Period Dyes and Colors

One day I had the distinct pleasure to spend the afternoon with a friend who I consider to be very skilled in the arts of medieval dyeing. She had many pots, some hot, some cold, some large, some small, but all containing vegetable matter of one sort or another. Things like walnut shells, turmeric, weld stalks, brazilwood chips etc.

Better living through chemistry was the motto of the day. For instance, I wanted a green wool and after dyeing a hank first in turmeric and then indigo, I was surprised (and  dissappointed) to get brown. I already had brown. Lots of brown. “Toss it into the ammonia bath.” Which I did and instantaneously it turned the most lovely shade of moss green. The batch of wool that I dyed in weld and indigo needed no ammonia bath to turn green. But who would have thought. And now we know why urine was so popular for dyeing fibers. It was the period ammonia and it could work wonders.

The colors I show you here in these pictures are the results of that day of dyeing. You will note that the larger bundles of wool have a slightly different shade than the smaller crewel wools. We could only attribute that to the difference in modern manufacturing and fiber processing. They both started out the same color, winter white. I have done my best to make sure that the colors you see in the monitor come as close to what I see with my naked eye. Your monitor might show color variations. You will also note that next to each wool sample is a little card that I made that day showing how many times a fiber was dipped into which dyes, if there was a mordant used, and if there was an ammonia bath or not.

Sadly it turned out the madder we had was too old to dye properly and we came away with very unsatisfying results. This should have given us anything from pink to a rusty red but what we got was something that looked like, white with a little bit of the palest pink here and there. But madder was a very popular dye in the medieval period so use it freely.

For a more in-depth online discussion of colors available in this period and how to get them, check out this page from Historic Enterprises.

  • Blues – Indigo, Woad, and in the case of the bottom shade, Brazilwood first then indigo in an attempt at purple
  • Browns – Walnut shells
  • Greens – Indigo, Weld, Turmeric
  • Reds – Brazilwood, Madder, kermes (an insect not a vegetable)
  • Yellows – Weld, Turmeric, Saffron, Onion Skins

2 thoughts on “Period Dyes and Colors

    • Hi Veronica!

      Not sure how this helped with story writing but yay!

      The cheapest dye isn’t one of the ones used on the great dying experiment day but I would say onion skins. Some grocery stores will let you have a bunch of the skins from the bin or you can save them from your cooking. Just the outer skins. Depending on the onion you will get any color between a heavy golden cream color to pale bronze, tan, light grown, and if using red onions, blues etc. and don’t forget to try different mordants (the healthy ones).

      For me, I think the cheapest dyes are the ones you can find in your wanderings. I try to be very careful not to take too much from any plant but one of the reasons certain dyes were used was because you could gather them from nature.

      Here’s a site you might find useful.
      Piooneer Thinking: Natural Dyes.

      Obviously turmeric and saffron will a bit spendy but I suggest getting a book on natural dyes and their history and going from there as, while I’m not afraid of just throwing stuff in the vat, I’m no expert.

      Have fun!


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