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Natural Dyeing to 1600

Color has always been important to humans. Archaeological records tells us that early humans developed methods of adding color to fiber as they learned how to use it to construct fabric for clothing, household, and ceremonial items. Dyeing was a precursor to embroidery, for in order for it to be worth applying a separate thread to fabric, the thread must be sufficiently different from the background fabric. Dyestuffs which made bright, fast colors were difficult to find and therefore both the dyes and items dyed with them were valuable trade items that drove trade routes even into the current age.

Who dyed?

Dyeing is both easy and difficult; it is very easy to get some sort of color onto fabric if you know what ingredients to use, but it is very difficult to get certain colors, and even more difficult to predictably reproduce the same color. So as a broad generalization throughout SCA time period, there were both home dyers and organized guilds of professional dyers. This is evidenced by writings such as Gervase Markham's The English Housewife, in which he suggests that a woman take her wool to the dyer, but also gives her some recipes should she wish to dye it herself.

Home dyeing is extremely difficult to document, since most people dyeing for personal use probably relied on native plants such as oak galls, privet, and wildflowers, as well as household items like lye and soot, and multi-purpose items commonly available at the chemist's like washing soda.

Professional dyeing is much easier to research, given trade records of dyestuffs and dyed goods. Preserved items which have been subjected to chemical analysis of their component dyes are mostly very valuable or religious items and can be inferred to have been professionally dyed. Like most organized trades, the dyers' guilds guarded their secrets jealously and therefore manuscripts of dye recipes are few.

What did they dye?

Their own skin and hair - the best-known example from the Roman period is the description of Picts and Saxons who painted their skin blue with woad, but  examples exist from various other cultures; in "civilized" cultures facial dyes are called cosmetics.

Fur, feathers, beads made of shell, bone - whole items made of porous materials could be colored by immersion in a dye bath or by application of a paint.

Wool - naturally white sheep wool takes dyes extremely well and was the staple fabric for hundreds of years in Europe. Naturally colored sheep were also common, and colored fleece could be used both for its original color and overdyed to make darker colors.

Linen, hemp, nettles, and other bast fibers - Bast fibers are more resistant to taking dyes but with proper techniques will hold fast colors.

Silk, Cotton - India and the Middle East were the premier centers of dyeing for cottons and silks early on and maintained their reputation until the advent of modern dyes.

What did they use?

The first colors used by humans were pigments and ochres. Pigments are colors in a powdered form that are mixed with a medium (like oil or egg) to make paint. Pigments were used to color cloth throughout history, but they do not make a permanent chemical bond with the fibers and may easily chip off. Ochres are mixtures of quartz sand, clay, and iron oxide in colors that range from brown and yellow through greens, reds, and violets. As paints they keep their bright colors, but on fiber the iron oxide mellows to red or tan.

Ochres could be considered to be mordants.  Mordants are ingredients that may or may not impart a color to the fiber, but help other colors adhere to the fiber better. The most common mordants were iron, alum, and copper. Iron alone dyes tans and copper alone dyes verdigris green. Clubfoot moss was often used as a mordant in Northern Europe because the plants absorb aluminum from the earth. Seaweed was used for the same purpose in some coastal areas.

Tannins from leaves, bark, wood, and nuts were often used alone or as a mordant. Cottons and linens in particular dye better when pre-mordanted with tannins. Tannin and iron combined to make dark brown and black was one of the most basic, effective, and earliest of dye recipes. To this day in Africa "mud cloths" are made by painting areas of the cloth in tannin-rich solution and then burying the cloth in iron-rich mud. The iron makes the tannin black and the untreated areas rusty red.  

pH Modifiers were also important because wool and silk and some dyes take better in an acidic environment, while cotton and linen and some dyes take better in an alkaline environment. Common pH modifiers were acetic acid from vinegar or wine, lye, urine, soda ash.

Most dyes are organic; derived from plants or animals.

Dyes from Plants:

Weld - Yellow. Native to Northern Europe. Weld seeds have been found in various archaeological sites. 

Dyer's Greenweed - Yellow, same chemical as weld (luteolin). Native to Northern Europe. Luteolin has been identified in Medieval textiles.

Buckthorn berries - Yellow, native to Europe. Mentioned in Medieval texts.

Safflower - yellow and pink. Native to Asia. Very common in Eastern textiles and Egypt, not as common in Europe.

Saffron - yellow. Native to Asia. Used extensively through the Middle East and Spain. There is some contention as to whether "saffron" Irish leinte were actually dyed with saffron or just looked the color of saffron.

Madder - Reds from roots. Native to Middle East, spread to northern Europe before 1066. Very fast dye; has been identified in many Medieval and Renaissance textiles. England was famous for it's madder reds in the 14th C., Turkey red was also madder-based.

Brazilwood (sappanwood) - Reds from heartwood. Native to Asia, spread to northern Europe before 1200. Often used in combination with madder because of its tendency to fade. Brazil was named for the trees, not vice versa!

Woad - Blue. Native to Northern Europe. Famous as the blue used by Celts for body-paint. Woad seeds were found in Medieval archaeological sites. Woad is a vat dye - a fermentation process must be used to fix the colors.

