Archive for the ‘General Dye Information’ Category

Anglo-Saxon colours from oak leaves and acorns

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Although walnut hulls are often the dye of choice for browns, I decided to use oak leaves and acorns in my tests, because the walnut tree is not native to Britain and walnuts may not have been widely available during the early Anglo-Saxon period. I harvested the acorns and oak leaves in early Autumn and dried the leaves before use. As oak leaves and acorns are rich in tannin, no mordant is needed.

The first photo below shows colours from oak leaves. An alum or clubmoss mordant produced slightly more yellowish colours and a tannin mordant made the colours deeper. An alkaline modifier increased the depth of these colours. Mid-grey was achieved on unmordanted fibres modified in iron and a very dark grey was achieved on tannin-mordanted fibres modified in iron.

The second photo below shows colours from acorns. The comments on mordants and modifiers, made above for oak leaves, also apply to acorns. The  dark grey was achieved on tannin-mordanted fibres modified in iron.


Anglo-Saxon dyes – lichen purple

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Lichens of the species Ochrolechia and Umbilicaria give beautiful brilliant purple and red shades when treated in stale urine or a solution of water and ammonia and no mordant is required for these dyes. This purple colour seems to have been used relatively rarely by the Anglo-Saxons, probably because the lichens needed to produce it only occur in restricted regions of Britain, mainly in the North and West in hilly areas or rocky, coastal districts

Analysis of the dyes used in textiles from the early Anglo-Saxon period shows that purples from lichens were used in embroidery, narrow woven bands and accessories, such as bags and headdresses, rather than to dye larger fabrics. Bearing in mind the scarcity of purple-producing lichens in southern and eastern England, this is perhaps not surprising.



This photo gives some indication of the beautiful purples available from lichens but does not do justice to the brilliance of these colours, which sadly are not very lightfast.




I do not recommend using lichens for dyeing, except in very small test dyebaths, as lichens grow very slowly and may take a long time to regenerate. Lichens should never be harvested indiscriminately and some may be protected species and should never be gathered. It is very important to be sure you have correctly identified each lichen before even considering collecting any. However, even a small piece of lichen the size of a large coin can yield enough purple dye for most test purposes.

Purple-producing lichens are prepared by soaking them in stale urine or in a solution of 2 parts water to 1 part ammonia. Use a strong glass jar with a  well-fitting lid and shake or stir the solution every day. It can take several weeks for the purple colour to develop. When the solution is a rich purple in colour, strain off the liquid into a dye pot and add the fibres to be dyed, plus more water if necessary. If you have used ammonia, make sure not to inhale any of the rather unpleasant fumes. (Stale urine can be equally unpleasant, of course!) Then heat the solution gently to simmering point and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Take great care when heating the solution, as ammonia can catch fire very easily. Then allow the fibres to steep in the solution overnight. Then remove the fibres, squeeze the excess liquid back into the pot and re-use the solution until it is exhausted.

If the dyed fibres are steeped in an acidic modifier (for example in a solution of clear vinegar and water) they will become redder in tone. Using an alkaline modifier, such as wood-ash-water, will make the fibres more purple in tone.

The 4th skein from the left in the photo below shows some of the variations from acid and alkaline modifiers.




Anglo-Saxon dyes – weld and dyer’s broom

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Weld (Reseda luteola) and dyer's broom (Genista tinctoria) were used by Anglo-Saxon dyers for yellows and remain in use today because of their reliability. Yellow tends to be the natural-dye colour that fades most rapidly but yellows from weld have better fastness properties than most other yellow dyes. Dyer's broom has similar dye pigments to weld and also has good fastness.

The first photo below shows colours from dyer's broom and the second photo shows colours from weld. (Note: the difference in depth of colour between these two dyes is because I used a higher percentage of dyer's broom than of weld. If the same percentage of each dye is used, I would usually expect very similar depths of colour to result.)

Using an alum mordant gives the brightest yellows and clubmoss mordant produces very similar shades. If these dyes are used without a mordant the colour is considerably less bright. However, if an alkaline modifier is applied to these unmordanted dyed fibres, by soaking them in wood-ash-water, the colour becomes almost identical to the yellow achieved on an alum mordant. So, even if early dyers did not have access to mineral alum, they would still have been able to achieve bright, clear yellows from weld and dyer's broom.

