A BRIEF HISTORY OF DYESTUFFS & DYEING

by Lady Siobhan nicDhuinnshleibhe

Presented at Runestone Collegium, 19 February 2000

(c) 2000 Heather McCloy


Ever since primitive people could create, they have been endeavoring to add color to the world around them. They used natural matter to stain hides, decorate shells and feathers, and paint their story on the walls of ancient caves. Scientists have been able to date the black, white, yellow and reddish pigments made from ochre used by primitive man in cave paintings to over 15,000 BCE. With the development of fixed settlements and agriculture around 7,000-2,000 BCE man began to produce and use textiles, and would therefore add color to them as well. Although scientists have not yet been able to pinpoint an exact time where adding color to fibers first came into practice, dye analysis on textile fragments excavated from archaeological sites in Denmark have placed the use of the blue dye woad along with an as yet unidentified red dye in the first century CE (Grierson, 5).

In order to understand the art and history of dyeing, we must first understand the process of dyeing itself. According to Webster’s dictionary, dyeing is “the process of coloring fibers, yarns or fabrics by using a liquid containing coloring matter for imparting a particular hue to a substance.” There are three basic methods of “imparting a particular hue” to a substance. The first is by staining an item, a temporary means of coloration where the color is rubbed or soaked into an item without the benefit of some sort of chemical fixative to preserve the color. The next is the use of pigmentation, wherein the color is fixed to the surface of an object by another adhesive medium. A true dye is when the color of a substance is deposited on another substance in an insoluble form from a solution containing the colorant.

Natural dyes can be broken down into two categories: substantive and adjective. Substantive, or direct dyes, become chemically fixed to the fiber without the aid of any other chemicals or additives, such as indigo or certain lichens. Adjective dyes, or mordant dyes, require some sort of substance, (usually a metal salt) to prevent the color from washing or light-bleaching out. Most natural dyes are adjective dyes, and do require the application of a mordant (the metal salt) solution to the fibers at some point in the dyeing process. Aluminum and iron salts were the most common traditional mordants, with copper, tin and chrome coming into use much later. In rural areas where these metals were not widely available, plants were also used as mordants, especially those that have a natural ability to extract such minerals from the earth, such as club moss. Most ancient and medieval dyers mordanted their yarns and fabrics before dyeing them. Alum and Iron were used as mordants in Egypt, India and Assyria from early times, as there are many alum deposits in the Mediterranean region. Medieval dyers used alum, copper and iron as mordants, and cream of tartar and common salt were used as to assist in the dyeing process.

Different fibers also have different tendencies to absorb natural and synthetic dyes. Protein and cellulose fibers (the two main divisions for fibers used historically in spinning and dyeing) need to be mordanted differently because of their structural and chemical composition. Mordants to cellulose fibers such as cotton and linen usually involve the use of washing soda or tannins to create an alkaline dyebath. Tannins (plantstuffs, such as oak galls containing tannic acid) are widely used in dyeing cellulose fibers as they attach well to the plant fibers, thus allowing the dyes to attach themselves to the tannins, whereas they might not be able to adhere to the fibers themselves (Tannins are sometimes classified as mordants in and of themselves, but are usually considered a chemical to assist in the dyeing process.) Mordants for protein fibers, like wool and silk, are usually applied in acidic dyebaths. Alum with the assistance of cream or tartar, is the most common mordant used to assist the dyes in taking to the fibers.

Since the difference in mordanting different fibers has been mentioned, it would be remiss not to spend a moment on the historic nature of the fibers themselves. Wool, a protein-based fiber, has been found in Europe dating back to 2000 BCE. It was a common medieval fabric in both dyed and natural colors, and was processed by both professional manufacturers and housewives. Silk, another protein-based fiber, was imported from China to Persia as early as 400-600 BCE. It became quite popular in the Late Middle Ages, and major silk manufacturing centers were set up in France, Spain and Italy. These silk production centers also became centers of dye technology, as most silk was dyed and required the highest quality dyes available. Cotton was considered a luxury fabric, as it was imported all the way from India and usually dyed or painted before it was shipped. Cotton was also valued because of the brightness and colorfastness of the dyes used to color it, and also for its use in making candle wicks. Samples of cotton fabrics have been found in India and Pakistan dating to 3000 BCE, but it did not appear in Europe until the 4th century. Cotton waving establishments were formed in Italy in the 13th & 14th centuries but they did not make a significant economic impact on the industry as they produced a coarser quality of fabric than the imported fabric, and therefore had difficulty in obtaining a good supply of cotton fiber.