Indigo - Blue. Native to Middle East. Same chemical as woad (indigotin) but in greater quantities; same sort of dye process. Laws were passed in England to prevent indigo use to protect the woad industry.

Alkanet - Purple and grey. Native to Southern Europe. Also used as a red food dye.

Logwood - Purple and black (with other dyes). Native to Asia. Logwood didn't seem to gain popularity until 16-17th Century, but then became a very common black dye.

Dyes from Fungus:

Various mushrooms - Almost every color you can imagine. Most mushrooms yield yellows or dull browns, but some varieties yield blues, greens, reds, oranges, purples, and other colors. Difficult to impossible to tell if they were used historically.

Lichens - Range of colors; purple, orange, shades of tan and brown are most common. Lichens are actually a symbiotic arrangement between and algae and a fungus. Different lichens are native to different areas. Orchil, or purple lichen, has been positively identified in some Medieval finds.

Dyes from Animals:

Murex purple - purples, reds, and blue-violets from molluscs. The chemical components of mollusc dyes are very similar to indigo.

Kermes, lac and cochineal - brilliant reds and purples from bugs. Kermes is native to Southern Europe, Lac to the far east, and various cochineals to Poland and parts of the Americas

Sources for Archaeological Records of dyes:

Barber, Elisabeth J.W. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

  • 6000 BCE Catal Huyuk in Turkey - evidence that thread on which bone beads were strung was red. 
  • 4000 BCE Nahal Mishmar in Israel - red woolen cloth, poss. green cloth
  • 3000 BCE Adaouste in France - fragments dyed with kermes
  • 3000 BCE Swiss Lake Dwellers - "Brocaded" linen tapestries must have had color to make woven areas distinct
  • 2000 BCE Tell Quasileh in the Middle East - blue, white, and red fabric
  • 2000 BCE Egypt - Many red, yellow, blue, green, brown, black linens
  • 2500 BCE Roswinkel in Holland - red woolen belt and net
  • 1000 BCE Hallstatt, Austria

Crowfoot, Elisabeth; Pritchard, Frances; and Staniland, Kay. Textiles and Clothing c.1150-c.1450. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London, 4. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1992.

  • 1200's England -  brazilwood, kermes, yellow
  • 1300's CE England - madder, kermes, orchil, yellow (weld or greenweed, poss. others), woad
  • 1400's CE England - madder, woad

Dyes in History and Archaeology - Annual Conference proceedings. Various articles, mostly in English.

Walton, Penelope. Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York, Volume 17, Fascicule 11. York: York Archaeological Trust and the Council for British Archaeology, 1997. pp 1766-71.

Wild, J.P. Textile Manufacture in the Northern Roman Provinces. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Manuscripts containing dye recipes:

1st C. AD, Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Various reprints available. Refers to Egyptians as advanced dyers, with knowledge of mordanting and other dyeing secrets.

1122, Europe: Theophilus. On Divers Arts: The Foremost Medieval Treatise on Painting, Glassmaking and Metalwork. Reprint by John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith, trans. New York: Dover Publications, 1979.
This book does not really contain information on fabric dyes but is often listed as a source because of its information on paints and inks.

1300's Italy: Rebora, Giovanni. Un Manuale di Tintoria del Quottrocento. Milan: Dott. A. Guiffre Editore, 1970. In Italian.

1400's Italy: Trattato dell' Arte della Lana. Reprinted of original Italian in Doren, Alfred.  Die Florentiner Wollentuchindustrie. Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta'sche Buchhandlung Nachfolger, 1901.

1548 Italy: Rosetti, Gioanventura. The Plictho of Gioanventura Rosetti: Instructions in the Art of the Dyers which Teaches the Dyeing of Woolen Cloths, Linens, Cottons, and Silk by the Great Art as Well as by the Common. Reprint by S. M. Edelstein and HC Borghettym, trans. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969.

1615 England: Markham, Gervase. Available in reprint, Michael Best, Ed. The English Housewife. Buffalo, NY: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994.

1677 Germany: Ziegler, Marx. Weber Kunst und Bild Buch. Reprint in Ars Textrina, Vol 13.

Web Pages:

Thora Sharptooth's page on Early, Medieval, and Rennaissance dye recipes: http://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/dyelit.html

What the Irish Wore: Dyes and Dyeing http://www.reconstructinghistory.com/irish/dyes.html

Rowan's Woad Page: http://my.net-link.net/2E/EB/rowan/Woad%20Page/woadpage.html

The Dye Woorkes http://www.elizabethancostume.net/dyes/

Siobhan nicDhuinnshleibhe's A Brief History of Dyestuffs and Dyeing: http://kws.atlantia.sca.org/dyeing.html

Chris Cooksey's Ancient Dyes, Natural and Synthetic: http://www.chriscooksey.demon.co.uk/

Other Dyeing Bibliography Information

All content copyright the author, Jennifer Munson munson.jennifer@gmail.com The author makes no guarantees for instructions and recipes on this site; neither does she accept responsibility for their outcomes. Verbatim copies may be made for educational purposes only provided they contain original copyright marking.

This page created August 4, 2001

Last updated February 18, 2003