The use of tannin as a mordant makes the colours deeper than they would have been without a mordant but this yellow lacks brilliance.

The use of an iron modifier after dyeing produces moss green shades on all fibres, although the green achieved on unmordanted fibres and those mordanted with tannin is duller.



Anglo-Saxon dyes – Madder

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is one of the most ancient dyes and a particularly useful and reliable source of red. Other plants in the madder family (Rubiaceae) include the native plants lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum), wild madder (Rubia peregrina), hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo), dyer’s woodruff (Asperula tinctoria) and woodruff (Galium odoratum).

Although madder (Rubia tinctorum) was available during the Roman period, it seems to have been replaced during the early Anglo-Saxon period by the native Rubiaceae (for example:lady’s bedstraw and wild madder). This suggests that the Romans imported madder as a dried dyestuff, rather than growing it in Britain, and that it disappeared with the departure of the Romans. There is evidence that madder began to be imported from France in the 7th century and by the later Anglo-Saxon period it had become a very common dye.

The analysis of dyes in textiles of the early Anglo-Saxon period seems to indicate that reds, like purples, were mainly used for narrow woven bands, headdresses, embroideries and accessories, such as bags, rather than for larger fabrics. Where dyes were used in larger fabrics (and dyes were detected in only one-third of the larger fabrics analysed) these were mainly dyes that give shades of yellow, blue and brown, plus green from blue and yellow dyes used in combination. It is also possible that, at least in the early Anglo-Saxon period, reds and purples were colours reserved for people of high status.

An alum mordant is necessary for true reds from madder (Rubia tinctorum) and reds achieved on a clubmoss mordant are very similar to those achieved on fibres mordanted with mineral alum. Without a mordant, madder gives colours in the orange to coral range and using a tannin mordant gives similar but slightly deeper colours. An alkaline modifier, such as wood-ash-water, makes the colours pinker in tone and an iron modifier makes the colours browner. The addition of chopped crab apples to the dyebath makes the colours brighter.

The first photo below shows a range of shades from madder (Rubia tinctorum)

In my experience it is not easy to obtain true rich reds from lady’s bedstraw, wild madder, dyer’s woodruff and woodruff. I grew all these for several years in my old garden but never managed to get the sort of red obtained from madder, also grown in my garden. The use of an alkaline (wood-ash-water) modifier moves these colours further towards red and an iron modifier makes the colours browner. I intend to continue experimenting with these dyes in the madder family – if, that is, I can grow enough roots to make the tests worth the effort. Lady’s bedstraw grows wild at the sides of many country roads in this area but it is against the law to uproot wild plants, so I shall have to rely on my home-grown plants and it will be a while before they are mature enough to harvest.

The second photo below shows colours from wild madder roots (upper left), wild madder dried tops (4 samples at lower left) and lady’s bedstraw (right)

The third photo shows colours from woodruff roots (Galium odoratum)



Anglo-Saxon mordants

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

This is the next post about my Anglo-Saxon-style experiments.

Today’s natural dyers tend to use mainly aluminium mordants and sometimes iron and copper, which may also be used after dyeing as colour modifiers. Chrome, which was not introduced as a mordant until the 19th century, has been popular among some dyers but is avoided by many nowadays because of its toxicity. Similarly tin, which was first used as a mordant in the 17th century (mainly with cochineal to produce bright reds) is now less frequently used, partly because of environmental considerations and partly because it can make fibres brittle. Copper was used by early dyers in the Mediterranean world and also in India in the classical period AD300 – 700 but, of the metallic mordants mentioned above, only alum and iron seem to have been used by the Anglo-Saxons. It is also possible that pots made of metals, such as iron or bronze, may have been used as dyepots and this may have had an effect on the colours. However, the only evidence of dyestuffs staining pots in the early Anglo-Saxon period occurred in pots made of clay and dyeing may have frequently been carried out in clay pots, which would probably not have had a significant effect on the colours produced.

