Introduction to some more Anglo-Saxon style experiments

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

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”

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

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

Ajrakh – an example of the dyer’s art

Among the pieces in my textile collection are two hand-printed ajrakh fabrics, from Sind Province in Pakistan, that fill me with particular admiration for the dyer’s skill. So I thought I’d write a little about this fascinating dyeing technique.



This photo shows one of my ajrakh cloths






Ajrakh cloth may be broadly defined as a cotton fabric patterned on one or both sides by means of printing blocks. The background colour is either red or blue and the pattern designs are usually encompassed within square repeats or bound by rectangular ones, with geometrical motifs and circular forms.
These cloths are produced on the Indian sub-continent in Sind, Gujarat and Western Rajasthan and represent a high point in dyeing techniques, requiring extreme skill not only on the part of the dyers but also from the craftsmen who carve the wooden printing blocks.



This shows some of the printing blocks in my collection





Ajrakh cloths are worn mainly by Muslim men, as head coverings, shoulder cloths, lungis (lower garments) or as knee supporters when squatting on the ground. Each piece of cloth is of a set dimension according to its intended use. Sizes vary from 1m x 1m to 2.56m x 1.85m. For the largest pieces, two single widths are joined lengthwise.
Several dyeing methods come together in the making of these cloths:  mordant printing, resist printing (or combinations of the two), the tannin/iron complex for dyeing black, indigo vat dyeing and madder dyeing. The finest ajrakh fabrics are resisted, printed and dyed on both sides of the cloth, with such skill that each side is identical.



This shows how the cloth has been patterned identically on both sides





In the past, ajrakh cloths were dyed using natural madder and indigo dyes. Madder red is obtained from several plant sources on the Indian sub-continent, including Rubia tinctorum, Rubia cordifolia, Rubia munjista, Morinda citrifolia and Oldenlandia umbellata (chay), which all contain the red pigment alizarin. Nowadays, synthetic alizarin is widely used. Similarly, natural indigo blue from Indigofera tinctoria has been largely replaced by synthetic indigo. However, in some areas there is a gradual return to natural dyes.
In addition to the madder and indigo dyes, metallic salts of aluminium and iron are also used and it is pastes of these which are printed onto the fabric, not the dye colour itself. These pastes act as both resists and mordants. The mordant penetrates the fabric, whilst the gum and clay, with which the solution is thickened, protect the fabric from unwanted dye. These pastes are applied to both sides of the cloth, unless only one side is to be patterned.
Preparation of the cloth
The cloth is first washed and beaten with a wooden mallet to smooth the surface and remove any irregularities. It is then dried. Next, the cloth is treated in buffalo milk or a castor oil and sodium carbonate solution, to which water is added. This treatment aids the absorption of mordant and dye and also prevents the mordant salts from crystallizing. Fresh camel, goat or sheep dung, mixed with water, may also be added to the solution and this acts as a bleaching agent. The cloth is then dried overnight and washed the following day.
The next stage involves the application of a tannin solution, usually made from the dried fruits of myrobalan (Terminalia chebula), pounded with water to form a paste then mixed with more water. The wetted cloth is soaked in this solution. The tannin acts as an assistant for the alum mordant and also reacts with the iron mordant to produce black outlines.
Before the cloth is dyed in the indigo vat, all areas not to be dyed blue have to be covered by printing on the appropriate paste solution, using carved wooden blocks. The printing processes are carried out on a wooden bench, covered with 15 to 20 layers of jute, topped by thick cotton fabric, which provides a soft, absorbent work surface.
The preparation of the pastes involves complex processes and the ingredients and methods vary from region to region. The basic principles are as follows:
An iron print solution, usually iron acetate or a ferrous sulphate solution mixed with gum arabic or sorghum and mud or clay, is applied to the areas to be dyed black.
An alum print solution, usually aluminium sulphate mixed with gum arabic or sorghum and mud or clay, is applied to the areas to be dyed red. Sometimes red clay, which gives a fugitive colour, is also added to distinguish it from the iron solution. If some areas of deeper red are required, extra quantities of alum solution are applied to those sections. Alternatively, these sections may receive a second application of alum paste.
Any areas to remain undyed are printed with a paste of gum arabic and mud or clay, sometimes with the addition of lime to ensure the resist paste does not crack.
If both sides are to be identically patterned, the second side is printed before the pastes on the first side have dried completely and while they still remain damp. This ensures uniformity of the printed impressions, as the printed sections of the cloth contract when dry and the fabric would no longer remain flat enough to enable the second side to be printed successfully.
The printed areas are then sprinkled with powdered clay or dung and dried in sunlight for up to two days.
Indigo is the first dye to be applied and the fabric is carefully immersed in the indigo vat, then removed to allow the indigo to oxidise. It is important that the cloth does not remain too long in the vat, otherwise the pastes may begin to soften and the designs would be impaired.
Sometimes two depths of indigo blue may be required. In this case, after the first indigo dyeing process has been completed, the sections to remain at the level of blue achieved from this first immersion are printed with the resist paste, sprinkled with powdered clay or dung and the cloth is then dried. After drying, the cloth is dipped again in the vat, resulting in a deeper blue on the unresisted areas. After oxidisation, the cloth is washed and de-gummed whilst it is still wet and for this the cloth is held under running water, which gently loosens the pastes. This process has to be carried out with great care, to ensure the mordant pastes do not smear, as this would adversely affect the clarity of the designs when dyed.
The next stage is the application of the red madder or alizarin dye. The de-gummed cloth is immersed in the dye solution and simmered for up to two hours. It is then removed and washed before being dried in bright sunlight, which helps to remove any red dye which may have fugitively coloured the indigo-dyed areas or the paste-resisted sections intended to remain undyed. At the same time, the sunlight brightens the madder or alizarin dyed areas which received the alum and iron mordant pastes.
The finished cloth is patterned in blue and red, with black outlines to some designs and some undyed areas, which sometimes tend to be beige as a result of the treatment in the tannin solution.



