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.