Many of the dyes used by Anglo-Saxon dyers will fix adequately without a mordant and I think it is likely that many fibres would have been dyed in this way. Some textile fragments from the period show evidence of an alum mordant and mineral alum from the Mediterranean was probably used during the later Anglo-Saxon period. However, there is some doubt as to whether this mineral alum would have been available earlier in the period, so alternative mordants may have been used, such as aluminium extracted from clubmosses. Plants rich in tannins, such as oak galls and blackberry leaves and shoots, may also have been used as mordants.

In my experiments I tested most dyes in the following ways:

  • Without a mordant
  • With a 10% mineral alum mordant
  • With alum extracted from clubmoss
  • With a tannin mordant (from oak galls or bramble/blackberry leaves and twigs)
  • With an iron mordant / use of an iron pot

As clubmosses are rare in Britain, I would not advocate their use, except in very small quantities for experimental purposes. For my tests I used the following recipe for clubmoss as a mordant:

Use 200% clubmoss (Lycopodium spp), chop it up and put it into a pot filled with water, then heat to 40C. Hold at this temperature for 3 days. On the fourth day boil it up briefly and then strain off the liquid. Add the fibres to be mordanted, heat slowly to 40C and then allow to cool  Repeat this process daily for 3 days. Then remove the fibres and squeeze the excess liquid back into the solution, which can be re-used once. In order to be sure that aluminium had been extracted and then absorbed by the fibres, I used fibres mordanted with 10% mineral alum and unmordanted fibres as “controls” in the dyebath. The results were particularly clear with madder dye – the unmordanted fibres dyed to a coral shade but both the alum-mordanted and the clubmoss mordanted fibres dyed to an almost identical red shade.

In these tests I used 100% bramble/blackberry leaves and twigs as a tannin mordant. I simmered them for about one hour to extract the tannin, then strained off the liquid, added the fibres and simmered them for about 45 minutes, then left them in the liquid to cool overnight. (25% oak galls can be used instead of bramble leaves and twigs.)

I also experimented with the use of iron and wood-ash-water, which is alkaline, as colour modifiers after dyeing. It is also possible that stale urine may have been added to dyebaths and this would have increased alkalinity.

To make iron water, put some pieces of scrap iron or rusty nails in a large container with a well-fitting lid and fill it up with a solution of two parts water to one part clear vinegar. Leave the iron to steep in this solution for a week or two, until the solution is orange in colour. When you use the iron water, strain it through a fine-meshed sieve or a piece of muslin.

To make wood-ash water, put the ashes from a wood fire into a large glass or plastic container with a well-fitting lid. Fill up with water and leave the ashes to steep for a week or two, until the liquid is yellow in colour and feels slick or slimy to the touch. When you use the solution, pour or siphon it off without disturbing the ash sediment. Wood-ash water can be used as an alkaline modifier and as the source of alkali in woad vats. It can also be added to dyer’s broom and weld dyebaths to increase the depth of colour.

My experiments are intended to demonstrate some of the possible methods used by Anglo-Saxon dyers and to give an idea of the colour range they might have achieved. Although we don’t know exactly how early dyers worked, there is enough evidence to indicate that they would have been able to achieve a wide range of bright, rich colours from the relatively small number of dyes they used.

I will write about individual dyes in later posts.

Natural Dyes for Basketry Materials

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Although I have occasionally dyed cane, willow and raffia experimentally in madder and indigo dyebaths, I have not done extensive tests with a range of dyes on basketry materials. Recently, Sussex basket-maker, Jackie Sweet, spent a day here with me and we experimented with some natural dyes on willow, cane and Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax).

Jackie Sweet is a talented and accomplished basket-maker, with a wealth of knowledge and experience, and her baskets range from more robust traditional English willow baskets to delicate woven containers, which are works of art in themselves. I have always loved baskets and I have some from many parts of the world in my collection, so the possibility of assisting Jackie in using natural dyes as part of the creative basketry process was something I was looking forward to.

