Textiles and dyeing belong to the earliest cultural achievements of humans. Most natural dyes were discovered in prehistoric times and by the beginning of the Christian era dyeing technology had achieved high levels. Cities acquired reputations and fortunes from their locally developed quality of dyes and expertise in dye application. Textile colors were used to signal exalted persons (the Caesar in Rome, the emperor in China), the clergy, gladiators and race horses, political parties.
In this blog series we want to follow the steps of the development of textile dyes and their usage. It will start with the Classical world, continue with Renaissance, Roccoco, the 19th and 20th century and finish with the today’s technological development and an outlook to what the future will bring.
The Invention of textile dyes
The invention of textile dyeing is lost in the midst of history. The earliest written record of the use of dyestuffs was found in China from around 2600 BC. There are dyed textile samples from Egyptian graves from around 2500 BC. From the earliest history Egyptian kings and queens had to be clothed in yellow robes. The Egyptian Papyrus Anastasy of around 1400 BC mentions the craft of purple dyers.
Purple is the most important of natural dyes in antiquity, and derived from the sea snail murex brandaris V (and others). It made the Phoenician city of Tyre famous. Among the treasures that Alexander the Great brought from his campaigns in Persia were 5,000 talents of purple dye, of immense value, as reported by Plutarch, the historian.
In the following centuries weaving techniques were developed and improved. Starting with the Iron Age (750 BC) , plants were grown to produce dyes from them. The three main plants were:
Woad – the fermentation of the first years leaves extracts a blue dye of the indigo family
Madder – the roots are crushed and boilded in water to get a red dye
Weld – the whole plant was boiled to extract a yellow dye(1)
The picture shows the remainders of a large gown from the Iron Age (750 BC) found in northern Germany (the Thorsberg Robe) that indicate a highly developed weaving technique and blue dyeing with dyer’s woad, related to indigo.
Dyeing in the Roman empire
By the time of the Roman empire, dyeing had become a well established craft. Excavations in Roman Egypt and in the Italian city Pompeii (covered in 79 AD by the ashes of erupting Vesuvius) give us a good picture of early dye plants. Pompeii was a textile production center and there were several ruins in which fire heated stone vats were found.
By the time of Christ, dozens of natural dyes were known. In the Egyptian Papyrus Holmiensis, written in the 3rd century AD in Greek, seventy dye recipes, many dealing with imitation purple, are recorded. Still, the color purple played a special role. The craft of a purple dyer was a respectable one. Purple was reserved for Ceasar and his highest officers.
To be continued…
Next post: The History of Colors in Textiles II: Rennaissance