Medieval Dyeing

As a result of two different conversations this week I thought I’d have a look at dyeing. As we’ve seen before, people in fourteenth-century England loved colourful things, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they also liked to wear colourful clothes. Despite this many garments were retained their original colour, for example certain kinds of monks wore undyed habits and some poorer people wore outer garments that were undyed. This meant that their clothes were the colour of the sheep from whom their woollen clothes were made. Dyes were expensive, so some people made do with cheaper colours. The main colours worn by poorer people and people who lived in the countryside were grey, green, dark brown, brown-red and undyed. The wealthy wore bright blues, greens and reds. While I like grey, blues, greens and reds appeal a lot more.

Fabric could be dyed at various stages of the manufacturing process and wool could be died after it was spun or after it was woven. Many dyes were made from plants, some of which grew in England and some of which didn’t. Dyestuffs were imported into England and dyers couldn’t always get supplies regularly. They had to wait for merchants to turn up at fairs with the rarer dyes, which had to travel further than most people at the time could imagine.

Originally dyers were women and they continued to dye any fabric that they made for their own household to use. By the twelfth century, though, dying was almost exclusively a trade for men, since more refined and reliable dyes required a capital outlay that women were unlikely to be able to afford. Dyes were incredibly expensive, since many had to travel a long way to England and were classed as spices by merchants. Dyeing was a specialised trade and a dyer didn’t just have to understand dyes, but also fabrics and mordants (the fixatives). Different fabrics take dyes differently and even different weaves of the same fabric don’t take dye in the same way. I do embroidery (mostly cross stitch) and the difference in colour between a 32 count linen (32 threads to an inch) and a 46 count linen (46 threads to an inch) dyed in the same way came be immense.

Dying required a lot of water and dyers tended to live around sources of running water. The item to be dyed was soaked in hot water and was turned from time to time. Then the dye was added and the item was left to soak for a while. The two most common colours in England were red, made from madder root, and blue, from the woad leaf. Madder was grown in France and the Low Countries.  Woad dyes were cheaper, as the leaves could be picked a few times a year. Woad could also be used before other dyes on a yarn or a fabric, which presumably produced a deeper colour. Much of the woad used in England came from the area around Toulouse, but Lombard woad came into England through Southampton, which was also a main port for alum. Alum was used as a fixative for all colours and was also used to clean wool, so vast quantities were imported into England. It was mined in Asia Minor and most of it reached England via Genoa.

A more expensive form of red was kermes, which came from shield-lice around the Mediterranean. There is a certain amount of irony in people who were probably ridden with lice paying huge sums of money for fabric dyed with the bodies of lice. Female shield-lice were collected in late spring, killed and dried in the sun, before being crushed. It cost almost thirty times as much as madder.

Brazilwood was used for crimson and purple. Somewhat unexpectedly, the plant doesn’t take its name from the country, but the country takes its name from the plant as a tree similar to the one used in Europe for dyes was discovered by the Portuguese in South America.

Black was the most difficult colour to produce and only the rich had clothes that were truly black. It still remains a difficult colour to produce today. If I showed you my black embroidery threads, you would probably say that they’re not as black as they could be and no two manufacturers of embroidery thread produce the same black. It’s also a colour that fades more quickly than others. I can’t be the only person who’s gone to a funeral aware that my jacket and my skirt are not the same shade.

Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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29 responses to “Medieval Dyeing

  1. I worked in a garment factory years ago and one of the ongoing issues was making sure the shades of whatever color(s) they were using matched. It all got dizzyingly complicated, since many layers of cloth would be cut at the same time and the sleeves and body and trim for a shirt all had to come from the same layer or they’d be of subtly (or not so subtly) different shades.

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  2. It sounds very complicated, but quite fascinating.

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  3. I, too, prefer bright colors over earthy tones any day. My fave is blue, so at least it would have been cheaper than red!

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  4. Really interesting – I particularly liked the lice irony!

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  5. I had never heard of the lice and the colour kermes and Ive read a bit about pigments….so thanks for that April. Another fazscnating post.

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  6. You are correct – my funeral outfit of skirt, blouse and jacket – all in black – are each a different shade of black that is only noticeable, once they are all worn together, at once… 🙂

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      • P.S. – I recently watched the 2014 season of “Secrets of the Castle” (Amazon Prime) where historians, artisans, archeologists learn, work and build a medieval castle – and one episode, they showed making blue dye – from clipping/harvesting the woad in the garden, to making the woad balls, to urine saved (to stale/etc) etc., and how the various weaves/textures would accept the dye – :). Takes a lot of woad, urine, time to make BLUE! LOL –

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        • That’s a great series. I have it on DVD. It’s certainly not a quick (or hygienic) process.

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          • LOL – I really enjoyed the series. I’m always interested in ‘how it used to be done’ just to have the knowledge in my grey matter, as I assess garden plantings, etc. I have made kitchen soap out of mashed yucca root when and some essential oils for anti (this that and the other) early in COVID when supplies were short and I ran out before stores back in stock in the bulk buy I can afford to do – it worked, but I sure had to scrub harder!! That said, there are so many wonderful things I do, even in limited free time, given so many things that were nothing but a ‘pipe’ dream not so very long ago – that said? I just don’t know, for myself, if I were transported back in time, if I would work that hard for blue clothes for myself – to do the work/mark up and sell at high profit to others? Most likely – LOL

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            • I think I would. You couldn’t just sit around and read a book or watch television. You always had to be spinning or cooking or looking after the garden or making sure the children were alright or brewing ale or dying or going to the market or …

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              • Yes – so much of my life revolves around work/things I volunteer for at non-profits/and trying to fit in building a Garden Oasis/hold the line on the land/ecosystem, that there seems, some weeks, so little time to just read, or sit and think, dream, write – :). And yet, I know, on many fronts? So much of what I do is only possible because of the tools available to me to do it with – Not sure where job markets/labor markets are headed in the future – just think, April, we are living through a moment in history through tech and COVID thingees, that echos of the past during the 1348 plague sweep through Europe AND the early Industrial Revolution – WE are LIVING such things, right now! 😀

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          • P.S. That all said…I’m very grateful for now – – I’m on 12 bookcases full of cherished favorites and need to line another wall with more – – Thus, by ‘back then standards’ I’m wealthier than the king, right? (AND, I know how to read, TOO!). LOL

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            • I know. My ancestors would have been villeins and fishermen, so they probably never saw a book, let alone got to read one. They might have been able to read, though.

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              • I come from a long line of peasants/villeins that somehow managed to survive and procreate while living off grain gruel, the Plague, never ending war, etc. My aunt managed to trace my maternal side of heritage back to a man-at-arms in Rollo’s army, circa the 1060s? (I would have to dig out the binder of long ago family newsletters to dbl check the date/Army/Leader name) – That said, when doctors tell me to try ‘gluten free’ I just laugh – and say, “tried multiple times – and I’m miserable even after 2 weeks of strict observence” but then, I soak/sprout my grains, dry them, then grind into flour or soak overnight for porridge – cuz easy to do and closer to how they USED to be prepared – – LOL – – I don’t know always know which ways are best – what new things to adopt and which old ways to preserve, but fairly certain, given growing conditions needed? I won’t be growing acres of woad anytime soon – needs more water than I can see using for ‘dyes’ and not food/medicine – LOL

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                • Few things give me greater pleasure than eating things that I’ve grown myself. The slugs have been vicious this year, but I have plenty of courgettes (zucchini) and beans.

                  I won’t be growing woad either. We have the water, but I’d rather grow things I can eat.

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