By Kimberly Wulfert, PhD
An important element of any fabric or fiber, old or new, is its cosmetics. This can range from finishes to color to design, all which breathe life and vitality into cloth. This month’s guest columnist is well-known quilt historian Kimberly Wulfert who takes us back into the 18th and 19th centuries for a look at the cotton dyeing process and its evolution from natural to synthetic dyes.
You will probably never look at fabric in the same light again after reading this colorful side of textile history. Prior to the Revolutionary War, America shipped her plentiful supply of raw cotton to Britain, where it was spun, woven, printed and sold back to her as yardage. When the War of Independence was over, the printing industry would establish itself in the northern and eastern states, where it had been previously attempted but unsuccessfully, due to Britain’s ban on sharing textile machinery and know-how with the Colonies.
Our import of cotton fabric, plain and printed, was dramatically reduced, as they knew it would be when we could work our own raw cotton into thread and cloth. The exceptions were high-end fine chintz, Indiennes and toile fabrics, used for bedding, upholstery, draperies and fancy clothing. These continued to be imported from England and France. The 18th century brought the Machine Age and the Industrial Revolution to Europe and America, enabling them to produce more than enough affordable cotton prints by the 1830s.
The inorganic chemicals industry was born mid-18th century bringing a plethora of coloring and assisting agents to the awareness of textile scientists, in the form of mineral dyes, hydrochloric acids, sulphur, chlorine, soda ash, ferrous sulphate and lead acetate. Mineral-based colorants are pigments (insoluble and fix to the surface of the cloth), producing brilliant hues of color that stand out bright and luminescent (picture # 1) when placed next to cotton dyed with organic carbon-based dyes from animals, plants and vegetables.
Combinations of these chemicals increased both the ways and the outcomes of dyeing cotton cloth, which is the focus of this article. Cotton fibers, by yarn or cloth, do not take well to natural dyes except indigo. Commonly used natural dyes included madder, logwood, quercitron and wode. Dye can sit on top and look fine at first, but easily washes out or fades to light in no time at all. This is why the first cotton prints from India were so enormously popular. Cotton was a softer material to wear than linen and wool, but it was so drab in appearance.
Thanks to the Indian dyer’s discovery of mordants, cotton could be printed in deep, richly colored designs. Cotton is a cellulose fiber with molecules shaped unlike the carbon-based protein molecules of natural dyes. So, they do not attract each other naturally. Wool and silk molecules are liked shaped and do not require the help of mordants to produce colorfast results. The early dyers believed that adding animal proteins to the dye mix would help the penetration of the dye into the cotton.
“Animalizing,” as it was called, meant adding one or more of the following: urine, blood, milk, dung, or egg albumen. Turkey Red, (pic.#5 & #12) a highly valued rich, deep, brilliant red dye for yarns and fabric, was known to use blood, dung, and urine in the dyeing process, and it was extremely colorfast. Glancing through the back pages of old recipes for dyers, one may find a recipe for beer where urine was needed, beer stimulated (shall we say) a quick source of supply.
Eventually it was recognized that animalizing proved insufficient in obtaining colorfastness. Yet “dunging” continued to be used for the removal of extraneous mordant until well into the 19th century, and egg albumen continued to be used as a binder for pigment dyes. Mordants were the answer. (pic #2) There are many different kinds of mordants, but the main ones used in dyeing cotton prints were mineral salts: aluminum, iron, tin and copper.
Alum was the most widely used, as it helped get shades of red and rust from madder. Iron was also used a lot, with madder, logwood or by itself, to darken or dull colors and to produce blacks and dark browns. Tin gave an extra brightness to reds, oranges and yellows, and it resisted iron, which was a plus when using the multiple dyes. The least mentioned mordant seems to be copper, which was less harsh on cotton than tin, but could still be harsh. It brought out green tones, and darkened dyes, generally.
An analogy of mordant dyeing would be a bridge over water. The mordant forms a bridge between the dye and the cotton, enabling the dye to travel into the molecule and bond with it. Many reds, pinks, rusts, browns and purple dyes came from the root of the madder plant. (pic #3) Madder-dyed cotton required mordants, especially alum and iron. After the mordants were applied with a carved wood block or engraved cylinder, the fabric was dried for a few days, to set up the mordant for good bonding later.
Another benefit of using mordants was the color changes a dye would take-on. The amount of mordant used, or combinations of them, produced different colors when mixed with madder in the bath. (pic #4) Eventually, moisture through steam was used to set up the mordant, and was called aging.
This process also removed extra mordant or thickening agents left on the surface before it was dyed in the madder bath. In the dyebath, the madder would adhere only to those areas covered with the mordant, which is why the mordant is applied in the design motif first. A final bath or clearing took away any staining on the white background. New mordants and dyes could be applied by hand or by a repeat of the above.
Of course, the more steps, labor and time involved, the more complexity and color the fabric would have, and the more expensive it would be. (pic #5) By the second half of the 19th century, madder root’s dye agent, alizarin, could be extracted in a concentrated manner that when placed onto the fabric in a steam chamber, could be applied directly as a paste. 1868, a synthetic version of alizarin was discovered by two German scientists at BASF (their patent was granted one day after William Perkins’ version was patented.
Perkins discovered the first synthetic dye, aniline, in 1856, named mauve.) By late 1870, the synthetic version had all but taken over the use of natural madder dye. Not until 1880 could rich Turkey red dye be approximated in a synthetic form. (pic #6) Called Para Red, it was made possible through the development of azoic dyes, (also called naphthol or ice colors) which were applied directly to fabric. Another synthetic version of red was passed off or marketed to be as colorfast as Turkey Red.
