Monday, February 4, 2008

Bright coloured textiles

I love this hat. And without oil, I couldn't have one like it. Although there are natural dyes from plants that could possibly be produced on a commercial scale, they wouldn't give bright colours like this. The vibrant colours of the flowers are reduced to much more muted tones on fabric, and the volumes of berries and leaves you need to dye even a small amount of fabric are truly phenomenal.

Up until the industrial revolution, dyes were very expensive and only the rich could access brightly coloured fabric (see an interesting history of fabric dyeing here). Everyone else was clad largely in the varying tones of brown, perhaps with a few embroidered highlights in blue or red from yarn dyed with local berries. No wonder that the arrival of spring was greeted with such joy in the northern climes - it heralded a return of colour to the landscape along with warm weather, longer days and fresh produce.

This all changed significantly in the mid-nineteenth century when William Perkins synthesised mauveine, a purple dye that I remember from my childhood as the ink used in Banda machines, but which was initially used as a fabric dye. In common with all subsequent synthetic dyes, the chemicals from which it is made are ultimately derived from crude oil.

PS A fun link I found while researching this article tells you how to dye wool with Koolaid of all things! I haven't tried it as Koolaid isn't sold in New Zealand, but apparently it gives vivid and long-lasting colours and I'd love to hear from anyone who has experience with it!

1 comment:

Johanna Knox said...

Hi Heather - this is fascinating. I've just started trying out a bit of natural dying, but had not put it into historical perspective like this. (And also didn't realise that the really bright synthetic colours were oil derived.)