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Tartan Ferret

Traditional Dyeing

Part Science. . . part history. . . part literature. This is just one (1932) excerpt from the fascinating and erudite essays of Edward S. Harrison written over a period of 33 years. If you're a Member,   Click here for the complete collection 

Take a look at the foot of the page at natural dyeing today.

Photograph of Mr Edward S Harrison

Man has loved colour from earliest times. Julius C aesar narrates that in Britain our ancestors stained their bodies blue with woad or weld. The Bible tells of garments dyed with the juices of grapes and berries, and the coveted coat of Joseph showed what a large range of colours the designers had. Analysis of mummy cloths shows that the Egyptians were learned in the use of the metallic salts of aluminium and iron, and that they dyed scarlet on wool treated with alum, with the bodies of insects known as kermes - the Mediterranean equivalent of cochineal. The juice of a species of shellfish dyed the Royal Tyrean Purple, whence the term, " born in the purple." Indigo has been used in the East for thousands of years, yet today it is still a standard for maximum fastness to light, although it is made synthetically and the method of application improved. The Romans procured the yellow dye " saffron " from crocus plants, and early peoples produced several kinds of red shades with madder root, using different metallic salts to vary the shade, a process improved into the great modern Turkey Red Trade of the Clyde Valley . Other vegetable dyes remained, or still remain, of great importance to industry. Log-wood or Campeachy wood which with chromium or iron salts yields a beautiful black, not yet completely displaced by synthetic dyes of greater fastness but inferior tone. Cutch, extracted from the acacia and the areca of India , dyes brown, and is used by the herring fishers to produce the picturesque brown nets and sails, so loved of artists, partly for its colour, partly as a preservative. Cudbear and orchil, made from certain of the lichens of Europe, Africa, and South America , produce shades of red and yellow. Yellows are well represented. Flavine is made from quercitron bark from one of the American oaks, quercus tinctoria, and fustic from a South American tree, morus tinctoria.

Amongst the animal dyes cochineal is much the most important, and for long was the most beautiful and brilliant red known. As we write we have before us a translation, dated London 1789, from the French of Hellot on the " Art of Dyeing," in which the author speaks of having " a small quantity from Amsterdam undoubtedly 130 years old ; they are, nevertheless, as entirely perfect as if they had but just arrived from Vera Cruz." The author goes on to speak of the wild cochineal gathered by the Indians in the woods of Old and New Mexico from the cactus plants. It is very tempting to quote from such old books. There is a lot of interest in the sidelights - sales of shipwrecked lots " by some mischance damaged with sea water, at Cadiz " ; the buying of tin from Cornwall for the preparation of the bath; and how the Levant bought scarlet cloths from Carcassonne and Languedoc - dyed in the piece, "five pieces of cloth at the same time."
In these days dyeing was a separate trade of great skill - as with the old painters, the dyers had to prepare all their dyes from the raw materials, a slow and uncertain process. Good dyeing was looked upon as so important that "True" and "False" dyeing was recognised and classified by the French Governments of the eighteenth century, and very closely regulated. Some day perhaps we may be allowed to go back along these interesting old tracks and alleys of ancient commerce, but not till we have cleared a lot of ground.

It is interesting to study how the early Scots gained the variety of dyes necessary for the colouring of the tartans for their plaids and kilts. We find at first these colours were all indigenous, natural products. The bark of the alder tree and the dock root produced Black. Tops of the currant bush with alum, bilberries (known in Scotland as blaeberries), dulse, and crotal were used for Browns. Dulse is a common shore seaweed, also used as food, and sold by the fishwives of our coast towns along with oysters and fresh herring. Crotal is the common name for several kinds of lichens that grow on the rocks. It is to them that real Harris tweeds chiefly owe their characteristic smell. Cup moss yielded Purple; dandelions. Magenta; blaeberries and alum with club moss produced Blue ; wild cress, Violet; whin or gorse bark, broom, and knapweed gave a Green; bracken - the coarse rough fern that covers many miles of our Highland hills and supplies bedding for the crofters' cattle - and heather supplied a Yellow; and white crotal was used for Red. In later years the hues of the tartans have become darker, but there is still a demand for vegetable shades.

