18th Century Manuscript Provides a Pop of Color


Monday, 3/23/2015 3:39pm

The inconspicuous sepia tones of this handwritten 18th-century document belie its true nature. Hidden between instructions for preparing rabbit and guidance on making cotton hats is a treasure-trove of information on natural, primarily plant-based, dyes. In it we find colonial era recipes for green, blue, light blue, lilac, and purple dyes. 

The color purple was long associated with royalty because of the rarity of the ingredients needed to produce the color (the first synthetic dye was not discovered until 1856). A quarter-million Mediterranean murex mollusks were needed to make just one ounce of the first purple dye, Tyrian Purple.

This manuscript describes how to dye textiles purple as follows (spelling and punctuation normalized):

To color 20 yards lining purple take one pound and half logwood. Boil out the strength in 6 quarts water and take out the chips and add 2 ounces alum. Then have 2 gallons warm water. Strain in a small matter of the lichen at a time. When this is the right shade, dip in the [lining] 10 yards at a time. Starch the lining and dry it smooth.

While logwood can produce beautiful shades of purple, it is more often used to create hues of black and blue since its purple fades when exposed to light.  We can speculate that lichen -different varieties of which can be used for to achieve red, yellow, brown, and purple - was added to strengthen the purple tones derived from the logwood and to improve colorfastness.  In this short recipe, we see an effort to bring that royal purple into the regular colonial world.

Today, knitting and other fiber pursuits are experiencing a surge in popularity. This growing interest, along with the relative ease of buying/selling yarn on artist-friendly sites like Etsy and Artfire have led to a proliferation of independent dyers. Indie dyers’  unique and often of-the-moment shade names lure potential buyers as much as the colors themselves. In the lead-up to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Cephalopod Yarns released a limited edition rainbow colorway called “Sochi Pride.” And Canon Hand Dyes (sold through Etsy shop The Amy Lee Show) continues to capitalize on the popularity of the BBC series Downton Abbey with its collection of colorways inspired by the shows’ characters, both upstairs (like “Lady Rose MacClare,” powdered sky blue with lavender notes) and downstairs (“Carson,” deep salt and pepper charcoal).

While many of these indie dyers use professional acid dyes, some - including A Verb for Keeping Warm - favor natural dyes similar to those used during the colonial period. Natural dyeing is such a draw that in the past two years alone, three books have been published on the topic: Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess, The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr, and The Complete Guide to Natural Plant Dyeing by Eva Lambert.

Pots of dye boil on the fire at Sheep to Shawl at Philipsburg Manor.Be sure to visit Philipsburg Manor on April 22 and 23 to learn more about natural dyeing. Historic Hudson Valley’s annual Sheep-to-Shawl event celebrates the arrival of spring on the farm with the removal of sheep’s wooly coats. In addition to sheep-shearing and wool dyeing, visitors can also see costumed interpreters perform all the steps necessary to change raw wool and linen into garments.

(Manuscript images are from the Historic Hudson Valley Library. Photo of Sheep to Shawl by Karen Walton Morse)