Of course, the natural brown, beige or tan colours of the basketry materials would mean that the dye colours achieved would not have the brightness and clarity of colours achieved on white or cream-coloured fibres. Jackie’s main aim was to achieve deep colours that would provide contrasts with the natural colours of the basketry materials and enable her to incorporate more elaborate pattern designs in her work. She had treated some of the willow and cane in alum beforehand, by soaking the materials in a solution of 10% alum. This meant we were able to compare the results on both alum-mordanted and unmordanted materials.  I decided to experiment first with indigo, madder and onion skins, as I thought strong dyes would be needed, especially if the undyed materials were brown in colour. We also used iron and washing soda as colour modifiers.

We simmered the fibres for about 30 minutes in the prepared dyebaths and the results were quite good, especially on the alum-mordanted materials. The iron and washing soda modifiers intensified the colours but the green I had anticipated from onion skins plus iron did not appear. Overall, Jackie was pleased with the results and decided to experiment further, possibly with some natural dye extracts.

I suggested it might be worth experimenting with cool dyeing, using large plastic containers, as this would enable Jackie to dye larger quantities in a single dyebath. However, while cool dyeing should work well with indigo, I suspect strong dye solutions and considerable patience might be necessary for this method to work with other dyes. I also recommended extracting the dye colour by simmering first, so the dyebath would be hot when the fibres were added.

All in all, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day with Jackie and I look forward to hearing about her progress and to working with her again.

The first photo below shows the undyed materials and the second photo shows the dyed materials on the left with some undyed materials on the right for comparison. The third photo shows a woven design worked by Jackie using naturally-coloured and madder-dyed Phormium tenax.









Introduction to some more Anglo-Saxon style experiments

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

I call these experiments rather loosely "Anglo-Saxon style" because my aim has been to use only materials that would have been available during the Anglo-Saxon period, from around 450AD onwards to 1066. However, it is likely that some of the dyes and methods described here would have been used in Britain from even earlier times.

It might be useful to write briefly here about "native" plants. The Natural History Museum in London has a website which provides lists of native plants, both in Britain as a whole and also restricted locally according to postcodes. The definition of a "native" plant is "a plant that was already present before the formation of the English Channel", which separates England from the European mainland. Under this definition, woad is not classified as a native plant but it is thought that woad was probably introduced here in Neolithic times with the development of farming. Madder (Rubia tinctorum) is also not a native plant but it was probably cultivated here during the later Anglo-Saxon period. However, wild madder (Rubia peregrina) and lady's bedstraw (Galium verum) are both native plants, as are weld and dyer's broom.

The Anglo-Saxons used flax (linen) and wool from sheep in their textiles and they would have had a variety of fleece colours available so, by using fleece of different shades, some patterning of textiles could have been achieved without needing to dye fibres. As textiles decay and perish relatively quickly, there are few surviving textile fragments available for dye analysis, especially from the early Anglo-Saxon period. However, evidence also sometimes occurs in the form of plant remains in quantities and situations that indicate their possible use in dyeing. From the evidence available, the Anglo-Saxons seem to have used a limited number of dye plants and those they did use were mainly the classic traditional dyes favoured by British dyers today – madder-type plants, indigo (from woad), weld and dyer's broom, for example. These traditional dyes were certainly available during the period. As far as madder is concerned, there is evidence to suggest that madder (Rubia tinctorum) may have disappeared from use for a period of time following the departure of the Romans from Britain around 410AD. However, wild madder (Rubia peregrina) and lady's bedstraw (Galium verum) would have been available and Rubia tinctorum reappeared later in the period. This would seem to suggest that madder was imported by the Romans as a dried dyestuff, rather than being cultivated here. The Anglo-Saxons would have relied on the native madder-type plants until later, when madder (Rubia tinctorum) was imported, and there is some indication that madder was traded from France in the 7th and 8th centuries. 

