Some Interesting Dye Sources

IMG_0593                                                 Sage flowering in my garden, with a welcome bee just visible on the far left.

IMG_0596                                             More sage and another bee.

Every now and then I come across a reference to a dye source from the past that I find surprising. My surprise is usually because the dye in question is often not one in common use today. One such dye source is sage, Salvia officinalis, which was used in mediaeval times. Sage is one of the dyes mentioned in the Plictho de larte de tentori, a collection of dyeing recipes published in Venice in 1548 and compiled by Gioanventura Rosetti, the Master of the Arsenal in Venice.  Although I suspect few natural dyers today would regard culinary sage as a common dye source of choice, the leaves give subtle shades of mustard yellow/ brown and an iron modifier gives attractive tones of deep mossy green. When I cut back my sage bushes, which can grow rampantly if not checked, I dry some of the prunings for culinary purposes and use the rest in the dyepot. (See the post “Anglo-Saxon Dyes part 2 ” for examples of colours from sage leaves.)

A friend phoned me last week to ask whether I had heard of privet, Ligustrum vulgare, being used commercially in the past in Wiltshire as a dark green dye. She had read about this in a novel but I don’t know whether the reference was to privet leaves or berries, so I wonder whether anyone else has more information about this? Privet leaves give a yellow shade, which would become a mossy shade of green if modified with iron, and perhaps they were used instead of a more traditional source of dye because  privet happened to be readily available locally in the wild at the time and was therefore a cheap alternative? As far as privet berries are concerned, according to a reference in Dominique Cardon’s “Natural Dyes”, the juice from the berries was used in the past to dye the red, violet and blue colours on playing cards. There is an illustration in her book of an 18th century cardboard playing card from Nimes, on which privet berry juice has been used as a dye. Red was achieved using Glauber’s Salts (sodium sulphate) and potassium sulphate, urine was added for violet, and lime and potassium sulphate were used for blue.

Another unexpected source of dye colour is the reported use of damsons, Prunus sp., as a dye for a variety of purposes, including dyeing hats for the Luton straw hat industry and dyeing wool for the textile industry in Westmoreland. Apparently, damson trees were planted around Market Drayton in Shropshire, and also in Worcestershire, to meet the demand for dye, and some damson bushes found today in hedgerows or in old orchards are the remains of trees grown for dyeing and not for damsons for eating. In my experience, with the exception of buckthorn berries, berries generally make poor dyes, especially on animal fibres, and the colours from berries tend to fade rapidly. So I am surprised that damsons, which are so good to eat, should have been specifically grown to be used for dyeing, when more reliable, traditional dye plants could have been grown. However, it may be that the colours given by damsons could not be achieved from dyes that could be grown or were readily available at the time. It would also appear that, in the past,  berries containing anthocyanins were frequently used by painters and dyers in those areas where they were abundant. For example: the blue in an early Swiss linen fragment has been attributed to elderberries and several early dye references from Germany, Italy and Sweden include recipes for bilberries. (Ref: Cardon p243 – 250) Of course, it is not surprising that early dyers would make use of what was growing around them. However nowadays, when we have access to so many excellent dyes from all over the world, dyers are able to select the most reliable dyes for their purposes and no longer have to make do with whatever is available locally.

The other reference I came across recently in a magazine was to the use of nettles, Urtica dioica, to dye camouflage military uniforms in the First World War. I know that nettles were used to produce fibres for cloth for military uniforms during the First and Second World Wars, but I had not heard before that they were also used as a khaki dye. Certainly, in wartime when it would have been important to find cheap, local sources of dye colour, the use of nettles sounds perfectly sensible. Nettles give various shades of yellow or brown, depending on the time of year when they are harvested, and the use of iron would give a khaki colour. I suppose it’s also possible that the same nettles could be used for both fibres and dye colour.

Does anyone else know of similar unexpected dye sources from the past?

10 replies
  1. Marian
    Marian says:

    I don’t really know about other sources but I find it fascinating to discover the historical source of things we use today and take for granted. People in the middle ages -and before- didn’t have the choice to go and buy commercially ready dyes coming in a little pot if they didn’t feel like harvesting, making a dye, etc. Very interesting because learning about dyes one learns also botanics, chemistry ..and history!
    I have lots of sage here and didn’t really know what to do with it. Well, culinary purpuses naturally, and also I’ve heard it is a really fragrant plant (well, that I’ve smelled!) which is very good for adding scents to home made soaps and stuff like that.

  2. Debbie Bamford
    Debbie Bamford says:

    Hi Jenny,
    I am always being asked about damsons used for dyeing – in Dunstable (where the Luton hat trade started) in Cheshire and the Northumbrian references too. I had a really interesting meeting with an old gentleman in Derbyshire a couple of Decembers ago – he walked up to our demonstration and said “are you using damsons?” “no” we said, gave the usual reasons why not and his response was “but we used to send all the poorer quality damsons to a particular dyeworks where they were used to produce khaki for the soldiers during the second world war” I have tracked down the archives for the dyeworks and will report what I find when I get there!
    There are too many references to the damson dyeing – they must be better than we think!

  3. Helen Melvin
    Helen Melvin says:

    I am very interested in the privet berries-my privet is flowering now so I hope to experiment with painting with the colours from the berries later on.I am often asked for inks made with local dye plants. Sometimes I wonder whether people were more experimental in the past more prepared to see whether something gave colour. I have come across research into map produced in the 1500’s in South America using local dye plants for colour. Thanks for a very interesting blog-fascinating.
    Best Wishes Helen
    ps I did get a green from Privet years ago-mus try it again.

  4. Maggie Stearn
    Maggie Stearn says:

    There are many damson trees around Eaton Bray and I think my father in law has said about them being used in the hat trade. His relatives may even have been involved in picking them. I will ask.

    • Jenny Dean
      Jenny Dean says:

      I don’t think so, Janet. According to what I’ve read, the damsons themselves were the source of dye colour & were not used as a base for other dyes. As far as I know, natural dyes do not usually need acid anyway. However, the damson skins would have a reasonably high tannin content, which would be helpful for fixing the dye, especially to vegetable fibres. I tend to assume that the damsons were used as a dye because they were either readily available to be gathered or could be purchased relatively cheaply. Other more traditional sources of purple dye, such as logwood, would have been less readily obtainable in the past, particularly in rural areas where there may have been few, if any, suppliers of non-native dyestuffs.

  5. Helen Neale
    Helen Neale says:

    Su Grierson mentions privet berries in “the Colour Cauldron” as a source of “inky blue” when used in an alkhaline dye bath. It sounds very interesting. When privet hedges are so often trimmed it is hard to find the berries

  6. Mark Hudson
    Mark Hudson says:

    I am doing some research into the social history of damsons. I have come across references to damsons being used to produce blue dye for RAF uniforms and also to produce khaki for army uniforms. What different processes would be used to obtain different colours from the same source? I also know that damsons were used in carpet manufacture in Kidderminster, Worcestershire.

    Mark Hudson

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