Last week’s episode, and the prompt that got me to finally write the recommendation that I’ve been meaning to write for years, was an interview with Kassia St. Clair, about her book The Secret Lives of Color. The book is a collection of essays, each about a given color, from ones that I have previously never heard of (isebelline - a light dun) to the ubiquitous (a history of beige). Sometimes she writes about the historical cultural associations of a color; sometimes she writes about the chemistry of a pigment or the history of its use. Whatever she chooses to focus on, the results are fascinating.
Working with natural dyes (spending two to three days to produce a green yarn, never mind the time required for scouring and mordanting before dyeing, and rinsing and drying afterwards) has given me much time to meditate on how I, and most of the modern world, take the easy availability of color for granted. The price of dyeing or coloring an item is so minimal relative to the cost of production, or so much considered to be part of the production process itself, that the cost and time required disappears entirely into the final price. Dark blue items do not cost more than light blue items. Undyed items are rarely cheaper (if they are available at all) than their dyed counterparts. We still have strong cultural associations with different colors (national flags, sports teams, high school colors etc) but unless we work in specialized fields, we rarely think about what is required to produce the color in question, or how amazing it is that we can so easily create it.
So we forget how much the quest for color has changed human history. As the host of 99% Invisible summarized in what has become one of my favorite quotes, our love of color is a “...real human pursuit: basically food, shelter, and the brightest color imaginable seem to be ingrained in our DNA”. Or, as Kassia St. Clair puts it, “We love shiny bright colors and we are prepared to do all sorts of weird and wonderful things to have them.”
Listen to it here, or on your favorite podcasting service.