Judging a Cloth by its Color…. part 3 44


By Shari Fuller

As the world  entered the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution went into full swing and with it the new branch of science called chemistry.  As early chemists began isolating and identifying elements they were able figure out ways to reproduce natural dyes from other other sources.  These discoveries would take the dye industry on an unexpected turn.

In 1775, a young chemist named Carle Wilhelm Scheele produced the first synthetic dye when he discovered that a

Emerald green turned out to be highly toxic, a single dress could contain enough arsenic to kill several people!

Emerald green turned out to be highly toxic, a single dress could contain enough arsenic to kill several people!

compound he had made from copper and arsenic made a beautiful bright green color that was exceptionally colorfast on fabric.  Until his discovery, green dyes were difficult to make and weren’t particularly colorfast.  Scheele’s green was an instant success that enchanted  fashion designers whose color palettes quickly began centering on this new and exciting color.  In 1814 , chemists developed an even brighter and more popular emerald green dye from arsenic and verdigris.  Emerald green fquickly became the epitome of fashion!  Every fashionable home had at least one green room bedecked in green wallpaper, green curtains, and green upholstery.  The

Green rooms became fashionable death traps as humidity vaporized the arsenic in the wallpaper.

Green rooms became fashionable death traps as humidity vaporized the arsenic in the wallpaper.

most fashionable ladies became the center of attention in their stunning emerald green silk dresses.  Confection makers added green dye to their candies and other sweets to make them more tantalizing.  Green was everywhere!  Did you, by chance, notice that the common ingredient found in both of these dyes was arsenic?  Remember, at this point in time chemistry was a new science and the toxicity of  arsenic was not fully understood.   As you might imagine, it didn’t take long before it became evident that these dyes were extremely toxic.  People wasted away in their beautiful green rooms, ladies developed serious skin conditions and other ailments from their green dresses, and children died from green sweets given to them by doting parents.  Most alarmingly, factory workers developed horrible skin conditions and illnesses that resulted in numerous deaths.  Despite warnings, however, emerald green had become the most fashionable color of the time and despite the countless people that were falling ill or dying from it, businesses didn’t want to give up the revenue it generated and customers didn’t want to fall out of fashion.


The introduction of “Mauvine” whet peoples appetite for all things bright and beautiful!

Emerald green was just the first color to be created in the laboratories of these early chemists.  The coal powered factories of the Industrial Revolution created a lot of black coal tar waste that no one knew what to do with.  It was polluting the rivers it was dumped into and turning the fields it was buried under in to wastelands.  In 1856, 18-year-old college student William Perkin was experimenting with coal tar hoping to discover a synthetic form of quinine, the only known cure malaria at the time.  English soldiers stationed in India were dying in droves from malaria and the natural quinine that came from the bark of the cinchona tree in South America was in short supply.  During one of his experiments, Perkins noticed that his mixture of coal tar turned a rich purple color – a color similar to the Tyrian purple that was worth more than its weight in gold.  When he found that fabric dyed with this mixture didn’t run or fade, he knew he had stumbled upon a most valuable discovery.  Perkin’s called his purple dye “mauve” and  when it became a favorite color of Queen Victoria, the trendsetter of the Victorian Era, it became an instant sensation.  Perkin’s discovery opened the door to the potential of synthetic dyes, and by the end of the 19th century coal tar, once a useless and filthy byproduct of the industrial age, became the main source for an array of beautiful synthetic colors that put the natural dye industry out of business almost overnight.  


Illustration of dyer’s hands damaged by arsenic

The Victorian Era is known for its swooning ladies, chronic illness, and hazardous working environments.  Mauve was revolutionary in bringing a whole new range of bright and vibrant colors to the world, but like its green predecessors, it was unfortunately incredibly toxic, being made with arsenic, picric acid, and other harmful chemicals.  Factory workers, dyers, and 10.02.26-Arsenic-Waltzartisans that produced arsenic-infused items frequently suffered from arsenic poisoning.  Painters such as Van Gogh, Cezanne suffered as well.  A report done in the 1890s revealed that about 20% of dress goods (fabrics for clothing) contained more than 3mg of arsenic per meter.  Figuring that an average dress at the time used 7 yards of fabric, the average daily dose received from the most poisonous of dresses  which turned out to be a red and black, was 21mg, 1/5th of the lethal dose.  As hazardous working conditions became more apparent it became increasingly difficult to ignore the dangers of arsenic based dyes.  By the end of the 19th century, improved methods in chemical research and development, and stricter regulations in the workplace  made dyes safer.  It is interesting to note that even in the 20th century, Scheele’s green was still being sold –  though it was no longer sold as a dye, but as a highly effective rat poison.

