Dyeing Documentation


These are examples of various wools dyed with indigo, weld, madder, onion skins, and mordanted with alum.


Wool comes in a variety of shades of white, grey, brown, and black, but was often dyed in period to produce a wider range of colors. The fibers can be “dyed in the wool” (before the wool has been spun), after the wool has been spun into yarn, or after the finished produce is completed.

When dyeing natural animal fibers, a mordant is used to help the dyes adhere to the fibers. Mordant is derived from the Latin word meaning “to bite”, showing that the mordant helps the dyes to “bite” into the fiber. Alum was a common mordant used with a wide variety of plant dyes. Period dyers may have used clubmoss for its alum content.

Red in the middle ages was most often produced using the roots of the madder plant, with madder being one of the most important mordant dyes. The red comes from the chemical alizarin. The red and pink wool displayed here is dyed with madder. The variations in shade are a result of different dyebaths. The largest, salmon pink, ball of wool was dyed soaked in alum for one week, then simmered for about two hours. The darkest red was a result of soaking the wool in alum for two hours, then put in a “cold” madder bath for one week, followed by half an hour of simmering. The pink yarn was also put in the same bath for the week, but was not simmered later.

Weld, a flowering plant, was one of the most popular yellow dyes of the medieval period, in large part because it is strongly lightfast, unlike many other yellow dyes. The bright yellow yarn was dyed by simmering alum-soaked yarn with weld for one hour and then allowing the dyebath to cool overnight. The silk yarn was dyed in a similar fashion. The orangy-gold yarn is the product of dyeing with onion skins. The wool was mordanted with alum and then simmered for one hour in an onionskin dyebath. The yarn seen here shows how onion skin dyes are not terribly lightfast. The original color, dyed in October, was a much more brassy gold, rather than the dull orangey shade seen here.

Blue in period was produced using woad and indigo. Both plants produce blue via the same chemical, indigotin, though the concentration of the chemical is greater in the indigo plant. Dyeing with woad or indigo can be an extensive process, that in period would have taken days or weeks of preparation to dry and then process the leaves into a usable form, and then ferment the plant materials. To dye my fibers blue, I used commercially purchased chunks of processed indigo. I used a modern method of reducing the dye using chemicals found in washing soda and color run remover, rather than the fermentation method, because it was faster, and, may produces more reliable results. Unlike many other plant dyes, indigo does not need a mordant, so the fabric was not mordanted. It was soaked previous to dyeing, however, as the oxygen in air bubbles can interfere with the chemical reactions.

The ball of wool was dipped into the vat three times for 5-10 minutes each. With indigo, one dips and airs the material repeatedly, as exposure to air for oxygenation is an important step in creating the best depth of color. The same dye bath was also used to produce the various shades of green on display. Green in period was created by overdyeing indigo (or woad) on a yellow. The best results are achieved when the lighter color is dyed first. The darkest green was created by overdyeing indigo on onion-skin yellow. The various lighter greens are all indigo on weld-yellow, dipped for one minute, five minutes, and two ten minute dips respectively.

The unspun wool and silk were dyed using a separate dye bath. The wool was dipped into the dyebath twice for 5 minutes each time. The silk was dipped into the dye bath 5 times for 10-15 minutes each. The silk initially appeared much darker, more in line with the navy blue of the wool. When it dried, however, the color was much lighter. Wet fabrics often look darker, but the difference in this case was startling.

One means to achieve brown in period was through the use of the walnut plant. The husks of the walnut can be removed, and produce a deep chocolately brown. It is a substantive dye, meaning that no mordant is needed. The walnut husks were boiled for one hour, and then the wool was added to the dyebath. The lighter brown was soaked for half an hour, the darker brown soaked for one hour.
What I learned

Experimentation is a good thing! Adding ammonia or vinegar to small bits of dyed wool after the dyeing process often had dramatic results. As each of these represent my first attempts at dyeing with the materials, it was often beneficial to try small bits of wool for different lengths of time. (Not all of these experiments are shown. It takes much longer to spin than to dye, so the experiment pieces were often quite small.) I also discovered that the shade of color a yarn takes on when it is wet is often quite different from the dry color. In the future I will try using a hair dryer to spot dry sections to see what the dry color will be.

Buchanan, Rita. A Dyer’s Garden. Colorado: Interweave Press, Inc., 1995.

Dean, Jenny. Wild Color. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999.

Medieval Dystuffs. http://www.hindin.gen.nz/Simone/Dyeing/Stuffs.asp

Munro, John. “The Medieval Scarlet and the Economics of Sartorial Splendor.” Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe. Ed. N.B. Harte and K.G. Ponting. London: Heinemann Education Books: 1983.

Priest-Dorman, Carolyn. Viking Age Dyestuffs. 1999. http://www.cs.vassar.edu/~capriest/vikdyes.html

Spies, Nancy. Ecclesiastical Pomp and Aristocratic Circumstance. Maryland: Arelate Studio, 2000.

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