Judging a Cloth by its Color… What Fabric Tells Us, part 1 49


When I was very young, I remember admiring a black and white photo of my mom wearing a very pretty dress and the amazement I felt when she showed me that same dress hanging in her closet.  The color was so beautiful.  It had never occurred to me that life was so colorful back then.  Looking at the world around me, I still find it fascinating to think that the blues of the sky, the greens of the leaves, and the bright colors of the flowers are the same today as they were a thousand years ago.   Though we have always been surrounded by an infinite spectrum of color, until recently we have only been able to produce a small portion of that spectrum on fabric.

Clothing from ancient times up until the 18th century was much more colorful than we might expect since the earliest records of fabric dyeing dates back to 2600 BC.  Though the color choices were limited to more organic hues made from a variety of plants, animals, and minerals,  a wide and exciting pallet of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, violets, browns and black could be achieved.  Because cottons and linens don’t readily absorb most natural dyes,  their colors were generally limited to lighter shades.  Wools and silks, on the other hand, readily absorb these dyes which 18th-century-carribbean-dressmade it possible to dye them in a wide array of rich and dark colors.  All dyes were not created equal however.  The dyestuffs for colors such as red, blue, and purple had to be imported from exotic places and required the skills of trained craftsmen and artisans who understood the complicated methods of extracting and fixing; methods that were closely held secrets of the weaver’s and dyer’s guilds.  While colors such as deep blue, violet, peacock blue, rich deep green, rose, purple, wine, and orange could be achieved, their scarcity and the labor intensity they required made them so costly, only the very rich could afford to wear them.  At least only the very rich could  wear new garments in these colors.  Clothing was so valuable, the second hand market was a thriving trade.  Over time, articles of clothing trickled down the social classes,  being altered, remade, and repurposed along the way.  It may have been that a tattered red velvet cap worn by a poor peasant may have once been a gorgeously bedecked velvet gown of of a noblewoman. 

It has long been assumed that black was a color almost exclusively worn by those of higher stations because the deep color was difficult and expensive to achieve.  However, black could be achieved through several simple methods using readily available materials such as oak galls, human urine, blackberry leaves, and lime.  Yes, I did say human urine, and believe me this is not the most repugnant of ingredients used by dyers.  Although black was probably available to people from all social classes, peasants more commonly wore brown as a matter of preference rather than economics.

Blues, derived chiefly from woad and indigo plants, were bright and cheerful and though they weren’t the most expensive dyes, they were by no means cheap.  Woad was indigenous to England and Europe, but the process of extracting theMeisje_met_de_parel dye was long, complicated, and smelly, as it required many weeks of fermenting in manure 4618bec4027fffe78565b59651117a6eand urine – remember I mentioned that urine wasn’t the most repugnant of ingredients used by dyers.  Queen Elizabeth I forbade the processing of Woad dye within a five mile radius of any royal estate because she so abhorred the stench.  This labor intensive process made the only reliable source for blue color in England so expensive one might pay as much for one blue dress as a small house.  Indigo, one of the oldest known dyes, came from Asia.  It produced a brighter blue than Woad and when it was introduced to Europe in the 16th century, it quickly took over the market.  When trade in Indigo began to threaten the English, French, and German Woad industries, the importation of Indigo was forbidden in these countries until the 17th century.  From then on, Indigo reigned in popularity until the demand for it dramatically increased during the industrial revolution, due in part due to the popularity of Levi Strauss’s blue denim jeans, and the market was quickly destroyed by its own success.   Make a comment below about the color blue to be entered in a drawing for a sample package of 100% silk blue ribbon. 

