Colors to Dye For

1 – It’s time for #ThreadTalk. That’s right: it’s time to dye.

Warning: This feature includes insects🐞, poison☠️, dead bodies 💀, human combustion🔥 & general yuck🤢

And of course colonialism👎. But also gowns! Like this French afternoon dress in yellow & chartreuse from 1866

Chatreuse and saffron colored gown from 1866; Met Museum, Public Domain. 

"A trompe l'oeil bolero jacket cropped and defined the bust, while the waist rose into the ribcage, genuinely above the zone of the waist. The devices of bolero and apron differentiated sectors within the dress and emphasized the high placement of the waist, while the crinoline hoop shifted to the back to make the great shape of the skirt mountainously prominent. Such monumental dress captured what French poet Charles Baudelaire called the "pomp and circumstance" of modern urban life."

2 – Most natural fiber fabrics are bit bland at first. Getting them vibrant means the adding of pigment.

Natural wool is often an ivory hue, & it takes a lot of processing to get the right hue. Raw wool pictured below to give you an idea. Carding video:

CC BY 2.0 - Freshly shorn wool, via Wikimedia Commons. A pile of grey and beige wool in a pile, ranging in shades from light to dark. The individual strands are crimped, showing the natural curl of the sheep.

3 – Red is the color of passion, desire, and… insect secretion. Yes, we get carmine red from carminic acid, a substance we extract from female cochineals. Yum!

Cochineals are scale insects found in the Americas and are often found on prickly pear cactuses.

4 – Cochineals are collected by sweeping them from the plants. It goes back to the Maya and Aztec people, and became Mexico’s main import, 2nd only to silver. It was produced primarily in Oaxaca.

You can see the remarkable reds in this traditional Huipil. Also bug smacking.

5 – Orange. Ochre can range from yellow to brown, but for the sake of ROYGBIV, it’s here. Not nearly as gross as bug excretions, it’s from clay. Ferric oxide, in this case, gives us that saffron hue.

It’s one of the oldest pigments, and the Romans were big fans.

6 – Yellow is for… urine.

Sorry, folks. But we’ve been using stale urine for ages due to its ammonia, & it works great to help affix dyes to wool fibers. And, like, cure *anything*, according to some.

Anyway. Here’s a whiz of a video on the subject.

7 – Green. I’ve had so many questions about this. So here we go: Green is the THE WORST. Even though you know I love green dresses.

Green dresses were actual poison. And probably killed Napoleon. We can blame Sheele’s green for that.

8 – Scheele’s green (sorry for the misspelling up there) is a a cupric hydrogen arsenite. As in arsenic. It was used in pigments, incl. paper flowers that *poor children* would make for hats & decoration

Thousands died

It was also used in food & as insecticide. Sorry, carmine.

9 – Blue, Egyptian Blue. With apologies to David Bowie. AKA: cerulean (with apologies to Mulder).

One of the oldest synthetic dyes known to humankind, thanks to the Egyptians. Though the recipe was thought lost, we’ve determined it’s a mix of silica, lime, copper, & an alkali.

This is a hippo made of faience glass from Egypt. He is appropriates in Egyptian blue, and he has stylized flowers on him as well. He's lived at the Met Museum for the last 100 years.  From the Met Museum: Public Domain.

10 – Egyptian blue is often used to detect traces of pigment on statues since it has such a remarkable infrared luminescence. It was also found in pots in Egyptian Tombs, and at Pompeii.

But the influence persisted & blue gowns (like this lovely) represented wealth & status.

A blue regency gown (1825) in a gauzy satin. High-waisted. Embroidery in diamonds at the hem and bodice. Princess pouf sleeves. Killerton Fashion Collection © National Trust / Sophia Farley and Renée Harvey

11 – Purple! Tyrian purple, that is. Named for Tyre, Lebanon, dating from 1200 BCE.

Here’s our tie to marine biology! Because it’s made from the mucus of predatory sea snails! (I swear, I can’t make this shit up, and I’m a fantasy writer)

That’s Charlemagne’s burial shroud.

12 – Tyrian purple was, like, apparently attributed to being found by Hercules’s dog? I don’t know. Someone lost the narrative. As seen in this Rubens painting.

But who cares? I mean, purple doesn’t even exist. It’s not even a scientific color. It’s in our heads. Seriously.

