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18th Century Dyes

This web page started out as a question: did anyone dye linen red in the 18th century? We know they dyed woolens and silk fabrics red, but the evidence for red linen was sparse. It eventually turned out (thanks to some digging by a fellow reenactor) that there is a little evidence for linen being dyed red, but it doesn't seem to have been as common as some other colors.  On the other hand, one finds plentiful references to cotton, wool and silk being dyed red.  

Most modern people’s experience with natural dyes is of a home-made, occasionally blotchy or spotty, uneven product. In the 18th century, dyers were professionals – they apprenticed to learn their trade, and were expected to get consistent and high-quality results by the time they finished their apprenticeship. The equipment they used was very different from what a modern hobby dyer would use – large vats, some holding more than a thousand gallons, heated by a furnace (stoked, I’m sure, by the apprentices), in which fabric might soak for hours or days in order to achieve a good color.  

I'm told by a friend with considerably more dyeing experience than I have that linen and cotton aren't necessarily hard to dye, they just take a three-step mordanting process instead of the one-step mordant necessary for wool. Modern hobby dyers, who are used to dyeing wool only, don't usually have success at dyeing linen because they don't want to take the time to do a three-step mordant, so they mark it off as impossible and go back to using wool.  So, we let our modern experience color (pun intended) our conceptions about what was and wasn't possible in the 18th century -- and most reenactors wind up wearing brown, blue, or grey, when, in fact, one finds an abundance of colors when looking at period records.

We tend to focus a lot on the 18th century as, to borrow a term, "The Age of Homespun."  (See the book by that title in the sources for this article -- it's well worth the read.)  In the popular conception, most colonists spun, wove, and dyed their own cloth, all the while fending off attacks from natives and redcoats.  While there is a grain of truth hidden in that Hollywood chestnut, the truth is that a good deal of fabric -- professionally dyed and/or printed, of course -- was being imported from Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.  And, indeed, very few of the early 17th c. colonists had the wherewithal to produce their own fabric (spinning wheels, looms). [Footnote -- the Age of Homespun]  The issue of home fabric production became one of political consequence; England suppressed attempts by colonists to set up manufactories that could convert raw materials into finished goods to compete with England's products, and limited colonists' ability to buy finished goods from other sources, so that a flourishing trade in smuggled goods arose by the time of the Revolution.  The ability to manufacture our own goods and to buy products from non-English sources became one part of the powder-keg that sparked the Revolution.  

From the beginning to the end of the 18th century, one sees a gradual increase in the number of spinning wheels and looms, so that at the time of the Revolution, many more women were spinning than had been doing so at the beginning of the century.  [Age of Homespun; also Hersh]  However, this doesn't mean that every woman spun, or even moreso that every woman wove what she spun into fabric.  Looms were owned at a far lower rate than spinning wheels.  What 18th c. women were doing with their spinning varied somewhat from place to place.  Some of it was certainly woven up at home by the women themselves, and some women took in weaving from other neighboring families.[Thatcher]  In rural Pennsylvania, a good bit of homespun thread was sent off to a professional weaver and/or a professional dyer (not necessarily the same person, and not necessarily in that order, depending on the desired finished product). [Hersh]  Some dyeing certainly was done at home, as evidenced by books (Bemiss) intended for that market.  But we tend to equate homespun with home-dyed and home-woven, and this doesn't seem to have been the case as much as is thought in the popular imagination.

Another of my pet peeves is the idea that homespun thread was coarse, lumpy, etc.  Prior to the invention of the spinning jenny (1764) all thread was hand-spun, and most of the textiles that have survived are made of thread that is extremely fine and/or well-spun.  Many (not all) modern hand-spinners tend to go for thicker yarns and sometimes a lumpy look to differentiate their yarn from machine-spun yarn, which is readily made and available.  Why imitate yarns that you can get off the shelf?  Also, since the current fashion is for knitting with larger stitch gauges and thicker yarns, that's what many spinners learn to do.  Unless they get into lace knitting, there's no need for them to learn to spin extremely fine yarns.

I can't tell you the number of times I've been to a museum and had a docent tell the tour group that the yarn on the spinning wheel -- thick, lumpy, and badly spun by a beginning spinner, I suspect -- was representative of what colonists wore in the 18th century.  And often, somewhere else in the museum, there's a piece of fabric, sometimes an article of clothing worn by an original inhabitant of the site, made with lovely, fine threads.  Makes me wonder if the tour guide ever looks at the display cases and wonders about the variance between the yarn and the fabric.  But that's a subject for another essay...

Another popular  misconception is that natural dyes are inferior in every way to modern chemical dyes, and if we’re going for a "period" look in the clothes we wear for reenacting, we ought to imitate the muted colors of period fabric as seen in museums. This is not correct – there are good and bad modern dyes (look at how faded an old, favorite t-shirt gets after years of wear). There were good and bad dyes in the 18th century, too – logwood was considered inferior because it faded too quickly, though it was eventually adapted for use with other dyes to get black. We have a somewhat incorrect view of 18th century fabrics if we go only by surviving clothing – that fabric is several hundred years old, so of course it has faded. When the fabric was new, the colors would have been more intense – you can see the original color of some clothing in the interior or seams, where it hasn’t been exposed to light, and often the colors are quite vibrant (with the exception of a few dyes which change with time, whether or not they’re exposed to sunlight).

I've also heard people say things like "They wouldn't have worn green / red / black etc. ["they" being, of course, 18th c. American colonists] because that color was too expensive / too time-consuming."  That's also demonstrably not true.  Bright colors such as yellow, red, green, purple, and a good range of other colors show up pretty frequently in 18th century runaway ads, inventories, and other period sources.  If there was a color that could be achieved with natural dyes, chances are someone wore it at some time.  The question is who (i.e., is the dye in question suitable for one's persona) and under what circumstances (would it have been worn every day, or for a 'Sunday best' outfit, for instance.)

So, where to begin?

First, you'll need a good dye vat.  If you're dyeing at home, you can use modern kitchen equipment like stock pots.  If you're doing a demo at an event, try to find a brass or copper kettle.

Mordants & other substances:
alum -- usually mined; can be obtained from club moss as well (in Baltic countries).
tartar of red wine (cream of tartar)
galls (presumably oak galls? AoD, p. 3)
white arsenic
gum (gum arabic? AoD, p.5)


Bran -- used with some materials, particularly with red dyes, to heighten the color.

varied from material to material

Silk -- boiled with soap for six hours, then mordanted overnight with alum (Art of Dying, p. 2)




American Historic Cookbook Project - some recipes for natural dyes
Click on "search the collection", search within text, then select "dye" within the Sample searches menu.

The Art of Dying, 

Copyright Notice: The Author of this work retains full copyright for the written material on this page. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

Copyright 2003, M. E. Riley