Scientists are almost certain that dyeing was practiced throughout the world, but it is difficult to obtain proof on this for two reasons. First, not all cultures left written records of their practices. Second, because of the wide variance of environmental conditions and degree of geological disturbance, it is not easy to find well-preserved evidence of dyed textiles in many archaeological sites. A Chinese text from 3,000 BCE lists dye recipes to obtain red, black and yellow on silks. Ancient Indian texts describe several different yellow dyestuffs, how to obtain reds from the wood and bark of certain trees, and also notes the use of indigo to create blues on cotton. In Central and South America they dyed bast fibers (plant fibers) in shades of red and purple with the bodies of the cochineal insects (Dactylopius coccus). (Grierson, 6)

A Greek artifact known as the Stockholm Papyrus details dyestuffs and techniques in almost a recipe fashion as it was practiced Egypt in the third and fourth centuries CE. The great detail in which the preparation of the fibers and the dyeing materials and the dyeing process itself are recorded has led scholars to believe that it had to have been practiced for thousands of years previously in order to raise the process to such a science and art. It discusses mordanting the fibers using alum, copper and iron oxides to darken or “sadden” the red, blue, green and purple dyes, as well as the occasional use of tin and zinc. It describes over ten different recipes for using alkanet (Anchusa tinctoria) root as a dye employing camel and sheep urine, lentils, vinegar, wild cucumber and barley malt among others as aids to producing color. It also gave recipes on obtaining purple hues by overdyeing the alkanet with woad (Isatis tinctoria), madder (Rubia tinctorum), kermes (made from the dried bodies of the female shield louse or scale insect (Kermes ilicis)) and the heliotrope plant (Heliotropium arborescens). Excavated coptic textiles dating from the fourth to the sixth century CE show use of weld (Reseda luteola) to produce yellow, madder and woad for dark purple, and blue from indigo (Indigofera tinctoria). Scientists have been able to date a red obtained from Egyptian madder root from the fourteenth century BCE. (Grierson, 6)

In the Mediterranean before the advent of Christianity, a whole dyeing industry arose around Tyrian purple. Tyrian purple is produced from the mucous gland adjacent to the respiratory cavity within some species of Purpura and Murex species of shellfish (Schetky, 4). The shells were crushed to extract this fluid, which only turns purple once it has been applied to the fiber and exposed to light and oxidation with the air. The Phoenicians, skillful shipbuilders and sailors that they were, scoured the coastlines for sight of these whelk shells, and established a dyeworks and trading station wherever they found a plentiful population of these shellfish. Coastal Indians of Mexico were also using shellfish, but their delicate method involved blowing and tickling the shellfish to get them to spit out the dye precursor directly onto the cotton fibers. Even Ireland can produce archaeological evidence of dyeing with the native dog-whelk shells in the seventh century CE. (Grierson, 6 & 7) Both Discorides, the Greek physician and Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, mention in their first century works the preparation and dyeing of wool with various shellfish to produce colors of red, blue, purple and violet after first being mordanted with soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), oxgall or alum. (Schetky, 4) Both authors also mention the use of Indigo from the Orient to obtain blues, and Herodotus describes its use in a 450 BCE text. Dioscorides also mentions other dye plants of the ancient world, including madder, saffron (Crocus sativus) and weld for yellow, and woad for blue. Walnut shells (Juglans nigra), oak bark (Quercus sp.), pomegranate flowers (Punica granatum) and broom (Genista tinctoria) were also used in conjunction with various mordants; but galls formed on trees could mordant themselves, being high in tannic acid (Schetky, 5).

