Ethel Mairet

I have just read the 101 year old book 'A Book on Vegetable Dyes' by Ethel Mairet. A renowned weaver and dyer, Mairet wrote the book at a time when chemical dyes had been developed and become well-used. She laments in her poetic introduction that:

"It has been forgotten that strong and beautiful colour, such as used to abound in all every day things, is an essential to the full joy of life." (p1)

The book is aimed at the craftsperson who wishes to create their own textile colours through the use of vegetable dyes, and gathers together a wealth of historical recipes from around the British Isle and the greater world. The recipe chapters are divided into colour, making it easy to reference if you have a specific colour you wish to achieve.

I found the chapter on mordants interesting as it discusses the use of alum as the most popular mordant, stating that it has been used for many years all over the world. It was also nice to discover that the term mordant comes from the French "mordere, to bite" (p25). 

She has a very anti-scientific view of dyeing in textiles, saying that:

"Dyeing is an art; the moment science dominated it, it is an art no longer, and the craftsman must go back to the time before science touched it, and begin all over again." (p8)

Now, having some experience of using natural dyes, as opposed to just selecting the desired colour from a yarn shade card and waiting for it to arrive in the post, I agree with her sentiment somewhat. I feel I have a greater connection to the raw material I use in my textile practice.

Mairet's archive is situated in Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, which I am now very keen to visit. The image above is a page from the extensive volumes of her dye experiments, featured in an exhibition which I frustratingly missed earlier this year! 

Mairet's book provided excellent historical context to my research as well as containing recipes that I can still use today in my own practice. The bibliography, unsurprisingly, is a wealth of further reading, including essays by William Morris.