Happy Belated Saint Patrick’s Day everyone!  I had this article written for last month, but forgot to link it to the newsletter.  Leave a comment below to get entered in a random drawing for a one yard piece of “Poison Green” fabric,  a 19th century reproduction from Andover Fabrics.  This is a high quality quilt fabric and just perfect to for making a most fashionable dress from one of our 19th century patterns.   I will be drawing one winner today for last month and another winner who will be announced in next months newsletter.


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44 thoughts on “Judging a Cloth by its Color…. part 3

  • Candice Lacy

    Wow! These articles are fascinating, I knew that many commonly used colors were made with dyes that were unhealthy, but I never realized just how poisonous most were. Thank you for your research!

  • Marcy Mahle

    I not only read all your articles about the history of sewing, cloth and dress styles but I also print them and keep them in a binder for future reference. Thank you for keeping us all informed about the sewing past. I love your historical patterns.

  • Lindsay

    Wow! The lenghts we go for fashion! I knew old dyes and cosmetics were bad, but that much poison in a yard of fabric is amazing. No wonder women were always swooning, between the corsets and arsenic they hardly stood a chance.

  • Joan longbrake

    great information and very interesting. So to become beautiful one had to wear poison. Revolution of so many things turn out to be toxic even today…thank you for publishing 1O1
    all this information and your research

  • Becky L

    My favorite color has always been emerald green. I most certainly would have died at a young age if I had lived back then, because I too would have been wearing and surrounding myself with it. On that happy note…..Happy St. Patty’s Day!

  • janet S

    Emerald is my birth stone – and one of my favorites! I have learned a LOT from these articles. It makes me sad for the people that died for fashion, and happy that we are all safer now. Thanks Shari!

  • Deb

    Your article mentioning colors which were poisonous reminds me of my art teacher in high school. He would lecture me on the different oil paints and it was surprising how many had poisons in them….usually the ones I used the most.

  • Tatiana

    Very interesting! I really enjoy learning about fashion history. Thanks for this opportunity!

  • Suzanne

    Wow! Thanks for such a clearer understanding of why that color was called “poison green “.

  • Carol Ann

    I too really look forward to your newsletters! I love all the great information! Maybe you could copy that purple dress and make it into a pattern for us all!! (hint, hint – LOL!)

  • Vicki

    Soooo interesting and something I would never think to research on my own! Thanks for sharing!

  • Joan

    I guess the good old days weren’t always so great. And now we know why people died at a young age, thanks again Shari.

  • Mary H.

    I love your historical articles. I’d heard before about the poisonous green dye, but hadn’t heard about mauve before — or exactly how much poison could be in a single dress!

  • Vickie

    Shari , this was such a fascinating article to read. I really enjoy getting your newsletters. Your research and the patterns you make are top notch. Thank you again for taking the time to do this.

  • Sheila

    Your articles are amazing.So well reasearched.Despite the arsenic I do love green.Cadmium is another no no.

  • Jessica Beery

    Good grief! If I had learned about the poisonous dyes before, I had totally forgotten (the cartoon of the dancing skeletons looks familiar — must have been included in a history book I had in school once). I read most of this article to my husband — crazy scary stuff! I guess I must not be very fashion-conscience because I simply cannot fathom wearing something I knew was killing me just to look in style. But I really feel bad for the people who didn’t know (the wallpaper, children’s sweets, etc.) Glad we don’t deal with this kind of stuff today (or do we??? LOL). Thanks for the fun history lesson! Apparently it didn’t strike me hard enough the first time I saw the illustration years ago… 😉

  • Christie

    I can understand the excitement over the new colours, especially green, since my younger sister loves everything emerald and being, as my dearest friend described me to her daughter, ” …because Christie is a collector,” I would have wanted all the pretty green things too. What I don’t understand is when it became known what the dye was doing, making people sick and even killing them, why did it take so long for the “collectors/fashionistas,” so to speak, of the time to stop. A lesson to be learned there, I believe.