Red dye was one of the most difficult and expensive hues to produce and its distinctive color became a favorite of royalty and a mark of power and wealth.  The first rich, long lasting red dyes came from the Madder plant.  Used by Ancient Egyptians, Romans, and later Europeans, madder was tricky to produce that reached its brightest manifestation with the Turks.  The processing methods for “Turkey Red” took months and included more than a dozen steps.  It was this dye that was used to dye most of the the red wool coats of the British Army during the 18th century.  Another source of red dye came from an insect native to the Mediterranean called the Kermes and is identified in the Biblical book of Exodus where Grenadier_40th_1776references are made to scarlet colored linen.  It required many thousands of little insect bodies to produce just a small amount of dye.  Kermes was by no means less expensive, little-red-riding-hood-jessie-willcox-smithbut it was more vibrant and colorfast than Madder dyes.  During an expedition to Mexico in 1518, the Spanish learned of a red dye made from a native insect called the cochineal that had been used by the Aztecs and Mayans for centuries. Cochineal produced the most intense and stunning red Europe had ever seen, quickly becoming one of the most valued commodities from the New World, second only to silver.  Of course, to maintain the monopoly on this valuable new commodity, it was important to keep the sources and production methods a secret – a devastating turnaround for the native population to say the least.  Production of this red dye grew rapidly and when the 18th century brought a period of increased prosperity, bright scarlet red cloth became accessible to everyone for the first time in history.   Because it was still more expensive than other colors, it was generally reserved for special articles of clothing.  The use of scarlet cloth for hooded cloaks became very popular among the working class, adding cheery warmth to the dull cold winter months  The most enduring picture the scarlet cloak was immortalized in the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood”.

Tyrian Purple dye, the grandest of all dyes, was first produced by the ancient Phoenicians and was greatly prized not

Emperor Justinian in his Tyrian Purple robe.

Emperor Justinian in his Tyrian Purple robe.


Marie Antoinette in a lavender gown.

only for it’s rich color but because it did not fade.  In fact, it became brighter and more intense with weathering and sunlight.  It was also the most expensive dye to produce and was literally worth more than its weight in gold.  Because this richly colored dye was so precious, the Emperors of Byzantium made a law forbidding anybody who was not royalty from wearing it.  The expression ‘born in the purple’ rose from this practice.    Collecting and processing the dye however was far from a regal occupation.  Because each snail produces just two small drops of the milky-looking secretion the dye is derived from, it took as many as 10,000 snails to make enough dye for just one toga.  The secretion came from a small gland inside the snail, and although there were methods of milking it from the snails, it was such a time consuming process that dye producers found it easier to simply crush the snail to get at the gland.   The crushed snails were then left out in the sun to rot before painstakingly collecting all the oozy smelly glands.   By carefully timing its exposure to sunlight, dyers could create a wide variety of shades, the most prized being an almost black-purple.  The smell from the rotting mollusks was so atrocious that no one could bear to live nearby and women whose husbands chose to become dye makers after they were married were given legal grounds for divorce.  By the 18th century. the color purple had become much more widely available as new dying methods found ways to extract the color from an assortment of lichens, berries, and other plants.  Though not as grand, they were certainly pretty and much more affordable.  Comment below about the color purple to be entered in a drawing for a sample package of 100% silk Pomegranate ribbon.  

By the 18th century, alternative sources, improved dyeing methods, the rise of the middle class, and relaxed sumptuary laws made just about all the existing fabric colors available to everyone.  Still, certain colors were still more precious than others and owning a bright red cape or peacock blue shoes was akin to owning a pair of the very greenlatest designer jeans today.  The 18th century was a period of revolutions, revolutions that not only brought individual freedom to the common people, but a new freedom of thought that lead to many new and exciting innovations.  Chemistry was just emerging as a new branch of science and in 1775,  Carle Wilhelm Scheele invented the first chemical dye.  Scheeles’s Green, a deep rich green, was derived from copper and arsenic and despite evidence that the dye was highly toxic, the new color became all the rage.  Carl Scheele opened the door to the development of chemical and synthetic dyes in the 19th century that eventually give us the infinite spectrum of fabric dyes that we have today.  Just like any revolution, there would be a dark side with countless victims of fashion… and not just victims of poor taste.


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49 thoughts on “Judging a Cloth by its Color… What Fabric Tells Us, part 1

  • Candice Lacy

    I love the color blue, probably because I have blue eyes, as does a portion of my doll population. Although I must confess, I do tend to choose brown-eyed brunettes and green-eyed redheads a fair amount of time too!