Named by its German inventors, Congo Red (pic #7) actually faded easily to an ugly beige color. This is called a fugitive dye and the remaining color of any fugitive dye is some variation of light beige and called dunn. Colors produced from mineral dyes include Prussian blue, manganese bronze, chrome yellow, orange, blue, or green, antimony orange, iron buff and teal green. (pic #8 + #9) There were two ways these pigment colors could be fixed to cotton.
Early on, egg albumen was used as a binder for lighter colors, and blood was used for the darker colors.Gluten from wheat and lactarine from milk were other binders, but all binders needed heat and an acid to make them colorfast. Ultramarine blue was made in this manner. In the other method, the pigment was printed directly onto the fabric and then passed through a second dyebath, usually of potassium or alkali, to cause a chemical reaction between them on the surface.
For example, chrome orange (pic #10) was produced when chrome yellow was passed through an alkaline treatment, and Prussian blue came from iron and potassium. The primary method of Indigo dyeing was called vat dyeing. A vat is a chemically reducing dyebath.
The process of getting the dark blue dye liquor from Indigo plants started with fermentation in a tub filled with an alkali solution. The dye liquor would harden and be cut into hand-size chunks. Cases of these chunks were sold to Indigo dyers who would grind it to a powder. Now it was soluble in water. They would boil the mixture, then cool and stir it, removing any extraneous materials like twigs that would affect the printing. Next the mixture is put into the vat with the cloth; copperas and lime were entered, making the dyebath yellow in color.
After a time, the cloth also turned yellow. It wasn’t until it was lifted from the vat and oxygenation took effect (in about 12-15 minutes) that the cloth turned blue, and the indigo was insoluble again. Commonly, the last remaining color in an old faded or deteriorated quilt is Indigo dyed.
1) Square in a square block quilt top 1830-50s colors with True Turkey Red sashing, natural dyes with mineral dyes here and there of CY and PB
2) Natural and mordant dyed fabrics, in simple and complex prints, 1830-60
3) Madder dyed colors except for orange and blue in paisley
4) Multiple colors of madder dye
5) Turkey Red French Provencial print, 1825-50
6) post 1880 TR synthetic, possibly Para Red. Chrome yellow and black are printed in the white areas.
7) 9-Patch quilt top made with 1880-1910 synthetically dyed fabrics, probably w/Congo Red sashing
8) Mineral dyed colors: Prussian Blue , Chrome yellow, Prussian blue Natural dyes for Double Pink, green and black print green made in two steps, blue dye on yellow dye, black made with logwood
9) Mineral Dyes: teal, chrome orange, Prussian blue
10) Chrome orange
11) Indigo and buff
12) Turkey red and Prussian Blue 9- patch, ca 1825-45
13) Pencilling method used on blue and green areas, 1830s chintz
14) 1825 Indigo monochrome on linen, China blue or copperplate would look similar to this roller print
15) 4 shades of indigo from last quarter of 19th century, dark blue to a synthetic plaid from 1920s
16) 1890-1910 Elongated 9-Patch Quilt made with synthetic dyes Simply adding more dye to the bath would not produce a darker shade of blue.
It required repeated submerging followed by oxygenation. If an area were to remain white it would be covered with a resist paste made of wax or wheat, to keep the dye from penetrating in. Sometimes another color would be printed in that area, like chrome yellow or buff. (pic #11 ) If light blue was the desired color, the resist would be put on that area after the initial dyebath turned it light blue.
There were two other methods that printers used to apply indigo: pencilling (also spelled penciling), and china blue. Pencilling was used for small areas of a multicolored print, usually chintz. The reduced dye was applied with a brush directly onto the area, where it oxygenated quickly. It could show as spotty, uneven or with a poor registration. (pic #13) There were more pencillers (usually young girls and boys) employed in an early mid- 18th century printworks company than any other job.
The practice began in England. Later, wood blocks and rollers would be used to get the same sparse look of blue on leaves and flowers. China blue was not reduced beforehand. Indigo was applied using wood blocks or engraved copperplates. After printing, it was bathed in lime, then in copper, back and forth repeatedly. (pic # 14) This yielded a light or light-medium shade of blue on a light ground, often in fine lined floral, bird, bouquets or pillar prints.
Eventually, stable direct printing of indigo was possible in the last quarter of the 19th century. (pic # 15) Glucose utilized indigo in such a way that the reduced version combined with steam would fix the color. German scientist, Bayer, first synthesized indigo in the 1880s, patenting it in the early 1900s. Commercial dyeing with synthetic indigo didn’t begin until 1897. It essentially replaced the use of natural indigo by the early 1920s. (pic #16) The 19th century ended with natural dye agents having been replicated in a synthetic version.
One can tell in a glance that a fabric is dyed with a natural or synthetic colorant, except for dark indigo, which looks the same. The 20th century brought thousands of new colors to cotton fabric dyers. Pastel versions of colors were previously not possible and are a hallmark of early 20th century prints and solids. By Kimberly Wulfert, PhD Kimberly Wulfert, PhD, writes an educational website about textile and quilt history, www.antiquequiltdating.com She writes for Nine Patch News, Traditional Quiltworks magazine and authors their column “Quizzing the Quilt Historian.” Lecturing, teaching, exhibit curating, collecting, dating and identifying quilts for individual and museums, as well as quilt-making, are all a part of her passion for antique fabrics.
2002 Copyright Kimberly Wulfert, PhD This article can not be copied or printed in multiple copies without author’s written permission. All photos are under this copyright and can not be used separately. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.