In Europe the art of dyeing rose to new heights with the diversity of climate, culture and migration/invasion waves. This was further influenced by the direct impact of trade instigated by the Crusades and furthered by the growing cultural awareness of the Renaissance period - everyone in Europe wanted the exotic, colorful dyestuffs from the Orient, and later from the Americas. Caravans of camels would cross the Gobi desert for centuries bringing goods from China to the Mediterranean. By the 12th century the two main trade routes for imported dyestuffs headed through Damascus: the first led from Baghdad to Damascus to Jerusalem and Cairo, the other went to Damascus to Mosul to the Black Sea to Byzantium (Istanbul).

Venice was one of the major early centers for imported dyestuffs, supplying Brazilwood (Caesalpinia sappan) from the East, lac (another insect dye) and indigo from India from the fifteenth century CE onward. Dyers of Italy soon became adept in their use, in 1429 the Venetian dyer’s guild wrote a book for its members containing a number of different dye recipes, including Brazilwood and lac. The Plictho de Larti de Tentori by Venetian author Giovanni Ventur Rosetti (sp - also listed as Giovanventura Rosetti) in the 1540s lists instructions for using both lac and indigo, as well as 217 other recipes for dyeing cloth, linen, cotton and silk with many varieties of dyestuffs. It would remain the best source for dyeing instruction for the next 200 years (Schetky, 6).

From Venice the dyestuffs were traded by ship around the coast of France to Flanders, Southampton and London; in the Mediterranean at Florence, Pisa and Genoa; and northward on the continent to the distribution centers of Basle and Frankfurt (Schetky, 6). Basle was a noted center of trade for saffron, the expensive yellow obtained from certain species of crocus. In later years crocus were grown in that area directly, and the crop became such a vital part of the local economy that they crocus was featured on the city’s coat of arms. Frankfurt housed trade fairs from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries that dominated the trade of many dyestuffs, but mainly that of locally grown woad, the only blue dyestuff available to European dyers before the coming of indigo. Many regions in Germany specialized in growing and processing the woad through its complex fermentation process, and strict legislation was placed on every aspect of the trade. (Grierson, 8)

The government of Spain controlled the trade of cochineal, the red dye from the bodies of the Cochineal bugs of Central America. In 1587 approximately 65 tons were shipped to Spain, and from there northward throughout Europe (Grierson, 10). Italian dyers shunned cochineal in favor of the already established dye kermes, made from the dried bodies of the female shield louse or scale insect (Kermes ilicis) (Schetky, 4). It’s use was first recorded in 1727 BCE and it was long the standard red dye for silk, wool and leather, but the intense colorific value and relative cheapness of cochineal soon eliminated most of the kermes use in England, so Spain hung on to control of their lucrative monopoly. (Grierson, 10)

European dyers reached their height of skill in the thirteenth century, mainly due to the guild systems who vigilantly maintained a high standard of quality. In many countries dyers were graded by the guild system, the master dyers being allowed to use the major “fast” dyes while their lesser colleagues were restricted to the slower, “fugitive” dyes. In some places it was forbidden to possess, let alone use, major dyestuffs unless you were a member of a guild. In Germany, the dyers and woad workers were regulated by the guilds, each grower having to present his crop to a “sworn dyer” to determine its quality, weight and condition before it could be sold. (Grierson, 8-9) English producers of woad had fewer restrictions, mainly that of a proclamation in 1587 to restrict growers to certain field size and ensure that no woad mills were sited within three miles of a royal residence, market town or city because of the highly offensive odor they emit. Even the local doctors in Venice in 1413 city fathers to prohibit dyeing with either woad or ox-blood after March first because of the “unhealthy smell.” (Grierson, 9) France had developed an extensive and efficient textile industry by the 13th century and also increased the dyers craft by developing varied techniques to achieve additional colors from the basic dyestuffs. At the end of the 16th century, there were over 220 master dyers listed in Paris alone. (Schetky, 8)

While the powerful guild system had numerous dyestuffs with which to blend their color palates of fiber for the bluebloods and wealthy merchants, dyeing in the lower classes was a bit more restrictive. Without the money (or connetions) to buy indigo, cochineal and turmeric, clothing in the country tended to natural colors – whites, blacks, browns, grays, and tans of the natural colors of the fibers themselves, with the reds, greens and yellows of local plants used for both food, medicine and dyes. In short, home dyers used any plants they could lay their hands on that would give a good color. Some colors were even derived accidentally. Washing bee hives in preparation for making mead could yield yellows and golds. Blackberries and Bilberries that stained the fingers of pickers could also be used to achieve pale blues and purples, although these were not often color or lightfast. In England, the multitudinous variety of lichens and mosses produced greens, grays and browns.