  • Candice Lacy

    I also love the color purple, just not on myself. It makes my skin tone look funny, but I love to use it in garments for my dolls. I’m better in the lighter pastel shade…


    Thanks for the information. Is so interesting to read about the processes the dyes went through to make the beautiful clothing the rich enjoyed. I can see why the blues and purples were so expensive.

  • Jessica

    I love blues and purples. Almost all of my outfits include at least one of those colors. This was a great article I really liked learning about how fabric was dyed in the past.

  • Beth Sherwin

    Blue has always been a favorite color of mine for decorating and fashion–blue denim being my everyday “work at home mom outfit”!

  • Elizabeth

    Wow, I didn’t know all of that about the color blue! Thanks for such an interesting and informative article!

  • Karen

    Blue is one of my absolute favorite colors. It always makes me feel good when I see it. Especially when done in silk!

  • Karen

    Purple is another one of my favorites. I did not really know any of this information that was shared here. It was very interesting. I would like to know how these people came up with using bugs and urine, etc. to make such beautiful colors.

  • Lynn Ablard

    Blue was my favourite colour for most of my life. In the last ten years purple has taken over! This was a very interesting article in how important colour was in the past that they sought it out far and wide.

  • Rachel Koppleberger

    Thank you for a fascinating read. I didn’t know that getting dyes was so difficult (or smelly), or that purple used to be exclusively for Royals. I’m glad that it isn’t any more, because I love blue and purple together (as well as green and blue or green and purple, and many other combinations as well).

  • Lesley from NE

    I love the color purple. I am glad that crushed snails are not part of the dyeing process now!

  • Nan Scott

    Blue is my favourite color. It reminds me of how blessed I am. Beautiful blue skies, all the different shades of flowers and waterways. Lovely. My dolls wear a lot of blues.

    Purple always reminds me of royalty. It can be so delicate, and then again rich and elegant.

  • Deana Guardado

    I love the colors Royal blue and Royal purple. Perhaps there should also be a “Royal red.” I had no idea that these colors were so difficult to achieve, or so unpleasant to produce. Hopefully there was a cleaning method that removed the smell on the fabrics! It’s interesting that King Solomon, in Proverbs 31, described the perfect woman as one who deals with purple fabrics. Perhaps the context was only the women of the Royal court, as no one else would have had access to such fine fabrics.

  • Jude Boese

    Thank you for all the insightful and fascinating information. Manure, urine and dead snails just don’t come to mind when I think of dyes. I have dyed a lot of wool for spinning, and really enjoy just plain old kool aide for great colors….smells better too! Please take care of yourself and God speed on a quick recovery. Jude

  • Sheila

    I really enjoyed reading your very well researched article.Purple reminds me of Lydia in the Bible and blue takes me immediately to theHandel(I think) song called “Waft her Angels” and azure sky.I love that song.It is about the daughter in the Bible who had to die because her Father made a promise that the first person to come down the path would be scarificed.I forget the story apart from that but it was so sad.

  • Wanda

    Royal blue is a favorite color of mine. It is a color that, looking forty years ago, is not as prominent to me since I wore a royal blue wool uniform to a private high school for four consecutive years. And even after wearing that color daily through high school, the family of blue colors remains on top of my favorite colors.

    Thank you for sharing the enlightening history of color dying.

  • Melangell

    Wow!, what a wealth of information on dying. It always makes me chuckle when people tell me that people in the Middle Ages only wore drab colors because they couldn’t make rich colored fabric.

    I knew that purple was the color of Royalty but I did not know about snails. Yuck, I hate snails. Of course, maybe I should wear purple proudly because of all the DEAD snails it took to make (or used to take to make).

  • Jessica Beery

    Wow! What an interesting article!!! I think I had heard once that purple dye came from snails, but I didn’t realize it was from rotting ones!!! I had to laugh that when I heard it was considered grounds for divorce…it must have been awful!
    And I’ve always loved the color blue…though, now that I think about it, I never used “something blue” in my wedding five years ago! Oh, well. 😉

  • Rebecca

    Thanks for sharing! I tend to prefer natural materials, but will gladly take chemical dyes over ones from crushed insects any day.

    Purple will always be my favorite color, but I think blue is one of the most universally flattering, with its variety of shades.

  • Mary H.