    I thought the newsletter was good, but a lot shorter than normal. I’m glad you alerted us about this missing piece, It filled it all out quite nicely. Thanks, Shari, for sharing your knowledge and heart with us.

  • Cheryl Tauferner

    Thank you so much for the history. When we bought our 100+ year old house more than 25 years ago we found lots of green under layers of remodels over the years. We were told then about the advent of green dyes and paints.

  • Donna

    Thank you for the history of fabric dyes. Emerald Green has long been a favorite color with this Irish Lass. It’s best to know where the fabric is made and the content of the dyes. Still today many fabrics have harsh chemicals and can cause irritation. Launder them first and see how much of the dye bleeds, too.

  • Melodie Hess

    Your articles are fascinating and a wonderful source of information .. some of things I would not have thought to ask about. I’m a tad concerned that the “mauvine” color looks so much like the fuchsias I love and wear frequently 🙂 Thank you so much for all you share with us!

  • Rebecca

    This is fascinating–thank you so much for sharing!

    I wonder if the harmful dyes were any inspiration behind witches traditionally having green skin, like in The Wizard of Oz.

  • Judy Holland

    This information is wonderful! Those of us who enjoy sewing appreciate your research on this as well as the wonderful historical patterns. Last year, I had an exhibit of 13 historical dresses at a center for the arts and a college. The response was amazing. They loved all of the detail in the designs. Thank you for your wonderful patterns and research.

  • Diane

    Not only are your patterns beautiful but you also give the history of the times in which the fashions were created! Thanks so much for your inspiration and education.

  • Janine R

    I had no idea fabrics were so toxic in the past. Glad I live now! Thanks for the information on this fascinating subject.

  • Sophie T

    Such an interresting article (I’m glad you linked it to this newsletter!). It fascinated even my son who likes everything related to science (including chemestry!). I didn’t know natural green dies were not lasting… No wonder people were fascinated by those vibrant colors!

  • Kate

    I cannot express how much this fascinates me! I appreciate every moment that you spend researching and sharing with us, thank you for your time!

  • Carol Meadows

    So, the very thing that Van Gogh loved most—painting—did indeed contribute to his illness, ultimately leading to his death! How sad. Thank you, Thimbles and Acorns , for this very interesting and informative article! Looking forward to more and more !!!

  • Jessica

    Wow – it’s fascinating reading about the history of dyes. The articles that you include are always so informative. It’s so tragic that so much harm came from fashion.

  • Monya Duva!l

    Love reading history! I never heard about poisonous dyes, people must not have taken it seriously to have kept on wearing the color.

  • Monique Venne

    I didn’t realize green was such a difficult dye for fabric. Thank heavens arsenic isn’t used as a dye anymore, as I love to wear green!

  • Melangell

    Incredibly interesting. I knew about Elizabethian ladies using arsenic on their faces to achieve that white color. I never knew it was used in dye. I feel very sorry for the workers making the dyes. Reminds me of workers in asbestos plants or more recently the microwave popcorn butter health scares.

  • Shayla Sharp

    Fascinating article. I knew about the poisonous greens, but had not read about the mauve. It does make you wonder how many items from today’s world will be seen in the same light in another few decades!

  • Melodie Hess

    I love the articles you share with us! I love color and thinking what will compliment what. Emerald green is wonderful, but I’m a partial to the “Mauvine”. Thanks for all you do to share with all of us that love sewing for dolls!

  • Karen L

    Green is one of my favorite colors, but now I will look at it just a bit differently! Your story illustrates the expression, “suffering for your art.”

  • Penny

    This brings new meaning to the phrase, ” It’s to die for.” I’d have wanted that emerald green too.

  • Carol B.

    How fickle fashion can be!
    I love all shades of green but I am thankful that we have safer dyes today.