By the seventeenth century a world-wide shipping and trading network was in place, allowing dyestuffs from all parts of the world to be brought to Europe. Legislation from earlier centuries to protect the growers and users of specific dyestuffs was overturned in favor of new demands and standards set by the growing consumer-focused society who wanted more colors and better quality. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the practice of colonialism insured that there would always be a supply of foreign dyestuffs, and the Industrial Revolution met the demands of large-scale productions while finding new ways to make the colors brighter and longer-lasting to wear and washing.

As textile weaving technology advanced with the advent of machines to spin, design and weave fabric, dyers were forced to be able to produce dyes with exact shades, matching color lots and most importantly, ones that would stand “fast” to the new mechanical and chemical processing. In addition, exporters wanted colors that would stand up to tropical sunlight and still be exotic enough for foreign tastes. Dyers in turn demanded from their suppliers purer chemicals and dyestuffs of consistent quality. Hand in hand, dyers, manufacturers, chemists, and dyestuff producers worked hand in hand to keep up with the progress of technology. (Grierson, 15) Chemists in many countries had found a means of extracting highly concentrated powders or pastes from traditional dyestuffs that made stronger colors, such as cochineal carmine and madder garancine. Other procedures were used to extract indigo that gave us sulphonated indigo and Saxon blue. A few novel dyes (precursors of future chemical dyes) such as the yellow obtained from picric acid also made an appearance. With the tremendous rise in the interest of Chemistry in the mid nineteenth century, several important innovations in dyeing came about. W.H. Perkin, a student of celebrated European scientist Wilhelm von Hoffman, accidentally discovered the first synthetic dye in an attempt to synthesize quinine. The 18-year old student’s purple precipitate, later called mauviene, was quickly put into industrial application, allowing the young Perkin to start his own factory in London to commercially produce his dyestuff. Two years letter a synthetic red dye called magenta or fuchsine was patented in France, and hardly a year passed until the end of the century without a new synthetic dye being patented.

Eventually, the old natural dyes lost popularity in favor of the newer synthetic ones. By the end of the nineteenth century a few Scottish tweed producers were the only ones still using natural dyes, and now the use of natural dyes on a commercial scale barely exists, mainly in remote areas where people have either little access to synthetic dyes or a vested interest in retaining their ancient dyeing customs. Use of natural dyes is gaining popularity again with the renaissance in hand crafting, most notably in the fields of spinning and weaving, basketry, papermaking and leathercraft. There is also renewed scientific and historic interest in natural dyeing, both to help identify dyestuffs in recently discovered archaeological finds and to preserve the dyed textiles housed in museums and private collections. As Su Grierson says in her book Dyeing and Dyestuffs, “Whilst the dyeing industry of today keeps pace with modern science, the future use of natural dyes will also follow a new path, but one firmly rooted in tradition.” (21)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Cochineal Insect.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000. http://encarta.msn.com/ 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation.

Grierson, Su. Dyeing and Dyestuffs. Aylesbury, Bucks: Shire Album 229, Shire Publications Ltd. 1989.

Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life. New York: Pantheon Books. 1979.

“Heliotrope.” University of Washington Medicinal Herb Garden Online. http://www.nnlm.nlm.nih.gov/pnr/uwmhg/species.html

Schetky, Ethel Jane McD. “The Ageless Art of Dyeing.” Handbook on Dye Plants & Dyeing. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Botanic Garden Record.  1986. (Special reprint of “Plants & Gardens” Vol. 20, No. 3)

Smith, Jodi. Medieval Dyes. Loveland: Spinning Madly. 1993. (7th printing, June 1999).


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