A Brief History of Dyes

One of my primary interests is natural dyes, something I consider both an art-form and a science. Natural dyes have been around since the Neolithic period, and although its popularity has waned due to the creation of cheaper and more vibrant synthetic dyes in the mid-19th century, the history and methods of natural dyeing has always fascinated me.

Natural dyes are traditionally derived from three different categories of sources: plants, invertebrates, and minerals. Approximately 90%~95% of all natural dyes are created from plant matter, which includes roots, berries, bark, leaves, wood, fungi, and lichens.

The earliest surviving evidence of textile dyeing was found in the settlement of Çatalhöyük (Catal Huyuk) in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), which existed between 7500BC and 5700BC. Traces of red dyes, possibly from ocher (ochre), a naturally occurring pigment containing hydrated iron oxide. [1]

Plate Thirteen, a Catal Huyuk Fragment, dating from the mid-7th millennium BC. Image Source: http://www.weavingartmuseum.org/wamri/plate13.htm

Dyed fabrics have also been discovered in China, dating back to more than 5000 years ago. These fabrics were thought to have been dyed with various plants, barks, and insects. [2]

Not only were dyes ubiquitous throughout the ancient world, they were also extremely expensive. For example, the Roman Empire enacted strict policies on the regulation and usage of murex dyes, which were derived from several genera of sea snails native to the Eastern Coast of the Mediterranean. The crushed shells produced a vibrant and cost-prohibitive royal purple color (also known as Tyrian Purple) that would be used for royal garments and imperial manuscripts. It has been estimated that one pound of cloth dyed with murex would be worth approximately $50,000 in today’s currency! [3]

Mollusks and Murex Purple dye. Image Source: http://www.debrastudio.com/blog/2014-what-i-learned

The Vikings were of no exception to civilizations’ fascination with colors. Woad, weld, madder, walnut, and other indigenous plant matter were used to produce all sorts of colors, from blues, yellows, reds, and browns. In addition to what they had geographically available, the Vikings’ extensive trade routes meant that they could import dyestuffs not available locally, such as Polish cochineal and kermes, which are insects that can be crushed to produce carmine dye, resulting in a wide variety of purples, pinks, and reds. [4]

Fiber dyed with cochineal (carmine dye) in various shades. Image Source: blog.hmns.org/2012/11/color-me-carmine-cochineal-bugs-in-our-food-and-drink/

Countless other cultures and civilizations all have their own colors and methods of extracting said colors, and I look forward to learning more about them. I have tried some natural dyeing already, but my new objective is to learn more about the historical backgrounds of these dyes and colors, and look at color from the perspective of my persona. I will keep updating the blog with more research as I compile and organize them, so please feel free to return at a later date to learn some more!

Yours in service,
Lady Mathilde Huldsdotter, AoA



[1] Barber, E.J.W. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

[2] Goodwin, Jill. A Dyer’s Manual. London: Pelham, 1982. Print.

[3] Druding, Susan. “Dye History from 2600BC to the 20th Century.” Convergence 1982, a bi-annual gathering of weavers, dyers and spinners. Seattle, WA. 1982. Lecture.

[4] Gundersen, Kristina. “Viking Age Dyes: A Brief Overview.” Academia. 2013. Web.

HOTW #001

I thought it would be nice for me to intermittently interrupt our regularly scheduled fiber-related posts with some period literature, to provide further insight into the culture and mindset of the Scandinavian people during the Viking Age. This would happen maybe once a week, hence the title of the post; Havamal of the Week.

And that is exactly what we’ll be starting off with! The Havamal is my favorite of the Viking Age texts, as it is said to be attributed to Odin. It was also supposed to be regarded as a code of conduct, and instructed people on proper behavior and etiquette. Also, the work has more than 150 stanzas, so there is plenty of material to cover.

Currently, the only surviving source for the Havamal is the Codex Regius, an Icelandic codex containing numerous Old Norse poems. It is thought to have been written in the 1270s, but contains stanzas from as early as the 9th Century, including those from the Havamal.

Today’s excerpt will focus on the idea of hospitality:

2. Hail, ye Givers! a guest is come;
say! where shall he sit within?
Much pressed is he who fain on the hearth
would seek for warmth and weal.

3. He hath need of fire, who now is come,
numbed with cold to the knee;
food and clothing the wanderer craves
who has fared o’er the rimy fell.

4. He craves for water, who comes for refreshment,
drying and friendly bidding,
marks of good will, fair fame if ’tis won,
and welcome once and again.

While modern depictions of Vikings may portray them as a fierce, barbaric warrior culture, that was not their only manner of conduct. Hospitality was important, even if only for the survival of the population; where the winters are cold and harsh, hosts were expected to provide travelers with much needed supplies and respite, lest they be subjected to the same difficult conditions. Even if the host was of no great financial status, they were expected to provide at least food and shelter, and passersby were expected to be polite and respectful, and compensate the host for their troubles in some form of material goods or services.

Another reason that the Vikings would be more than eager to offer travelers hospitality was because of the gods. Odin, one of the most important Germanic gods, was said to wander down to the realm of men frequently, often in the guise of a traveling old man. He would test people’s hospitality, and reward those who were kind, and punish those who weren’t.

The Havamal can be read in its full and complete text here.

Yours in service,
Lady Mathilde Huldsdotter, AoA

Hej, og velkommen til min hjemmeside!

Hallo, og velkommen! Starting a blog by immediately jumping into content always seems awkward and strange to me, so here is my obligatory inaugural introductory post.

I am Lady Mathilde Huldsdotter of Mynydd Seren, a small shire located in the Kingdom of the Midrealm. If you are familiar with the Society for Creative Anachronism, you will know immediately what this is all about; if not, I am, in essence, an occasional historical reenactor. Specifically, I portray the persona of a spinner, weaver, and dyer living in Gotland (specifically the city of Visby), some time between the 10th and 11th centuries.

I am starting this blog, mostly in the hopes of creating an easier way for me to compile and keep track of all of the information I use to educate myself on learning more about my persona. That of course doesn’t restrict the audience to solely myself; in fact, I would be more than thrilled to share my academic journey with you!

Most of the information on this blog will be related to my fields of interest, namely fiber arts and other information that may be relevant to my persona. However, I will also be posting other interesting tidbits on Vikings. I hope you can find something of interest here.

Yours in service,
Lady Mathilde Huldsdotter, AoA