A Dyeing Art – By Jess Dyde


A Dyeing Art – By Jess Dyde

For the truly authentic look at a living history or re-enactment event, you should dye your clothes yourself! It's not as difficult as people think – the process is straightforward, although like anything else, it's practice that makes a good dyer.


When I first started out I assumed that the common people wore brown or cream, and that other colours were difficult to get, and available only to the wealthy.

Brown and cream are naturally available in wool, as is grey and black if you can find the right breeds of sheep. But how wrong I was!

Vegetable dyeing, with simple plants found in hedgerows produce a truly fantastic array of colours, some of which wouldn't look out of place in a 1970s disco. Dyeing is now my main interest.

No chemicals

The colours obtainable by non-chemical dyes are glorious, rich and soft, with a tone that is difficult to describe on paper.

Chemical dyes tend to produce a "flat' effect, but natural dyes have uneven tones and subtleties.

Oddly enough, the "flat' effect was sought after, and only available to the very wealthy, and royalty, as it's more difficult to achieve, but it seems lifeless compared to the colours available to the vast majority of people.

What colours did people actually wear?

Finding evidence of the colours that people wore is not easy.

The best surveys have had to rely on Wills, and what was left to relatives, but the very poor would not leave Wills, so historians tend to work on the assumption that if a dyestuff was freely available, and the process was straightforward, that colour may well have been worn.

Even the poor like to adorn themselves, and always have. Some of the colours mentioned in such documents haven't been traceable, such as Shepton Colour.

And the colour Medley/Motley may simply refer to multi-coloured. Stammel may be a colour (probably a type of red) or the name of a type of fabric.

But many of the colours mentioned in Wills and so on are identifiable even if they don't have the more usual names. Sky and Tawny would seem to be self-explanatory.

What plants were used?

Knowing what plants were available can help the historian work out how different colours were obtained.

We know that woad, weld, alkanet, madder, nettles, onions, galls and walnuts were all easily available to much of the population and each of these produces good strong colour.

In fact, alkanet produces two totally different colours depending on whether the dyebath is acidic or alkaline!

Fixing dyes

Most dyes require a mordant to make them fix, and there were many natural mordants available, but the modern re-enacter needs to be wary, as most of these are metal salts, all of which can cause cancer, and some are very dangerous. Beware of assuming that "natural' means "safe' – it simply isn't true.

Oxalic acid, from rhubarb leaves, is a listed poison, as is copper acetate from verdigris but both were used. So was arsenic, which is naturally occurring.

Tin is a very good mordant, but dangerous stuff, to be used with care.

"Blue Copperas' (copper) and "Green Copperas' (iron) were both widely used, but by far the most common mordant is Alum, which was commercially mined in Yorkshire. Luckily, it's also one of the safest mordants.


What colours can we get with this list of ingredients?

Acid yellow, softer yellow, various greens (although "clear green' is not easy), browns and tans, "lesser' reds (scarlet is difficult and expensive), pinks, oranges and russets, and blues.

Dyeing black

Black is a difficult colour to dye well. There is a "cheap' version which was widely used by common people, but it fades quickly.

A good black was available only to the rich and for proof of how expensive it was, just look at paintings of wealthy people – they often wore black to show their status!

There are two types of natural fibres – animal and vegetable. Animal fibres are wool and silk, vegetable are linen and cotton, the latter of which wasn't available until after the Medieval period.

Dyeing Animal Fibres

Animal fibres are much easier to dye than vegetable as the mordanting process is considerably simpler and cheaper.

This may even account for why throughout history linen shirts and underdresses were so often of undyed cloth.

This is only an educated guess, but until very recently, men wore white shirts with their work clothes, and women's nightdresses and chemises were undyed.

The dyeing process

The dyeing process itself divides into 4 parts:

• Scouring
• Mordanting
• Dyeing
• Rinsing

This is true for most dyes, a major exception being woad.


Scouring is simply washing the fibres so that all lanolin and dirt is removed, and the fibres are thoroughly soaked right through.

If you want to scour authentically, use Soapwort. It grows very well and the leaves contain a detergent, – just grab a big handful and add to a bucket of warm water, and be prepared for no suds!

