors that attach to fibers very well; others may need some additives, like a mordant, to help the dye adhere to the material.
According to the USDA Forest Service, “Mordants are water-soluble chemicals, usually metallic salts, which create a bond between dye and fiber thus increasing the adherence of various dyes to the item being dyed. The actual color one gets from a natural dye depends not only on the source of the dye but also on the mordant, and the item being dyed.”
Some common mordants and their effects listed on the USDA Forest Service page are:
Alum Brightens the colors obtained from a dye source Iron/Coppers Darkens/saddens hues, produces blacks, brown, gray Copper vitriol Improves likelihood of obtaining a green hue Tin Produces bright colors especially yellows, oranges, reds Chrome Highly toxic – should not be used for dyeing at home
Dark Rye describes mordants as “fixatives.” Check out their Natural Dye Color Chart to see some cool swatches of dyes mixed with different mordants
and why St. John’s Wort Flower should be renamed St. John’s Technicolor Flower!
As an interesting note, the “butternut” used to describe Confederate uniforms doesn’t refer to one specific color. Uniforms held their colors or faded due to natural wear, inconsistent dyeing processes, fabric quality, and uses of mordants, creating the range of butternut browns.
This workshop will teach the basics of preparing and using natural plant dyes for both fabric and paper. Students will learn the principles and techniques behind the craft as we dye swatches in a range of colors. The questions of materials choice, mordants, and permanence will be addressed. Students may bring along sample materials to test in the dye pot.
The workshop will be led by Natalie Stopka. Natalie binds books emphasizing unconventional materials and fiber arts techniques. She sources uncommon fibers, repurposed and hand-dyed fabrics, and vintage textiles to bring a unique vocabulary of texture to her work. Natalie is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and a former Van Lier/Stein Family Scholar at the Center for Book Arts.
To learn more about the rich history and processes of natural dyeing, from finding ingredients to dyeing materials, join our weekend workshop on June 21-22, Saturday and Sunday, from 10am – 4pm.
Do you have strong feelings about butternuts? Know any other good natural pigments that make terrible nicknames? Just want to say hi? Comment on this post, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit us on Facebook (/centerforbookarts) or follow us on Twitter (@center4bookarts).