    I’m glad I live in a time when anyone can have access to purple cloth. It’s one of my favorite colors to use in quilting.

  • Joan

    I always think it’s funny when people talk about the good old days as if everything was natural safe and simple …..sounds like having a colorful wardrobe could be deadly. I must have been middle class in a past life since I prefer blue over purple. thanks Sharri

  • Suzanne

    The color blue is most often in my dreams. It’s been one of my favorites, especially peacock blue! And I’m drawn to turquoise jewelry.

  • Suzanne

    I love purples too. Any shade. The amethyst is my birthstone which is probably why I’m so drawn to it. I have purple grapes and winery theme in my kitchen.

  • Sophie T

    This article is so interresting! I didn’t know purple was the queen of all colors (I thought it was indigo blue). Purple is such a beautiful rich color and I like all its shades, especially the warmer ones. I love learning about dyes!

  • Linounettematha

    Thanks for this great article! I knew about how colored inks were made, but not so much about fabric dyes.

    Purple is my favourite color, I love every shade of it and it’s also the color of my alma mater. During my first two years ofcollege, virtually everything I owned was purple, from my umbrella to my cutlery. Glad it’s not reserved to royals anymore.

  • Stephanie Wilt

    This is an amazing and very informative article. I had chance once to see the dying process first in Colonial Williamsburg. They had all of the elements out for people to see. It was interesting to see what made what color. They were working on blue and greens and dying wool. The various shades of blue through the process went from navy to and beautiful shade of sky blue. All from the same pot. Thanks for the great article!

  • Penny T.

    When I was young I thought blue was a boring color. In fact, if asked I would have said it was my least favorite color despite the fact that I wore it in some form or another almost daily. I’m not sure when or why, but at some point I started seeing shades like cobalt, turquoise, and periwinkle, and realized that it was impossible to write off an entire color as ” boring”.

  • Mary Murray

    Blue has always been a favorite color of mine. Currently, my favorite shade of blue is a bright aqua or turquoise.

  • Deb Brooks

    Purple was my first favorite color as a child. As I grew and my artistic talent came out to play, blue became and still is, my favorite. Red, while I appreciate it’s place in the spectrum of colors, isn’t a favorite. I love most colors of greens as green and blue yell nature to me. Every color, although not every dye, has it’s place in my palette, whether I’m making clothes, quilts or painting.

  • Judy

    I am just wondering if the blue color had to be processed with such potent ingredients did the pungent smell return when the article was washed?

  • Ramona Curtis

    The color blue is so soothing to the senses. Is it any wonder that it is used in so many ways?

  • Ramona Curtis

    Pretty, pretty purple! Still a fovorite of people everywhere! The range of shades is awe-inspiring!

  • Judy R

    I knew that purple was a symbol for royalty but I did not know that it came from snails, rotten ones no less. I have an idea of what they smelled like because our sons left a horseshoe crap on a Florida motel patio exposed to the sun all day while we were out. Upon returning and opening the patio door ………….well it was not fresh roses for sure!

    Thank you for such an informative article, really enjoyed it!

  • Carol Meadows

    SO enjoyed the fruit of your research on cloth-dying history! Since “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” is one my favorite paintings, I was glad to see it in the segment on BLUE…the color of the ribbon/headband she is wearing! Just Beautiful!!

  • Carol Meadows

    I was especially interested in the part about the color PURPLE, as that is the “color” for Sagittarians, of whom I am one! Here’s an arrow shot straight to the mark, for excellence in informative writing!

  • Julia Houliston

    I love making formals for the American Girl Dolls and among my favorite colors are the beautiful cobalt blues and the royal purples. They look so regal on the dolls and are among the most sold and requested gowns I make. I just love the deep jewel colors.
    I enjoy reading the wonderful history you share with your patterns .

  • janet S

    I learned a lot about the color Purple. I know that it was reserved for royals and that it was very expensive, but I did not know about the snail gland. I can’t even imagine the smell!

  • Penny T.

    There are so many shades to love of every color, but bright, clear red grabs my eye and attention every time. It’s the color that dominates my fabric and yarn stash, and my wardrobe. I am convinced that you can wear red with any other color.