IN THE LAB
with Naomi Rosenkranz
SF: Reconstructing recipes from the past sounds like a difficult task - can you reveal more about the origins of your recipes, the steps involved in the process, and the challenges you've encountered?
NR: Most of the “recipes” we work with are found in Renaissance “how-to” texts, instruction manuals, recipe books, “books of secrets,” technical treatises, and other written records of practice. They were produced during the period leading up to the Scientific Revolution, becoming hugely popular in the 16th century. They contain describe a wide range of making processes, such as metal casting, dyeing, painting, medicine, alchemy, and household management.
One of the difficulties of studying “how-to” texts is that they cannot be studied in the same way as works of literature, letters, accounts, or other historical texts. Think of a modern cookbook – have you ever read one cover-to-cover? If you did, how much could you really learn without trying out the recipes? Then we encounter another problem: if you have never baked before, do you know exactly how to bake a cake after just reading its recipe? Do you know the tools you need? How to tell if your ingredients are appropriate? What to do if something goes wrong?
Historical “recipes” are no different: crucial steps might be omitted, certain background or experience is assumed, or critical contextual information is missing. When reconstructing these recipes, we must make interpretations, assumptions, and compromises. Whatever we do today will never be an exact replica of something from the past, but we may still be able to gain insights or ask better questions.
When I work on a dye recipe for making red wool with cochineal bugs, for example, there are usually more questions than there are answers.
From these questions (and many more), I can start to form an “experimental” plan, determining what more research I may need to do, what variables in materials and process I have identified to test, where I can source ingredients, and who I might reach out to with specialized knowledge who may have helpful information that I am missing.
SF: This project brings together a cross-disciplinary team. Can you tell us what the advantages are of having such a diverse team?
NR: Historical reconstruction is a method that really requires the harnessing of different skills and disciplines, and brings together historians, scientists, artists, conservators, engineers, and practitioners. Working together with other people can help overcome many of the challenges of these kinds of investigations. A collaborative group will always have more experience and background knowledge than any one individual, and the differing perspectives help to draw new connections. For example, one person I work with is extremely knowledgeable about Renaissance dyeing treatises and is able to quickly pull out relevant recipes; another raises sheep and spins her own yarn, providing undyed wool for experiments; another dyes as a hobby and has insights about the process (bath temperatures, how the textiles should look and feel); and another is a chemist who can help unravel some of the complex dye molecule structures. Working together, we can approach the recipe as both a teaching and learning experience for us all, and gain insights about the recipe or the context in which it was created.
SF: Do you expect your project to make any contribution to the art or science of the modern textile industry?
NR: In our Colorant Sustainability Workshops at Genspace, Sumeyye and I have tried to address ways in which our work can inform modern projects and global issues. Synthetic dyes, the most efficient yet least sustainable colorants, have become one of the most substantial contributors to severe pollution and devastating effects on health and safety due to their heavy use in the textile industry. One strategy that has increasingly been explored is the return to natural colorants as sustainable, safe, and eco-friendly alternatives. The more we know about these natural dyes, including how they were used in the past, the more we may be able to see changes in how we use them in the present and future. Working with historical natural dyes offers both artists and scientists another method of understanding and creating materials that is not traditionally taught in the studio or the laboratory.