To dye well, the fibres should be soaked for 24 hours before starting the mordanting process.


Mordanting involves adding the mordant to water and boiling the item to be dyed for at least an hour. Yes – even silk and wool – they seem to survive the process perfectly well.

Once mordanted, you don't have to dye straight away, but if you let the mordanted item dry out, you must soak it again before dyeing.



This is the bit most people are interested in, and is the most varied. Essentially, you create a dyebath with your chosen dye, then boil the item in it for another hour (less with some dyes, and boiling madder gives an unattractive brown colour, whereas it produces a beautiful red/salmon pink/orange if you watch the temperature).

I've found that the easiest way to create a dyebath is to make a sort of large "tea-bag' with the dyestuff and a piece of muslin, so you can remove the dyestuff easily, when you've got the depth of colour you want.

Otherwise, and I speak from experience, if you just add the dyestuff loose, you will spend days picking bits of the dyestuff out of the finished item, especially woollen yarn!

The alternative is to try to strain the dyestuff out after creating the dyebath, and seeing as you need very large quantities of boiling water, this is dangerous!

A good dyebath should allow the item to move easily and freely about in the water, so the dye can reach every fibre. You can tell when the fibres are really well dyed as the dyebath gets paler – the colour has been sucked into the fibres.

You can reuse a dyebath until the colour is exhausted, which allows you to dye paler versions of the same colour or you can add water to dilute it.


Rinsing is self-explanatory. A good cool wash and a long rinse will test the fastness of your dye, and clean the fibres.

Try not to bash the fibres about too much during the whole process as wool in particular will felt, and other fibres will weaken.

If you get the mordanting process wrong, and make the mordant bath too strong, the fibres will react by either getting "sticky' or brittle, depending on what you've done.

Practical stuff

• Getting the temperature right over a wood fire is something you learn from trial and error, but make sure you keep the wood ash. Sift it and you can use it to make lye (a wonderful natural detergent) and for altering the pH of water to get different dyeing effects.

• Dyeing with woad is a different process and can't be done authentically over a weekend event. For a start you'll need a two week old bucket of human urine – the very best comes from male beer drinkers! This drives the oxygen out of the dyebath, and drives away practically everyone else! But it is necessary for dyeing with woad. The dyeing industry used to collect urine from big cities, with urine from Newcastle upon Tyne being reckoned the very best. Possibly the water was purer or maybe they just drank more beer!

"Taking the piss"

Urine from London was shipped up the coast to Yorkshire, where there was a big dyeing industry, and this is the origin of the phrase "taking the piss'.

Captains were unwilling to admit that they were carrying a cargo of urine and would say that the barrels contained wine.

"No – you're taking the piss" was the usual rejoinder.

• If you dye with woad be prepared to get some funny looks. When you remove your item from the dyebath, the first thing it needs is oxygen, best got by running about with it on a good windy day! You'll see the colour change as you do so, but it does look a bit odd. Also, woad dye gets everywhere, and will dye your hands and nails blue (I cheat and use a rubber glove) which doesn't come off for weeks.

• You'll need a huge pan or pot to dye in. A stockpot, the largest you can get, or even an old dollytub are ideal. Just remember that the metal your container is made from might affect the final colour. Iron will "sadden' the colour – a technical term which simply means the colour is dulled. And of course NEVER cook in those pots or pans again – keep them for dyeing.

• When you first start dyeing, you'll need to weigh and measure the amounts of water and mordants/dyestuffs, but this doesn't look very authentic at an event. Test out how much 500gms or 5 litres of water (for example) look before you go, so you can use authentic things such as a spoon to measure things.

• Remember that our ancestors knew much more about plants than we tend to now. For example, they knew that collecting leaves for dyeing was best done when the sap was rising, whereas roots are best collected in winter when the plant is dormant.

Also remember that collecting wild plants might be illegal, depending on the plant, but most are common and also can be easily grown in your garden. Onion skins (you need the papery brown bit) can be collected from local supermarkets as you'll need loads of them. Just ask. The supermarkets will soon get used to you !.

Above all, have fun. And remember, dyeing is addictive. You just have to try out that next colour !.

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