Anglo-Saxon Dye Experiments – Part 2




This shows some of the range of shades from madder (Rubia tinctorum) on the left, and weld (Reseda luteola) and dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) on the right.





The shades on the left are from bramble leaves and sage leaves. On the right are some of the shades from wild madder (Rubia peregrina) & lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum)

  Most of the dyes were tested as follows:

The mordants used were clubmoss mordant, tannin mordant (oak gall or bramble leaf solution) and no mordant.  The modifiers used were clear vinegar (acid), wood ash water (alkali) and iron water. For the deepest black shades from tannin-rich materials, such as alder bark and oak galls, I used an iron water mordant followed by an iron water modifier. Too much iron does, of course, weaken fibres but iron water is slightly less harmful in this respect than the chemical ferrous sulphate. For a brownish purple shade from madder I used an iron water mordant followed by a wood ash water (alkaline) modifier. Where appropriate for comparison purposes, I also dyed some samples using wool mordanted with 10% alum.

For a further test with madder, I added chopped crab apples to the dyebath. I remembered reading about this some time ago, although I’m afraid I can’t recall where, and thought it worth trying out. I was pleased with the results, as this dyebath gave brighter, clearer shades than those from madder used alone and worked particularly well on unmordanted wool.

I was interested to note that yellows almost as bright and deep as those from a traditional alum mordant could be achieved from weld and dyer’s broom used on unmordanted wool and followed by an alkaline wood ash water modifier. Pretty olive green shades were achieved using an iron water modifier with weld, dyer’s broom, bramble leaves and sage leaves.In general, wood ash water proved useful to deepen and brighten shades. (Stale urine could also be used as an alkaline modifier, as it contains ammonia, but the aroma is perhaps less acceptable.)

To make wood ash water, remove the wood ash from a wood-burning stove, put it in a bucket or large lidded container and fill up with water. The leave the mixture to soak for several weeks. By this time the liquid will have become yellow in colour & feel “slick” or slimy to the touch. To use it as an alkaline modifier, remove the liquid without disturbing the ash sediment and soak the materials in it, adding more water as necessary. It’s better not to apply heat, as this may harm woollen fibres.

Unfortunately the photos don’t show the colours to their best advantage but I was pleased with the results of these tests, which indicated that the early Anglo-Saxon dyers would have been able to achieve a wide range of good, strong colours using only readily available materials and without using mineral alum as a mordant.

As far as light- and wash-fastness are concerned, I imagine these would have been of less importance to the Anglo-Saxons than they are to us today. Clothing was probably not washed as frequently and, if colours faded, clothing could be re-dyed relatively easily, especially as most of the dyes I used in my tests can be applied using little or no heat. As most garments were loose-fitting, a small degree of shrinkage might not have mattered too much. However, the classic dyes, madder, weld and woad, and the tannin-based dyes, such as walnut, oak leaves, oak galls, alder and bramble, all have reasonably good fastness properties, even when used without a mordant, so fading would not have been too much of a problem.

7 replies
  1. Helen Melvin
    Helen Melvin says:

    This is a fascinating post Jenny- really interesting and the colours are just so gorgeous. I find your observation that the colour from Weld and Genista Tinctoria were as good on unmordanted wool modified with wood ash lye as those modified with Alum particularly interesting -any particular wood as a source of the lye?

  2. Beth Grim
    Beth Grim says:

    Thank you so much for posting the results of your experiments. I hope to try some of your methods this summer. My goal is to learn how to dye nice colors, using a minimum of “store-bought” materials.
    This information is also useful to have on hand for sharing with others; I’m occasionally asked questions such as “Can I do natural dyeing using natural mordants?”

  3. Debbie Bamford
    Debbie Bamford says:

    HI Jenny,
    Really good to read your results – I’ve not actually managed to use clubmoss on a living history yet, the last good project I did of this type was working with flax at the Weald and Downland Museum – they were taking the flax from plant through to finished thread and I had the pleasure of scouring, mordanting and dyeing it. We used soapwort as well as the wood ash lye – have you tried it on wool, it really cleans it up well. I always carry it now good for the hands and seems to be good for the fibres! Blackberry leaves were also a good mordant in their own right because of their tannin content. There seems to be so much of the simple stuff that we have forgotten about doesn’t there? I also always use “essence of John” rather than ammonia – on weld there is a distinct difference in the brightness of the colour if you use the real thing and the smell wears off!! Worth an experiment!! There must be something else in the “essence” that helps the weld along!

  4. cedar
    cedar says:

    Jenny, wonderful colours …amazing the range you can get, and I liked the natural wood ash water…even though I heat with wood, I have yet to try this, but now I will…thanks

  5. Siri
    Siri says:

    We heat exclusively with wood, too, and so am curious about giving this a try, too. I never quite know what to do with all our ashes, as our soil is already on the alkaline side and so don’t particularly like adding it to the garden or compost pile.

  6. kathy weisz
    kathy weisz says:

    I found these last couple of posts very interesting reading-and anxious to try. we heat with our wood stoves only-and I still have not cleaned out the last of the ash-so will try this-thanks again for sharing all your knowledge Kathy

  7. elisif
    elisif says:

    Hi Jenny- I have been investigating along similar lines. As a Viking re-enactor I know Alum was available in the Scandinavian homelands but like you didn’t think it would have been easily available in the Danelaw. I also had doubts about the availability of the ‘mineral’ mordants to plain folk for the same reasons. Because I sometimes demo natural dying to kids I also need to avoid toxic substances. With this in mind I have set out to replace as many as possible with other substances although even some of the organic ones can still prove toxic. Your tests have saved me a huge amount of time so thank you but I still have a few in my collection such as Wood Sorrel, root end Rhubarb stems, sumac, willow twigs and a native American version of wood ash which is burnt Juniper leaves. My favourite non mordanted dyestuffs for the kids are walnut, outer husks, and onion skins separately or overdyed. Elisif Finnsdottir

Comments are closed.