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March 2017

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dye vat

another dye book review

Have you ever thought to yourself, "man, i wish i knew more about the science of dyeing, but science textbooks are all so dense and complicated, i just don't have the basic knowledge to get much out of them..."?

I did, for years, until i took some distance-education classes in textile science, dyeing and finishing from the NCSU College of Textiles. It remains the best thing i've ever done for my career, in terms of gaining truly practical, applicable knowledge to help me do my job better, knowledge i use literally every single day. I realize though that many theatrical dyers don't have the option to do the same--my tuition was waived as one of my benefits, and my superiors at work were hugely supportive of my study. Money, time, and colleague support are sometimes not as easy to come by. And besides, it can be intimidating to someone with an artistic self-image to enroll in a polymer chemistry class. Sometimes we can be our own biggest hurdles.

Most of us who dye for costuming purposes come from art-dyeing backgrounds, where the chemistry is glossed over. I mean, sure, back when i was getting my degree in costuming, i took a graduate level class in dyeing for theatre, but it was offered through the department of dramatic art, not chemistry or textiles, and it was taught by a professor of costume design. Even our graduate level courses often deal more with processes like batik and screenprinting than with the basic science of why dyes do what they do on a molecular level.

And yet, each class of dyes does something very different to the fibers it affects, and IME the majority of theatrical dyework does not involve the fun, artsy projects like shibori or batik or silk painting. Sure, those come along once in a while, but at least 80% of the work i do in my dyeshop is completely straightforward. Dye this to match that. Can we dye this that color? Why won't this take dye? Can we strip the color out of this? All the beautiful shibori scarves in the world won't answer these questions, but a basic grasp of the science will.

But how? You don't have time or money or the inclination to take textile science classes. You just want to read a book about it. Well, i've just read the book you need.

Linda Knutson's Synthetic Dyes for Natural Fibers was first published in 1982, but it's far, far from outdated or irrelevant to the 21st-century dyer. She doesn't dumb down the science, but she does explain it in accessible terms with simple, easily parsed diagrams and illustrations. She explains the chemical differences between classes of dyes, structurally why each one works (or doesn't work) on particular fibers.

Knutson also covers a wide range of related topics, from color theory and how it applies to color-mixing of dyestuffs, to fiber structure and how it relates to shrinkage/felting/weave strength. She discusses ways in which one might choose to incorporate equipment from a science lab into a dye studio (such as graduated cylinders and pipettes). The book has an excellent index and glossary as well. The age of the book makes the list of suppliers in the back largely obsolete, but finding suppliers of dyes and auxilliaries in the age of the Google search is not a daunting prospect.