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AN HISTORICAL OVERVIEW OF DYES, DYING, AND FABRIC COLORS IN THE RENAISSANCE
By Lady Anastasia
Reprinted from The Renaissance Herald

The column this month is devoted to COLOR. Rules abound in the faire circuit regarding who should wear what colors, and who should NOT wear certain colors. These rules sometimes seem contradictory, or based on vague references that have gained mythical proportions. I am often asked if a certain color is "period" or if it is appropriate to a particular station. I have wondered myself, upon occasion, if certain gowns I have observed at faire might be of a color that more closely resembled hues observed in certain 20th century tube shaped signage then in a village shire or lofty court of the 16th century. Consequently, I have made a study of what kinds of colors were available during medieval and renaissance times and their relative costs, as well as how difficult they were to obtain. The results surprised me somewhat.

Dyes of the Renaissance may be divided into two categories: Those that were expensive, difficult to obtain and required artisans and craftsmen to achieve satisfactory results, and those that were inexpensive, easy to obtain, and could be used at home or in the local village. However, to my surprise, all the bright and beautiful colors do not belong to just that first category. An assortment of vibrant, lively colors were obtained from the local flora of England, France, Spain, Holland, and the surrounding countries.

The fastness of these vegetable dyes, (that is, how long the dyes stayed bright after wearings and washings), varied greatly according to each dyers experience with mordants, (substances used to fix the dye to the fabric), and the fastness of the dye yielded from the plant materials. No general "dyers guide", nor any formal method of passing on information regarding the experience gained from each dyer's trials and errors was available, even to guild members, until the "Plicto of Gioanventura Rosetti" was published in 1548.

Of course this valuable volume was not available to peasants of the countryside. So, needless to say, results of the home dyer were rather uneven. However, a wide and exciting variety of yellows, oranges, and golds, violets, pinks, and greens both bright and dark, as well as black are mentioned as readily available from local plant materials. These colors, while not as harsh and electric as our present synthetic dyes can be, were, never-the-less, bright and beautiful. There are many fine natural dye manuals available with color photos indicating the beauty and variety of these vegetable dyes, and, since Pat and Tom decided to "pass" on my suggestion of a full color glossy insert, (which would raise the cost of the Herald a mere $10.00 per copy this one time only), I refer you to the list in the bibliography at the end of this article.

A word about black. It has long been held in the renaissance community I associate with that black was a color almost exclusively worn by those of higher stations. I have heard that this is because this deep color is difficult and expensive to achieve. My reading on the subject does not seem to substantiate this reasoning. Black is documented as being achieved by many different but simple methods, using many different kinds materials, including oak galls, human urine, blackberry leaves, and lime, all of which are inexpensive and readily available all over Europe. Although purple, blue, and red are mentioned in every text I read as being expensive colors reserved for the rich, black was not listed anywhere in this category of reserved colors. Although more information is available as to the colors worn by the higher classes then those worn by the lower, and what is available seems to indicate that peasants chose brown over black, and nobles and royalty more often wore black, it seems that this may be a matter of fashion rather then economics. If anyone out there has one or more references disputing this conclusion, please do come forth to enlighten us further on the subject.

The colors that were at a premium were purple, blue, and certain bright shades of red. These dyes required skills of trained craftsmen and artisans to use and the methods of extraction and fixing were secrets closely held by the weaver's guilds and, later, the dyers' guilds.

The purple that was so valuable was called Tyrian purple and it isn't the royal purple we think of. It was a plum color and it was obtained from the "ink sacks" of a particular muscle native to the Mediterranean area. It took tremendous numbers of shells and untold manual labor, (to crack the shells and extract the tiny sack which contained only a few drops of liquid each), to obtain just a pound of dyestuff. One ounce cost the equivalent of 3000 pounds sterling in today's money. Only royalty, and high clergy, could afford such extravagance. Thus comes the phrase "born to the purple". But remember, this was a plum color more towards the red end of the spectrum. The purple we visualize when we think of "royal purple" is more towards the blue end of the spectrum. This and lovely violet and lavender shades were more easily and inexpensively achieved through the use of cheap local plants such as whortleberry, anchusa, and black currant.