This shows the other ajrakh cloth from my collection, also patterned identically on each side.




Although the processes involved in ajrakh dyeing are complex and time-consuming and demand considerable knowledge and skill, the basic dyeing principles are relatively simple and may be summed up as follows:
Tannin + iron = black
Alum + madder or alizarin = red
Indigo = blue
Thickened paste solutions = resisted areas
Alum or iron thickened paste solutions = mordanted and resisted areas

So simple and yet so complex!

A Patchwork Rug




This floor rug for my granddaughter was made from old white woollen blankets.






My preference for making full use of whatever is available, rather than buying something new, is a characteristic my children find rather irritating at times. My frugality in the kitchen is also often the cause of much mockery, especially when I insist on diluting all dishwashing liquids at the rate of 1 part dishwashing liquid to 3 parts water and on using each teabag for at least two cups of tea and even three, if at all possible. However, occasionally they reluctantly agree that waste materials can sometimes be put to good uses.

When I told my daughter that I was making a floor rug for Milly from old woollen blankets, she was less than enthusiastic. But I continued nevertheless. The woollen blanket pieces were mordanted in alum, then dyed using cochineal, madder, weld and indigo. I then used the Log Cabin patchwork technique to piece the strips together. I really love this particular patchwork method, as it seems ideally suited to impatient people like me, especially as it can be easily done on the sewing-machine. The backing for the rug was a single piece of woollen blanket, dyed in indigo, and the rug and its backing were placed with the right sides together and then machine-sewn round three sides. The rug was then turned right-side out and the last seam was stitched by hand. Another advantage of this rug is that it can be machine-washed without risk of shrinking, as any shrinking will have taken place during the simmering of the mordanting and dyeing processes, making it unlikely to shrink further. Indeed, this rug has already successfully withstood several machine washes. And my daughter and granddaughter love it, so I feel my efforts were worth while.

I also made a large floor cushion, using the same techniques.


More Knitted Cushions

 The photos below show some cushions I knitted recently for my daughter, who wanted a “modern design using oranges and blues”. I’m not sure to what extent the patterns I designed can be described as “modern” but at least the colours are right! The dyes I used are my old favourites – madder and indigo.

To achieve an orange shade with madder, I used about 25% madder on an alum mordant and then applied an acidic modifier made with clear vinegar. The paler shades were from the exhaust dyebath.

















The knitting technique I used for the cushions is a form of patchwork I use fairly frequently for cushions and bags. I start off with a square or rectangle, then pick up stitches along one side and knit in that direction for a while. I leave these stitches on a spare needle, or a length  of yarn, and then I pick up stitches from another side and knit back and forth along that edge for a while. And so on. The designs develop as I knit and give me plenty of scope for colour patterning as well.

For the reverse side of these cushions, I dyed some woollen fabric in indigo, cut it to size and then stitched it onto the knitting. I made an opening for the cushion pad by overlapping the edges of fabric, as with a pillowcase, so it will be easy to remove the cushion cover for washing.