Other dyes used by the Anglo-Saxons include tannin-rich dyes for tan and brown shades and also for dark grey and black when used with iron. Tannins are present in many plants and in oak galls, acorns, nuts and barks. However, it is not possible to identify by dye analysis the precise source of tannin in excavated fragments. For my experiments I used both oak galls and bramble leaves & twigs as tannin mordants. I also used alder leaves and twigs, oak leaves and acorns to dye browns, and black with the addition of iron. Clearly there would have been an abundance of tannin-rich materials available in the countryside, so these shades would have been easy to produce. Another tannin-rich dye plant is walnut, which is not native but was possibly introduced by the Romans and was certainly growing here by 1000. For purples there is some evidence that lichens of the species Ochrolechia and Umbilicaria were used and when treated in stale urine, which contains ammonia, these lichens can give purples and reds of considerable beauty and brilliance, although they do not have very good light-fastness. However, purple-producing lichens are found mainly in North and West Britain, on rocky coastlines or in hilly areas, so the fact that they do not appear to have been widely used may reflect their scarcity in many areas of Anglo-Saxon England.

As far as mordants are concerned, there is some doubt as to whether Mediterranean mineral alum would have been readily available to the early Anglo-Saxons. Although the Romans would have probably brought alum for their own use, it is likely that, as with madder, it disappeared with them when they left Britain. So the Anglo-Saxons may have had to rely on alternatives until imported alum was more widely available later in the period. Even then, I suspect that dyers working in a simple domestic environment would have relied solely on what they could grow and gather locally. So what might have been used instead to fix the dye colours? Some plants, notably clubmosses, have the ability to absorb aluminium from the ground in which they grow, so it is possible that the Anglo-Saxons may have extracted aluminium from these plants. It is also possible that tannin from plants may have been used as a fixative and I have experimented with both clubmoss and tannin as alternative mordants. Iron would probably also have been used, possibly in the form of iron water or by adding scraps of iron to the dyepot. If iron pots were used as dye vessels, this may also have had an effect on the colours.

I think the Anglo-Saxons' choice of a limited number of classic dyes – madder, woad, weld and dyer's broom – is also significant, as my experiments indicate that these dyes will fix without a mordant, although in some cases the colours may be less brilliant. However, the application of an alkaline after-bath, for which I used wood-ash water, results in colours almost as bright as those achieved from an alum mordant.  Restricting one's choice of dyes to those known to be reliable and to have good fastness properties is also a common way of working for today's natural dyers, many of whom rarely use more than ten different dyes on a regular basis. Indeed, some may use even fewer and, as a wide range of colours can be achieved by applying colour modifiers and over-dyeing, limiting the number of dyes used does not necessarily also mean limiting the range of shades available. What is crucial is selecting the appropriate dyes and the Anglo-Saxons would appear to have been well aware of this.

The vessels the Anglo-Saxons may have used for dyeing are also of some interest. The earliest example in England of a madder-stained pot  (a jar made from local pottery from Canterbury in Kent) has been dated to the latter half of the 8th century and madder-stained pots were found later in several domestic sites. However, as madder was also used medicinally – to treat jaundice, for example – it is possible that these stains are the result of the medicinal use of madder, rather than of any dyeing activity. However, it is also likely that dyeing would have been carried out in pots made from some type of pottery.  It is difficult to know whether dyepots made from local pottery would have had a significant influence on dye colours and my feeling is that they probably would not have done so, especially once the pots had been used several times for the same dye colour. However, if iron pots were used for dyeing they may well have affected the colours achieved and made them duller. For my experiments I mainly used non-reactive stainless steel pots. However, I also wanted to assess the likely effect of using an iron pot and here my experiments have so far proved frustrating. Before we moved house, I possessed several pots made of iron and, foolishly assuming I would no longer need them, I disposed of them all. Since we moved I have searched in vain in second-hand shops for suitable old iron pots and the search continues. In the meantime I added some pieces of iron to some dyebaths to simulate the use of an iron pot, but I am not satisfied with the results and intend to repeat these tests when I have located a suitable pot. (I am amazed at how difficult this has been. A friend gave me a pot that unfortunately proved to have a hole in it and I bought an old iron cooking pot on ebay, only to find that it caught fire when I used it on my gas cooker. Closer inspection showed that this pot had been coated with some thick black paint-like substance, which would explain the fire.)

There is no way of knowing whether the methods I have used in these experiments would have been those used by Anglo-Saxon dyers or whether the colours I achieved replicate those achieved by earlier dyers. But I believe it is likely that dyers in the past would have worked in very similar ways to dyers today and I have based my work on the available evidence of the materials used.