Blue came chiefly from two sources, woad and indigo. Some other local plants produced a blue but they were evidently not very bright or fast. Woad was indigenous to England, but the process of extracting the dye from the plant was unbelievably long, complicated, labor intensive, and smelly, as it included many weeks of fermenting in manure, which had to be constantly stirred. (Queen Elizabeth forbade the processing of woad within a five mile radius of any royal estates because she so abhorred the stench.) Thus, the only reliable source for blue color in England was very expensive. "One barrel of woad could be used to dye three pieces of cloth. A burgher's wife might pay as much for one dress as might buy a small house."1

Indigo had been around for several thousand years before the Romans discovered the Picts using woad to paint their bodies to scare their enemies in battle. (The wore pict means "paint", and the word Briton comes from the celtic word for "paint".) "Although woad makes a faster dye, it is not so bright or clear as indigo, which was much sought after when it was introduced into Europe by the Dutch in the sixteenth century."2 But, when trade in Indigo began to threaten the English, French, and German woad industry, the importation of Indigo was forbidden in these countries. This ban was not lifted until the 17th century. Indigo was not only beautiful, it was very fast to light and water, rare qualities in natural dyes. Add to this the major restrictions on import and use, and one can see why it was an expensive dye.

Rich, deep, long lasting reds came from two sources, madder and kermes. Madder comes from the root of the madder plant, and was the principle dye used to achieve the bright red of the infamous red wool coats of the British Army in the 18th century. Kermes comes from the dried and crushed bodies of insects cultivated along the Mediterranean. A piece of leather dyed with kermes which was recently excavated from an Egyptian tomb was found to be as bright red as newly dyed material. Kermes is expensive because, not only is it bright and fast, but it required so many thousands of little insect bodies to produce just a small amount of dye, and it had to be imported from the Mediterranean. Madder was expensive because its cultivation was extremely painstaking, (requiring three years to grow and ten years for the ground to lie fallow), and the process of extracting the very bright Turkey Red was, besides being a closely held secret, very long and complicated.

So, from these glimpses of the factors influencing the coloring of medieval and renaissance garb, we can deduce that, although the lower classes may have had a variety of colors available to them, bright red, plum purple, and most shades of blue were not among them. We must also remember that all dye processes were somewhat time consuming and labor intensive, and the results were often uneven and not well fixed. The lower classes were probably too overworked to attend to the dying and re-dying of their daily garb.

"The grey and ruined remains of medieval buildings give little clue to the brilliance of colour that must once have blazed from every vantage-point. From manuscripts of the period we can visualize the brilliant hangings and tapestries in strong colours that hung on the walls, the dazzingly bright costumes and the superbly patterned trimmings for animals, pageants, jousts and almost anything else that could be decorated. Although much of this colour was in simple, plain, clear shades, the duller and greyer colours were reserved for working dress. For holidays and State occasions costume from the twelfth century onwards became more and more enriched with contrasting stripes and colours."3

The list of colors the rich could afford and did wear everyday is quite extensive. Pale blue, deep blue, violet, peacock blue, rich deep green, rose, purple, wine, orange, grey green, yellow, grey blue, sandalwood, lilac, gold, and pink are some of the colors mentioned as being worn by those of higher stations in Turner Wilcox's "The Mode In Costume". (This book is also an excellent source for exciting and beautiful combinations of colors and fabrics for those looking for inspiration for their "upper class" costumes.)

As to the decision regarding brilliance of hue, I believe one would be safe in choosing colors which were deep, rich, and vibrant, if one avoids harsh, over-bright "synthetic" shades. Again, I refer readers to the publications noted below that include color photos of vegetable dyed yarns.

I would appreciate further input on this subject from Herald readers. There may be experienced weavers and dyers out there who have helpful or even contrary references. Write to me and I will be glad to pass along your collected wisdom to my readership.

Bibliography

  • A History of Dyed Textiles, Stuart Robinson, M.I.T. Press, 1969
  • The Complete Illustrated Book of Dyes From Natural Sources, Arnold and Connie Krochmal, Doubleday & Co., 1974
  • Dyes From Plants, Seonaid M. Robertson, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1973
  • The Plictho of Gioanventura Rosetti, translated by Sidney M. Edelstein and Hector C. Borghetty, M.I.T. Press

    (the following two books have excellent illustrations of colors resulting from vegetable dyes)

  • Nature's Colors, Daniel Grae, MacMillan Publishing Co., 1974
  • Ancient Dyes for Modern Weavers, Palmy Weigle, Watson Geptal Publishing, 1974


1 Dyes from Plants, Seonaid M. Robertson, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1973.
2 Ibid
3 A History of Dyed Textiles, Stuart Robinson, M.I.T. Press, 1969

 

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