The discovery of a synthetic dyestuff, a mauve, by Perkin in 1856, was epoch-making in its effect on dyeing. Perkin, a young chemist, was trying to discover a new method of producing quinine when he found this colouring matter. By consulting several dyers he was encouraged to make further investigations, and later started to manufacture "Perkin's Mauve", the first aniline dyestuff. It may be noted that an issue of postage stamps in Queen Victoria 's reign was coloured by this dyestuff. This included the penny stamp with the oval portrait of the Queen, which remained longer in use than any other stamp in the whole history of philately.
Perkin's mauve was soon followed by others, of which the most memorable was called Magenta. This gives us a useful date to remember. On 4th June 1859 the Austrians in full retreat before the French made a determined stand at Magenta. Just a few days later was fought Solferino, another doubtful battle of extreme bloodiness, also commemorated in the naming of a dye. This short and confused war ended in the destruction of the Austrian rule in Lombardy, and the Riviera Coast , Nice, and Savoy were handed over to the French as the price of their help in the liberation of Italy.

The next important discovery was the diazo reaction in 1876 by Peter Griess. This made the manufacture of a large range of colours possible, dyes adapted for both cotton and wool, and even today the number of new colours of this "azo" group seems unlimited.
Then came the synthesis of alizarine to supplant the old madder root, which placed at the disposal of the dyer a large range of colours of superior fastness to the natural dyes. The Scottish Woollen Industry was quick to grasp their importance, which did much to foster the Scotch Tweed Trade and keep for it the highest reputation for quality. Science continued her march, and about 1887 "azo" dyes were actually produced on the fibre, involving a new principle in dyeing, and converting willy-nilly those dyers who used this process, into actual colour makers.

Then came the improvement of the alizarine dyes, which had involved a two-bath process, by the introduction of the metachrome colours, a single-bath process. These demanded that to get successful results the dyer must understand the chemical reactions taking place in the dye-bath.
In 1901, as the result of much research, a new family of vat colours was added to the market. These compared favourably with the sole vat dye, indigo, as regards fastness, and required a sound knowledge of the necessary chemistry to apply these. The vat colours presented a difficulty too, in that they were insoluble in water and required special preparation to render them soluble, but in 1920 an attempt to remove this drawback of insolubility proved successful by the manufacture of Caledon Jade-Green, a triumph of British colour chemistry. It is curious that though Nature for the most part has chosen garments of green and blue, these have proved the most elusive for the colour-maker.

This resumé illustrates that dyeing has been greatly simplified, yet latterly the demand upon the chemical knowledge of the dyer has increased. The various fibres are dyed in several stages of their manufacture from the raw material to the woven cloth, and with many hundred dyestuffs on the market, the status of the dyer has been raised. True, the old secrecy of recipes has passed away, but no recipe, however perfect, has made a dyer.
No dyed shade is absolutely fast, for fastness is only relative, but good dyed shades are fast compared with most "natural" colours. "Natural" colours of wools and hairs are rarely even fairly fast. You have only to remember the faded locks on dark sheep, or the light golden colour of the ends of the children's hair at the seaside. A story is told of one of our old Scots dyers put "on the mat" for a complaint of fading of a slate grey : "If the Loard canna dye a cuddy a guid fast shade, hoo dae ye expect me tae manage it?"

The range of fastness for which the dyer must cater is wide and varied. A lady's evening dress is never exposed to daylight, and the only process it may pass through is dry-cleaning, and thus quite a fugitive dye may be fast enough for such fabrics. On the contrary a naval uniform is exposed to the most severe conditions - sunlight, sea air - and even the fastest colours known gradually suffer with such exposure. Again, dyed linings do not require to stand the severe laundry treatment of shirtings, and so different sections of the dyeing industry have different standards of fastness.

The chemist has greatly changed the dyer's trade, has indeed destroyed widespread industries and created new ones. The old plants, anil and pastel, have long ceased to fill the fields of Languedoc and Provence . The synthesis of aniline has taken the place of the indigo with which Burma had already destroyed them. Cochineal and kermes insects with their wingless wives live undisturbed on the cactus of Mexico , and the dwarf oaks and ilex groves of the Mediterranean , and alizarine reds reign in their stead, distilled from plants that lived long ago when coal was green.

Don't go away . . . . !

Eva Lamberof Shilasdair on the Isle of Skye is a gifted natural dyer and is the only known commercial natural dyer that we know of in the United Kingdom and even further afield. So she's a 'Natural Dyer' and a 'Commercial Dyer.'

So if we just give you a few taster photographs here, you will then be sorely tempted to click through and read more about her and her operation in our Feature Pages.

Eva Lambert of Shilasdair   Eva Lambert collecting lichen on Skye

Woman hanging wet wool on a fence to dry.


A Highland woman dyeing yarn by the side of a loch.


Women gathering lichen from a large rock.


1949 - woman dyeing yarn outside.



A dye brew of berries.

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