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History of Herbal Dyes 2018-02-09T13:07:39+00:00

History of Herbal Dyeing

Ever since primitive people could create, they have been endeavouring to add colour 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, the man began to produce and use textiles, and would, therefore, add colour to them as well. Although scientists have not yet been able to pinpoint an exact time where adding colour to fibres 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.

Ingredients & history: Blues

Blue colourants around the world were derived from indigo dye-bearing plants, primarily those in the genus Indigofera, which are native to the tropics. The primary commercial indigo species in Asia was true indigo. India is believed to be the oldest centre of indigo dyeing in the Old World. It was a primary supplier of indigo dye to Europe as early as the Greco-Roman era. The association of India with indigo is reflected in the Greek word for the dye, which was indikon (ινδικόν). The Romans used the term indicum, which passed into Italian dialect and eventually into English as the word indigo. In Central and South America, the important blue dyes were Añil and Natal indigo

Ingredients & history: Reds 

Turkey red was a strong, very fast red dye for cotton obtained from madder root via a complicated multistep process involving “sumac and oak galls, calf’s blood, sheep’s dung, oil, soda, alum, and a solution of tin. Turkey red was developed in India and spread to Turkey. Greek workers familiar with the methods of its production were brought to France in 1747, and Dutch and English spies soon discovered the secret. A sanitised version of Turkey red was being produced in Manchester by 1784, and roller-printed dress cotton with a Turkey red ground was fashionable in England by the 1820s. Munjeet or Indian madder is native to the Himalayas and other mountains of Asia and Japan. Munjeet was an important dye for the Asian cotton industry and is still used by craft dyers in Nepal.

Ingredients & history: Yellows 

Yellow dyes are “about as numerous as red ones”, and can be extracted from saffron, pomegranate rind, turmeric, safflower, onionskins, and a number of weedy flowering plants. Limited evidence suggests the use of weld, also called mignonette or dyer’s rocket before the Iron Age, but it was an important dye of the ancient Mediterranean and Europe and is indigenous to England. Two brilliant yellow dyes of commercial importance in Europe from the 18th century are derived from trees of the Americas: quercitron from the inner bark of oaks native to North America and fustic from the dyer’s mulberry tree of the West Indies and Mexico.

Ingredients & history: Pink

A variety of plants produce red dyes, including a number of lichens, henna, alkanet or dyer’s bugloss, asafoetida and Rubia tinctorum. Madder and related plants of the Rubia family are native to many temperate zones around the world and have been used as a source of good red dye (rose madder) since prehistory. Madder has been identified on linen in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and Pliny the Elder records madder growing near Rome. Madder was a dye of commercial importance in Europe, being cultivated in Holland and France to dye the red coats of military uniforms. Madder was also used to dye the “hunting pinks” of Great Britain.

Ingredients & history: Blacks

During the course of the 15th century, the civic records show brilliant reds falling out of fashion for civic and high-status garments in the Duchy of Burgundy in favour of dark blues, greens, and most importantly of all, black. The origins of the trend for sombre colours are elusive but are generally attributed to the growing influence of Spain and possibly the importation of Spanish merino wools. The trend spread in the next century: the Low Countries, German states, Scandinavia, England, France, and Italy all absorbed the sobering and formal influence of Spanish dress after the mid-1520s. Producing fast black in the Middle Ages was a complicated process involving multiple dyeing with woad or indigo followed by mordanting, but at the dawn of Early Modern period, a new and superior method of dying black dye reached Europe via Spanish conquests in the New World. The new method used logwood, a dyewood native to Mexico and Central America. Although logwood was poorly received at first, producing a blue inferior to that of woad and indigo, it was discovered to produce a fast black in combination with a ferrous sulphate(copperas) mordant. Despite changing fashions in colour, logwood was the most widely used dye by the 19th century, providing the sober blacks of formal and mourning clothes.

Ingredients & history: Greens 

If plants that yield yellow dyes are common, plants that yield green dyes are rare. Both woad and indigo have been used since ancient times in combination with yellow dyes to produce shades of green. Medieval and Early Modern England was especially known for its green dyes. The dyers of Lincoln, a great cloth town in the high Middle Ages, produced the Lincoln green cloth associated with Robin Hood by dyeing wool with woad and then over-dyeing it yellow with weld or dyer’s greenweed, also known as dyer’s broom. Woollen cloth mordanted with alum and dyed yellow with dyer’s greenweed was over-dyed with woad and, later, indigo, to produce the once-famous Kendal green. This, in turn, fell out of fashion in the 18th century in favour of the brighter Saxon green, dyed with indigo and Fustic.