Volume 14 Issue 2 A Journal Dedicated to Natural Dyes Spring 2009

Book Review:
Judith H. Hofenk de Graaff, The Colourful Past:
Origins, Chemistry and Identification of Natural Dyestuffs

by Rachel Freeman

The Colourful Past examines the historic natural dyes used in the (mostly European) textile industry. The volume is a technical reference book for conservators and material scientists, and the presentation of the information strongly resembles the series Artist's Pigments: A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics, produced by the National Gallery of Art. Although there is abundant technical information between its covers, portions of The Colourful Past will interest natural dyers today.
  The Colourful Past book cover
The book begins with brief history of dyeing and explanation of the principles of textile dyeing, including mordants, a discussion of light fastness and laked pigments made with natural dyestuffs. The next section is a technical discussion of the methodology for, and the analytical equipment used in, the identification of dyes on historic textiles.

The main portion of The Colourful Past will be of most use to the natural dyer with a strong interest in the study of historic textiles and the replication of historic recipes. This section of the text is divided into those categories of dyestuffs that produce red, yellow, blue, purple, and black. Thirty-nine dyestuffs are examined, with those belonging to the same classification, such as Coccid, Madder-types, and Indigoid, given separate subsections. Each entry includes: current and historic names for the dyestuffs; diagrams of the molecules that compose the colorants; chemical properties and biological sources of the dyestuff; history of use; preparation of raw dyestuff from the plant source; dyeing methods; historical recipes; reactions of the dye with various mordants; lightfastness; identification of the dyestuff by scientific analysis, and case studies where the dyestuff was used. While de Graaff looks at common dyes from around the world, the historical recipes and case studies are largely drawn from European sources or traditions.

The appendix is dedicated to five essays on aspects of the dyeing and textile industries in Europe, and the historical sources of dyes from a scientific point of view. These essays offer a fascinating look at the materials and techniques used by the European textile industry before the industrial revolution.

From the point of view of conservation literature, The Colourful Past is an excellent reference work. However, long-time practitioners of natural dyeing may notice that much of the information on the sources of the dyestuffs and colors rendered by different mordants can be found in Dye Plants and Dyeing by John and Margaret Cannon. The Colourful Past is definitely not a how-to book for contemporary dyers, but it is recommended for its rare insights into the history of natural dye use.

Rachel Freeman is a paper conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago.


Judith H. Hofenk de Graaff
The Colourful Past: Origins, Chemistry and Identification of Natural Dyestuffs

Hardcover, 396 pages, $110.00
Published by Abegg-Stifung and Archetype Publications Ltd., 2004
Available from Archetype Publications
ISBN-10: 1873132131
ISBN-13: 978-1873132135