A Grass from Japan















The seeds for this grass (Arthraxon hispidus) were sent to me by a Japanese dyer, who explained that this grass is used traditionally by dyers in Japan, where it is common on meadows and roadsides. It is also grown as a dye crop on the island of Hachijo.

The seeds germinated readily when sown in the Spring several years ago and now the plants self-seed, so each year a fresh crop of plants appears.

Arthraxon hispidus contains luteolin, which is the main colour pigment in weld and dyer’s broom. Although the yellows from this Japanese grass are not remarkable, I enjoy growing and using traditional dye plants from other countries, especially when the seeds have been sent to me by a fellow dyer.

The photo below doesn’t really do justice to the colours, which are actually brighter than they appear here. As with weld, the yellows from Arthraxon hispidus can often have a greenish tinge.


Colours from Arthraxon hispidus 

Left to right: No mordant, alum mordant, alum mordant + iron modifier

Dyeing with Damsons

Aylesb prunes 010This now disused orchard near Eaton Bray in Bedfordshire has many old damson trees of a variety known as Aylesbury Prunes.




This area was known for growing damsons, apparently used to dye hats for the Luton straw hat industry. It has also been suggested that damsons may have been used to dye British Royal Air Force uniforms a blue-grey colour during World War II and damsons were reportedly used in the past as a source of dye colour in the wool industry in the North of England.         

                                                                                                                                                                  Aylesb prunes6

This photo shows the damsons ready to be picked.






I am fortunate that my friend Maggie Stearn, handweaver and dyer, lives in Eaton Bray and she suggested harvesting some damsons for a dyeing experiment, to see just how effective they might be as a source of dye colour. Maggie kindly picked about 20 kilos of damsons, so we had ample for dyeing –  and for freezing and jam-making, too!

For our tests we used the damson skins only, as they seemed the most likely source of dye colour and are rich in tannin which would help fix the dye. However, we did test the fruit pulp as well, just to be sure we weren’t missing an important source of colour, but this only resulted in an unpleasant pale beige colour and sticky pulp that was difficult to remove from the fibres. We used equal weights of skins and fibres and we tested the dye extracted from the skins across a range of fibres (wool, silk, cotton and linen), all mordanted with alum, and used four modifers.

The results of our experiments are below. I have to say that they confirm my feeling that damsons, like most red and purple fruits or berries, do not make particularly useful dyes. In general the colours are disappointing, particularly on wool, although with an iron or copper modifier the colours on the other fibres tested, especially the silk, are more attractive. The greens from the washing soda modifier are interesting and I have achieved similar, but deeper, shades from elderberries with an alkaline modifier. In general, I find it surprising that there should apparently be so many references to damsons as a source of useful dye colour. I can understand that the pale lavender shades achieved on some vegetable fibres, including raffia, might be popular with Victorian ladies for their straw hats, but I find it harder to believe that the colours achieved on wool could really be useful at an industrial level, especially bearing in mind the general unreliability of red and purple berry and fruit dyes. However, I do wonder how many of these references are actually based on solid research, backed up by conclusive evidence, rather than merely on hearsay. I can certainly understand that any abundant local source of dye colour would be valued at times when imported dyes were unavailable or too costly, but I remain unconvinced that the use of damsons for dyeing would be worth the effort nowadays, especially when dyers have access to more reliable sources of purple and lavender shades.


This shows the unmodified samples. From top to bottom: cotton, linen, silk, wool







This shows the modified samples on all four fibres.

Clockwise from top right: acid modifier, alkaline modifier, copper modifier, iron modifier




NOTE: Thanks to Maggie Stearn for all the above photos

Fungus-dyed Jacket









 This jacket was knitted using only wool dyed with the fungus Cortinarius semisanguineus, which I obtained from Finland. The pattern is one I devised myself and the front bands have been crocheted rather than knitted. I often use crochet for edgings, partly because it gives a firm border but mainly because it’s quicker. (Yes, I know that speed is not really a valid reason for design choices and I confess to laziness at times!) The skeins from which the upper section of the body was knitted were dyed using different modifiers to give a variegated effect.








This is the reverse of the jacket. The keen-eyed viewer may notice that the colours in the upper variegated section of the back are slightly different from those on the variegated sections of the fronts and sleeves. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough of the same wool for the back, so I used a skein I bought from Leena in Finland, also dyed in Cortinarius semisanguineus. But the colours all seem to blend in well together.


 This is the first in what I plan as a series of knitted cushion-covers, dyed with various fungi. This one was dyed using what remained from the skeins dyed with Cortinarius semisanguineus, after I’d knitted my jacket.