Saturday, 14 May 2016

Dyeing with madder, indigo/woad and weld

Here I am discussing it's place in history and my 'take' on this!

I am referring to dyeing wool yarn, but silk could also be dyed the same way.

 These are examples created for a dyeing workshop I led:

Dyes used are from the top: weld ; indigo ;  madder

                                          weld + indigo; initial yarn; madder + indigo

                                          weld+madder; indigo+tin; weld + copper

With these three dyes it is theoretically possible to get all the other colours of the spectrum. It is even possible to grow your own weld, madder and woad to make the process more sustainable and authentic. This is just what I love doing.

Here I will discuss the early relevance of these dyes and their link to the textile industry in Norwich. Why Norwich - well it is my town ( as far as the post office is concerned) but more importantly Norwich has a rich textile - and dyeing- history dating back over many centuries. Norwich and the surrounding area became extremely important in the Middle Ages and Medieval times - textiles being one of ( or THE main) industry leading to the city being the second city of the country.

The history of dyeing is fascinating and appeals to my scientific background. However, there are few records, textiles in general degenerate with time. Written records are also few and far between, dyers were master craftsmen and guarded their methods, often keeping the information in their heads. Also life was far from simple, there were many complications like wars that got in the way. However, I have had a good stab at verifying what follows and I hope you find it is interesting.

It is impossible to know when humans first dyed yarn. Dyeing is likely to have been discovered in different parts of the world at different times. Dyes are said to have been used in China in 6000 BC, but accounts of dyeing in Europe are found to (only!) go back to 1400BC. However, with developments in archaeological technology the dates get pushed back further.


Anyone who does any natural dyeing will know that many plants yield a yellow colour when dyeing. Many of these fade with keeping. Weld give a good yellow colour and also this is less fugitive(1) than many plants. It grows easily in sandy soils so can cope with hot dry conditions quite well and needs very little looking after. However, as with all plant dyes, the conditions it is grown in do affect the quality of the dye!
Pliny wrote about weld as a dye in AD 23 and it remains a useful yellow dye today. It is the simplest to use.
I usually boil up the plant material ( top of the plant) and strain it before adding scoured and mordanted yarn to the bath. If I am going to overdye to get orange ( with madder) or green with indigo I dye the yarn yellow with the weld first. Photo shows weld being added to madder overdye


There are records of this being known as a dye material since 1500BC and material dyed with madder was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Madder contains the dyestuff alizarin. We know it was grown in Central Asia. Recipes for using the dye have been found on a cuneiform tablet ( 1900 BC) and papyrus (about 1100BC). In Norwich, there is an area called the Maddermarket to this day implying that trade for it was important in the city. This implies that much of the madder used was imported and not grown locally. We know that Norwich had good trade links with Europe and countries bordering the North Sea up to the Baltic. In medieval times an area of Norwich was noted for Master Dyers and  is close to the River Wensum. This would have provided the necessary source of water. Red was a colour worn by the nobility, noted as the colour of power up to the middle of the 16th century and so important in cloth finishing in a wealthy city like Norwich.

Anyone who has handled madder will know it is the root that leaves a red mark on the skin! But we can only guess how it was discovered that madder works best below boiling point of the dye bath, but even early fragments of cloth dyed with madder give the impression that this was known. Besides fresh root, both chopped up root and powdered madder are available today. Using the powder, in particular, allows 'solutions' of known concentration to be made and thus the colour can be more or less repeatable. (2)

Indigo / woad

I have put these two dyes together because woad contains indigo, it is just that it is in a much less concentrated form and could be why wool dyed with woad is often shown a paler blue than that dyed with indigo. Indigo is first noted as coming from India. The leaves are used but extracting and using the dye can't be done as easily as with weld.
Again it is interesting to speculate how the method evolved, but as the materials available were plants, animals and minerals in soil it must have been chance or trial and error - early science.

Indigo is insoluble so trying to dye by boiling the leaves with water won't work! The dye needs to be dissolved in alkali and with a reducing agent this forms a colourless product which can be used to dye with - in the absence of oxygen.

Only when the wool is taken out of the dye bath and the oxygen re-enters the yarn does the indigo colour appear. By dipping the yarn back in the bath the colour can be built up in the yarn. Experienced dyers often build up the colour over many dips rather than one longer dip as it gives a more even and stable colour. Some have found that Indigo can have a tendency to leave the fibre and coat your hands, although fortunately I rarely have this problem. Again the whole process is sensitive to temperature and each dyer will develop their own variations on the method to enable them to get the shade of blue required.
It is stated that Boudicca was aware of the colouring properties of woad. She and her Iceni tribe used woad as face paint before battle ( c. AD 60-61).
So was locally grown woad the main source of indigo used for dyeing in Norwich? Or was the indigo like madder imported and traded in these times. Blue was the colour of clothes for the peasants for much of that time period. It is likely that woad was imported into Norwich. Edward 1st (1281) laid down rules for assessing the quality of woad which implies it was an important dye. Norwich being the textile centre it was, it seems likely that the dyers used this imported dye source. Disputes in the following years meant a dirth of woad imports. The situation could clearly be improved if woad was grown locally. As the dyeing of blue resulted in stronger and more even blues, blue became a more popular colour such that by late medieval times woad was the most used dyestuff particular for wool.

For these dyes to work, the yarn needs to be well scoured and mordanted first(3). When this is the case the dye takes up well and is a 'faster' (less affected by light and washing) dye. It is interesting to speculate how alum came to be used as a mordant. Early dyers would have realised that just boiling the dyestuff with water wasn't really successful so what could they try to improve it with? Anything from plants, animals or the ground would have been readily available. Alum has been found in fabrics from 2600BC and is mentioned in trade records from 1300BC. The Romans were able to purify the ore to obtain alum and we know that Bruges was the centre of a trade in textiles ( wool, dyestuffs, finished textiles) from the 9th century. East Anglia was well situated to be part of this trade and it is possible alum was involved but there were constant political interruptions in Europe. It's not certain that alum was being used by English dyers but when considering the good colours being achieved perhaps they were using alum. In 1540 an Italian metallurgist in a book (published posthumously) he  noted ' alum is no less necessary to dyers of wool and woollen cloth than bread is to human kind.' The alum used was mainly coming from Papal and Spanish mines during the 16th century and by the mid 16th century alum was one of the most precious cargoes traded across Europe. Combined with the expense any trade would prove difficult with Henry VIII in conflict with Rome. The search was on for English alum. In 1607 some was found in North Yorkshire but it was proving difficult to produce enough for the large textile industry and there were large financial losses. By 1635 1800 tons were mined and imports of alum could be banned but it wasn't until the 18th century that alum production began to be more profitable.

If you look carefully at the initial picture you will see two additional dye colours, indigo + tin (very little difference !) and weld + copper

The combinations and concentrations to try are virtually endless!

There are more pictures of dyeing with these three core dyes (and my dyeing using other dyes) on my website: under dyeing.

(1)        A fugitive dye fades- particularly in the light

(2)        If you have ever tried to dissolve madder you will know that ‘suspension’ is perhaps the more accurate term to use

(3)        This is not strictly true of woad/ indigo, but if like me, you have ready prepared scoured and mordanted yarn it is fine to use it in a woad/indigo vat.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating reading, I have just planted my first woad plant and want to try woad and weld from seed next year.