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Medieval Dyes

See also Medieval Colors A gallery showing samples of materials dyed with natural Medieval Dyes.

Colour Magic, Dyer’s Art or Academic Science

Hanna E. H. Martinsen (University of Toronto) Textile Dyeing: Colour Magic, Dyer’s Art or Academic Science

The myth that the French Gobelin family had made a pact with the Devil to achieve a brilliant scarlet red manifests the concept of textile dyeing as a magical process. Some early dye manuals were written in code and clearly illustrate the secrecy that surrounded both the recipes as well as the dye-methods. Our concept of textile dyeing as a dyer’s art are strengthened by Captain Beaulieu’s important report from 1735 to M. Dufay, who probably was the French inspector of dye-works, describing methods used in India for mordant printing textiles. However, in the eighteenth century, scientists contributed extensively to further European knowledge of both textile dyeing and printing. The French chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet’s work guided the textile bleaching- and dyeing- industries from a craft based tradition towards a science-based industry. His publication, Elements de l’art de la teinture, corresponded with a traditional dye manual and also introduced a scientific evaluation. Berthollet’s theoretical research on oxymuriatic acid led to the development of a totally new bleaching process, which reduced bleaching time as well as the demand for bleaching fields. However, he used two respected and successful textile-printing companies to conduct the practical trials; Haussmann’s in Logelback outside of Colmar and Oberkampf’s in Jouy-en-Josas near Versailles. Both companies had a special connection to academic science; Jean-Michel Haussmann had studied at college des apothicaires in Paris before joining the family factory, while Oberkampf sent his nephew to study with Berthollet and Berthollet’s son practiced at Oberkampf’s factory.

Dyes from Plants:


Source Color Description
Alkanet Purple and grey Native to Southern Europe. Also used as a red food dye.
Brazilwood (sappanwood) Red 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!
Buckthorn berries Yellow native to Europe. Mentioned in Medieval texts.
Dyer's Greenweed Yellow same chemical as weld (luteolin). Native to Northern Europe. Luteolin has been identified in Medieval textiles.
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.
Kermes Brilliant Reds and Purples 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
Lichens purple, orange, tan and brown 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.
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. The molecule that is the Logwood dye can exist in three different forms, depending on how much oxygen has been incorporated into it. Logwood is an "indicator" color, one that changes with the pH of the solution. Thus adding either acid or alkali to the dyebath can modify the hue obtained. Because the iron-Logwood combination has such a pronouncedly blue tone, iron-Logwood can be used to turn yellows and golds into lovely soft greens. Compounding mordants by adding tin or alum in with the iron gives very fashionable lavender grays. Dyeing with Logwood
Luteolin Yellow same chemical as weld (luteolin) and Dyer's Greenweed. Native to Northern Europe. Luteolin has been identified in Medieval textiles.
Madder, Madderwort Red 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.
Mushrooms mainly yellow or dull brown, some varieties blues, greens, reds, oranges, purples, and other colors Difficult to impossible to tell if they were used historically.
Murex purple purples, reds, and blue-violets From mollusks. The chemical components of mollusc dyes are very similar to indigo.
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.
Sappanwood (Brazilwood) Red 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!
Weld Yellow Native to Northern Europe. Weld seeds have been found in various archaeological sites.
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.

Medieveal Dye Details

Cetraria aculeata brown wool Scotland and canary Islands
Cetraria fahlunensis red - brown wool Europe
Cetraria glauca chamois color wool
Cetraria juniperina yellow wool Scandinavia
Cetraria nivalis violet wool .
Cetraria pinastri green wool Europe
Cladina rangiferina iron-red wool Europe
Cladonia coccifera red - purple wool Europe
Cladonia fimbriata red wool.  
Cladonia gracilis ash - green wool.  
Cladonia pyxidata ash - green wool.
Dermatocarpon miniatum ash - green wool Europe
Lecanora calcarea red- brown wool Sweden
Lecanora parella violet wool France and Great Britain
Lecanora tartarea red or crimson .. Sweden and Scotland 1
Lobaria pulmonaria orange - brown wool Scandinavia, Great Britain
Lobaria scrobiculata brown wool Scotland and Scandinavia
Nephroma parile blue wool Scotland
Ochrolechia tartarea reddish brown. Scotland
Parmelia acetabulum orange - brown wool Northern Ireland
Parmelia caperata yellow
Parmelia caperata orange -brown to yellow Isle of Man
Parmelia centrifuga red - brown wool Europe
Parmelia conspersa brown    
Parmelia conspersa red - brown wool England
Parmelia olivacea brown wool Great Britain
Parmelia omphalodes deep brown    
Parmelia omphalodes purple, Red -brown wool.
Parmelia physodes brown wool Scandinavia, Scotland
Parmelia stygia brown wool Great Britain
Peltigera canina iron -red wool Europe
Physcia pulverulenta yellow wool Europe
Ramalina calicaris yellow -red wool Europe
Ramalina cuspidata light brown wool Europe
Ramalina farinacea light brown wool Europe
Ramalina scopulorum yellow - brown to red brown wool Scotland
Rhizocarpon geographicum brown wool Scandinavia
Roccella Orchil, purple    
Stereocaulon paschale ash - green wool Europe
Sticta crocata brown wool Europe

Source: Historic Enterprises

Sources of Dye information

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Last edited August 15, 2011 (history)

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