The History of Fabric Dyes

By Marjorie Gilbert

When you look at cloth, you may take the color for granted. However, cloth did not start out with vivid blues or reds, but had to be dyed to attain those colors. The history of dying cloth is a long one and easily dates back to 2600 B,C,, its first recorded mention, and probably before that. As technology advanced, so did the method of dying cloth, making the history as rich as the history of civilization.

2600 B.C. to 55 B.C.

In the beginning, or at least in the beginning of the recorded history of dye, there were three major sources: indigo, woad and murex. The first two, indigo and woad, were and are plants. Indigo, which is from "indicum," a Latin word meaning "from India," is a dye that was used for many centuries and remains popular as a shade of blue today. The woad plant also creates a blue dye. One of the first notable records of its use was in 55 B.C. The Romans described how the Gauls (France today) used the plant to dye themselves blue. The most prized and expensive dye of this period was from murex, which is a kind of mollusk. When Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 331 B.C., he found purple robes in the capital's treasury that would have been worth millions in today's dollars. The dye sourced from murex is called purpura, from which the word "purple" is derived. India seemed to be an important place in the history of dye. Not only was it an important source for indigo, but also a source of innovation as well. As early as 330 B.C., records of Indian printed cotton appeared. Even today, fabrics from India are prized for their quality, not only for the cloth itself, but because of the quality of the dye.

Second Century A.D. to 10th Century

During this time, purpura, the dye sourced from murex, was still prized. In fact, the wife of Aurelian, Rome's emperor, wanted to buy purple robes dyed with purpura and was refused. Because of the high demand and over-harvesting of murex, a pound of cloth dyed with purpura could have been worth more than $20,000 in today's money. As might be expected, other methods of creating purple dye were eagerly being explored. The first of these imitation purple dyes was called "Stockholm Papyrus." It dates from the third century and was the oldest recipe for dye ever found. To complicate purple dye's history still further, Byzantium's emperor, Theodosium, declared the use of some purple dyes illegal upon "the pain of death" in 273 A.D. by anyone outside of the royal family. On another note, red dye from the roots of the madder plant was created near the end of this period, thereby broadening the availability of dye. The Chinese wrote about a wax-resistant dye called batik in the 700s. Today, the term batik is still used, though it may not necessarily refer to the method of using the wax-resistant dye.

1188 to 1500

In the 1200s, the practice of using lichens from Asia Minor to make purple dye was rediscovered by Rucellia in Florence, Italy. This was an important discovery, for it provided yet another source for the prized shade of purple. In the history of dye, the main source for dye was still plants. Woad, used to create blue dye, was still very much in use, and was grown quite a lot in Germany in 1290. The roots of the madder were still used to make red dye. To this list of plant-based dye, weld was added, for it was a source for yellow dye. 1321 marked the use of Brazilwood for dye to create coral, red, pink and purple shades. Needless to say, Brazilwood was far cheaper than murex.

1500 to 1700

Insects as a source of dye could be added to the timeline. Mayans used cochineal to create a crimson dye. Cochineal was created by grinding up insects, and it was valuable enough to be included as a tribute to their Spanish conquerors in the 16th century. Another dye sourced from insects was created during this time by Pope Paul II. He ground up the kermes insect to create "cardinal's purple" which was actually a scarlet dye. This dye became the new murex, or luxury dye, of that time. The use of plants as a source of dye was still important during this time. In 1507, France, Germany and the Netherlands turned the cultivation of plants to be used as dyes into an industry. More natural or plant-based sources dye appeared in England in the 1600s, such as dye from the logwood tree. During this time, a chemist in the Netherlands named Drebble created a red dye using a mixture of tin and cochineal. This marks a departure from relying on nature to be a source of dye. As the history of dye progressed, synthetic dyes were on the rise, and their use began to replace plant- and insect-based dyes.

1700 to 20th Century

The bleaching of cloth with seaweed was introduced in 1716 Scotland. This was an important first step in the practice of bleaching cloth. Near the end of the century, chlorine would take its place. Because indigo was expensive to import, England began growing the plant. However, the first blue dye sourced from chemicals would lessen the reliance on indigo as a source for blue dye. The first was Prussian Blue, which was created by mixing iron salt and prussite of potash in 1774 and aniline and bleaching powder to create bright blue in 1834. Even madder, used to create a blue dye, was replaced by a chemical called alizarian. Synthesized indigo completely replaced the use of natural indigo to create the vivid blue dye in the 1900s. William Henry Perkin made mauve-colored dye with aniline in 1856. In the history of dye, chemicals proved less expensive than the naturally sourced dyes and were more widely used. However, as more and more craftspeople return to the art of making cloth, they return to the art of creating dyes from natural sources as well.

About the Author

Marjorie Gilbert is a freelance writer and published author. An avid researcher, Gilbert has created an Empire gown (circa 1795 to 1805) from scratch, including drafting the gown's patterns by hand.