For comprehensive information about early Anglo-Saxon textiles I would recommend "Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England" by Penelope Walton Rogers, who has also written widely on textiles and dye analysis in many other publications. The bibliography to "Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England" gives details for further reading.

The photo below shows some of the skeins dyed using the dyes and methods outlined above. I will write in more detail about individual dyes in later posts.

A woad-bearing visitor

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Just over a week ago we had our first non-family guest to stay for a few days and we very much enjoyed this visit from Chris Dobson, a dear friend of nearly 30 years. Chris is a true kindred spirit and we have shared many happy hours engaged in various textile-related activities, especially natural dyeing, so I wasn’t surprised that she arrived bearing a large bag of woad leaves from her allotment.

We soon got down to making a woad vat and the leaves performed their magic, even though they had been in a plastic bag for nearly three days before we used them. Chris, who is also a horticultural expert and source of information on all botanical matters, told me that, as long as the leaves are stored slightly damp in a little water in a plastic bag in a cool place, there is no reason why they can’t be picked a few days in advance and still give excellent blues. (I think the reason why we failed to get blues at Stanmer Park (see earlier post) from the stored woad leaves was probably because they had been stored in a fridge and the temperature had been too low.)

The following photos show some of the stages of our woad vat.

The leaves soaking in just-boiled water. Note the metallic sheen appearing on the surface

The chopped leaves soaking in just-boiled water. Note the metallic sheen appearing on the surface



The blue froth formed after adding washing soda & whisking the woad solution

The blue froth formed after adding washing soda to the strained-off solution and whisking to incorporate oxygen

Scraping out the last of the froth that contains the blue pigment

Scraping out the last of the froth that contains the blue pigment

Adding sodium hydrosulphite to the solution

Adding sodium hydrosulphite to the solution

The vat nearly ready to use

The vat nearly ready to use

Gently adding the skeins to the vat

Gently adding the skeins to the vat

The skeins in the vat. (Notice the blue froth still lingering on the surface)

The skeins in the vat. Notice the blue froth still lingering on the surface, even though we have tried to gently stir it all into the solution

Removing the dyed skeins

Removing the dyed skeins. Next to the vat is a bucket of water, into which the skeins will be immersed after they are removed from the vat. This will get rid of any loose particles of indigo pigment, which might cause blotches.

Some of the dyed skeins drying

Some of the dyed skeins drying

P.S. to “Fungi Again”

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

The mushrooms which gave such a good yellow have re-appeared on the grass at the front of our house, so I have photographed them in case anyone is able to identify them. I think they may be a species of  Hygrocybe.

These mushrooms gave a lovely bright yellow in the dyebath.

These mushrooms gave a lovely bright yellow in the dyebath.

Fungi again

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

The narrow road leading to the church in Findon is lined on both sides with trees and on one old beech tree stump I found some intriguing fungi, which as usual I haven’t managed to identify. Of course I tried some small samples out in the dyepot but sadly, as the photo below shows, the results were not particularly worthwhile.


Skeins dyed using the fungi shown in the first two photos below


 These samples were all dyed using an alum mordant.














These fine specimens looked wonderful growing all around the tree stump and gave the colour shown on the left-hand skein (plus a pinch of iron) and the centre skein.









These were lying on the grass and looked quite sinister. They gave the colour shown on the right-hand skein.








I think this might be a specimen of Hoof Fungus Fomes fomentarius. It certainly resembles a horse’s hoof and I didn’t want to disturb it for the dyepot.









Might the upper fungus in this photo be Ganoderma applanatum or Artist’s fungus? Whatever these fungi may be, they looked too attractive to sacrifice for the dyepot.

A few days later my husband pointed out some mushrooms growing on our front lawn, which I think are probably a species of Hygrocybe. These proved more useful in the dye pot and gave a pretty shade of yellow on an alum mordant. I’m afraid I forgot to photograph the mushrooms before I used them in the dyepot, so the photo below of the dyed skein shows the used mushrooms from the dyebath, plus one fresh mushroom I managed to find. I should also add that the depth of yellow achieved was actually considerably deeper than it appears in the photo.

Skein dyed using mushrooms from our lawn

Skein dyed using mushrooms from our lawn