13 – Mauve! I have to share mauve. Because Perkin’s mauve is 💯. Discovered in 1856, it became quite the sensation when the English royals started wearing it. It was the first mass-produced synthetic dye.

If you want to take a break & have some fun:

14 – Deep breath. Okay. We’ve got this.

So. Mummy brown. It was a thing.

Step 1: find mummies in Egypt (cat or human).
Step 2: dig up the mummies.
Step 3: grind up the mummies & make into paint
Step 5: profit?

Apparently one mummy could provide 20 yrs worth of pigment.

15 – Now, I don’t know how common it was for mummy brown to make it into clothes, but it sure did make it into paintings.

The Pre-Raphaelites were fans! Like Edward Burne-Jones. All that draping material… is… people.

Mummy brown is people.

People also ate mummy stuff. 😲

A man leaning over a woman in a doorway, clearly trying to kiss her and she is not having it. But she still looks pretty, and I think she should kick him in the pads. There are also flowers. She's in a brown dress, and he's in a rusty brown tunic dress thing.

Clerk Saunders, 1861, by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt 1833-1898 Presented by Mrs Wilfred Hadley through the Art Fund 1927 / The Tate

16 – White isn’t a dye. But I’d be remiss not to mention that the crinoline of the 19th century was highly flammable. It would catch fire & FAST. 3,000 women died in Britain in a single year.

Just horrific. That’s what. It wasn’t until 1910 that we had flameproof fabrics.

A vintage fashion plate of women in very wide dresses in many layers, with many folds. Three are in white, one is in deep purple and green. Public domain.

17 – How about black dye? Surely that’s normal.

Well, it is one of the oldest dyes in the world & charcoal was a good option.

But what was better? BONE CHAR. Okay, tannins worked, too. And like, alder and walnut. BUT HOW GOTH IS BONE CHAR DYE?

Gown, 1865 Met Museum, public domain.Fabrics, trims, and accessories distinguished mourning clothing from purely fashionable black attire. The early stages of mourning dress, typically consisting of matte blacks and mourning crape, yielded to a broader range of black fabrics, including silks of some luster such as taffeta, poult de soie, and moiré. A dulled finish suitable for the sobriety of mourning could be achieved by using wool or cotton fibers or through weave structure and finishing techniques. The striated texture of a ribbed or crimped textile was less reflective than the unbroken—and therefore glossy—face of a satin. Although the watered surface of a moiré might seem overly lustrous or luxurious for mourning, it was a fabric commonly sold by mourning retailers, and ensembles similar to this moiré dress with matching shawl were advertised for lighter mourning, especially during the 1850s and 1860s.

Black 1860s gown, marbled surface; lace on long sleeve cuffs. Narrow waist.

18 – I’ve really only begun to unspool this thread & don’t have room for them all. So check this awesome infographic from @KorwinBriggs–it’s got plenty of more wacky pigments.

Cinnabar? Mercury.
White? Lead.
Sepia? Octopus ink.

The list goes on and on.

A very large infographic with at least two dozen different pigments and their uses and sources. A rainbow of geeky stuff.

19 – Some videos. This thread is totally dedicated to @levarburton and #ReadingRainbow — when I saw this episode as a kid, it made me want to learn all about fabric and how to make it.

It also turned me in to a Renaissance Faire nerd.

20 – A lovely, relaxing piece about making Iron Age dyes. I find this so soothing. Someone who just loves what they do.

21 – And one more truly relaxing, lovely video, about finding lost colors. With Sachio Yoshioka.


23 – Additional sources… because me.

24 – And one last batch of sources.

25 – I shall leave you with this bubblegum pink dress. Which can’t have anything problematic about it. Right?

From the House of Worth, naturally. 1893, France.

Thanks for coming to my #ThreadTalk. Don’t eat mummies. Please.

In addition to day and evening fashions for upper-class society women, Worth also created clothes for special occasions, such as the as-yet-to-be-identified fancy-dress ball to which this dress would have been worn. Composed of a separate bodice and skirt executed in shocking pink and black taffeta with paste buttons, machine lace trim, and pleated silk chiffon fichu, this gown illustrates the fashion for eighteenth-century revival, a popular theme for extravagant costume parties of the period. The narrow sleeves of the garment, along with the double-breasted masculine tailoring, imitation cut-steel buttons, lace fichu, and open front skirt, refer to fashionable women's styles of the 1770s. Public domain, Met Museum

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on March 16, 2021.

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