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.