A Guide for Consumers
So, you're not a dyer but you'd like to know what kind of colours might be obtainable in the Middle Ages so you can choose the right fabric or embroidery floss. And what about the fabric itself: what fibres were available? What weaves? What Patterns?
Brightness & the quality of colour of any dyestuff is affected by the salts (mordents) in the water of the dye bath. The pot used can create these salts. So if only an iron pot or a copper pot is available for dyeing, bright colours will not be possible. Iron darkens (saddens) the colour. Copper tends to make it greener or change it in other ways. Tin pots will likely give brighter colour. Alum was available from Roman times and was used as a chemical mordent (added to the pot), it produces clear bright colours – but not if the pot is iron or copper. Clay pots could have been used as dye vats, or to heat water that could be transferred to a larger wooden vessel for dyeing. Tannins are also used as mordents and so the wooden vessel may also affect colour.
Early Period/Dark Ages: Home dyeing, dyed in fleece or yarn, smaller dye vats are required, and fibres can be blended to get a more even colour. Using locally available materials.
Late Middle Ages/Renaisance: Dyeing moves to Guilds/Industry. Cloth dyed in bolts, Woad, Madder & Weld/Greenweed become the production primaries. More use of overdyeing, eg. to produce strong greens, redder reds and pure black. Fulling process means fabric now dyed as finished cloth, flatter, more uniform colour.
A survey of items in wills, inventories in England 1580-1660:
50% garments naturally pigmented (grey, brown: “russet”, “frieze”).
25% undyed white (plus 100% linen undergarments)
25% dyed: black, red, green, blue, brown, violet, yellow, murrey, medley, motley, tawney, orange, sage, sky, straw coloured, ash coloured, Shepton coloured.
Generally, a later period, or richer/higher status persona will have more and stronger colours available to them.
Many plant stuffs will give a yellow or green dye, particularly “goose-turd greens” if urine is added, or a copper pot is used. However, stronger richer greens, like Lincoln Green were available, for a price, by over-dyeing a yellow wool with woad. With the rise of Guilds, Weld (DMC 7784, 7784, 7473, 7573 or 7583) and Dyers Greenweed (7727 or 7680) become the popular source of yellow.
On its own, woad gives soft blues (DMC 7030, 7313, or 7035), like faded denim. Deeper blues (like new blue jeans, 7318) may be available, particularly on silk or cotton, traded from India. Navy blues weren’t popular, or possible, also avoid bright turquoise blues (7036, 7995) as these involve a modern chemical.
Madder root (Rubia tinctorum) gives warm brick red, peach, tan, brown, or rose pink (DMC 7920, 7175, 7875, 7920, 7184, 7446, 7446, 7167 or 7199). The plant is native to Asia, introduced to England by/before 11thC and is the most common dye identified in 14thC finds.
Pure black is a sign of wealth, but a poorer, cheaper “plain black” (dark brown) either from naturally coloured sheep wool, or dyed using walnut or oak gall, is available to (almost) all. By the 16th C there were separate guilds of Woaders, Madderers and Ordinary Dyers, who collaborated to produce the stronger, darker colours, presumably making the blended colours more expensive/prestigious.
Murex & Lichen purples & pinks seem to become less available with time, either as the local supply of materials run out, or as guilds monopolise the supply. Murex (DMC 7245) and Orchil are restricted to Constantinople, after the fall of Rome. Rocella production is centred in Florence (11th or 15thC.) and though expensive, becomes fashionable throughout Europe with the new Middle Class. Ochrolechia (DMC 7961), Lasallia and Umbilicaria used by the Norse, and later (14th C), Ochrolechia is traded to France through Winchester, England.
Wool – most common throughout Europe. Used for warmth, sheds water, takes strong colours.
Linen – Originally S. Europe, rare in Northern Europe before AD 600. More complex processing than wool; good for underwear & normally white, doesn’t take natural dyes well.
The term linen may apply to all plant stem fibres (hemp & nettle) not just flax.
Silk – Imported from India, Asia, takes strong colours. Used for brocades, velvets.
Cotton – Egyptian, Mediterranean, rarer, more expensive than linen until the 18th century.
[Illustrations to follow]
Plain weave, tabby, linen weave - A
plain 2:1 - B,
plain 2:2 - C,
diamond – F
In the Dark Ages/Early Medieval period (longer in rural areas & for “homespun” fabric) fibre is often dyed before weaving, stripes, so plaids, & checks are possible as pattern in the woven cloth. Also, the twill patterns can be more visible by using one colour in the warp, one in the weft.
Anglo Saxon England: (surviving cloth)
446 pieces tabby, est. 2/3 linen, about 1/3 wool. Mostly 10-20 threads per cm, but as fine as 63/23, or 32/32.
592 pieces plain 2:2 twill. About 85% wool, 15% flax, mostly 10-15 threads per cm.
52 pieces broken/diamond twill
~8 (1.7%) 2:1 twill
~56 (12.6%) tablet woven braids or borders.
In the 14th century Fulling Mills come into use, producing a more finished cloth (like Melton) often from a tabby woven fabric. The heavy machinery is hard on colours so dyeing is done on the finished cloth, not as yarn or fleece before weaving. The result is a flat cloth of one uniform colour.
Also from the 14th century there were Brocades (mostly Silks, often multicoloured) – although early as the Viking period you do find tablet woven bands with gold brocade.
Textured fabric, Cord du Roi, and Velvets, are available in this later period.
See links for more information.
c.Josephine Duke, 2013