18th-Century Colors and Dyes.
By Jodi Sietsema, 4th Foot, King’s Own

While undergoing inspection with my unit last year, the availability of purple, pink and a bright shade of green was brought into question. It was stated that until we could prove that these colors would have been available in the 18th Century, the articles of clothing should not be worn. Now, I can do without my green socks if I had to and I don’t even own anything purple, but it was a challenge to prove a wider availability of colors. I spent the next six months researching natural dyes and dying techniques available in the 18th Century. Unfortunately, it is a subject that may never be assessed accurately due to the limited written records.

Most of the important information on materials used in American dye houses was published between 1797 and 1869, and many were in French and German. The authors frequently lifted entire sections from original works with out crediting the original sources. (Adrosko) It is interesting to note that most of the dyestuffs used in America in the 18th Century were imported, even though they were expensive and their supply erratic. In 1770 a table of “Goods and Produce imported into the several Provinces of North America…” included 70 tons of dyestuffs. (Sheffield 1784 – Adrosko) In 1705 John Spreull compiled a listing of dyestuffs and the countries that exported them. It included madder and indigo from Holland; logwood, brazilwood and others from France; indigo and cochineal from Spain; orchile and sumach from both the Canary and Madeira Islands. (Grierson) So when dealing with natural dyes available in early America we are not limited to those grown here. Without going further into the details and techniques I found within this research, there were many different ways of producing the colors in question.

It’s hard to imagine that before the mid 19th Century dyers relied on dried insects, roots and leaves of plants, and chamber lye to produce their dyes. All of these natural dyestuffs were more or less effective for any given time or place based on such things as the growing season, climate conditions, soil acidity and weather hard of soft water was used in the dye vat. (Adrosko) Variation is the rule when it comes to natural dyes. As for the various shades or color intensities of any given dye, repeated dipping and airing of the materials results in a gradual build up of color until almost any depth of color is achieved.

Top-dying, dipping the material into two different color baths to obtain the desired hue, is another way of achieving a desired depth or shade of color. Top-dying indigo onto only five different first dyes can produce eleven different shades of green. Indigo with a top-dye of cochineal will produce a red-purple. A dark coral pink can be obtained with quercitron with a top-dye of madder. Madder with a top-dye of indigo produces a dark purple. (Adrosto). The mordants used to “fix” the color into the fabric can also change the color. White wool with a chrome mordant becomes purple wool when dyed with cochineal. When alum is used as the mordant it produces a red. (Adrosto)

The color purple was more available than even I had thought. Lichens produced many of the variations of purple. Orchile or archille, Litmus, and Turnsole were all used for various shades of violet, peach and lilac. Cudbear, often used in a top-dye combination, was even patented in 1758 (Kok - Grierson) Cochineal with vinegar and a chrome mordant was used in dying purple wool. (Adrosko)

Berries are another source of purple dyes. Blaeberry (aka Whortleberry, Bilberry, Black-wort) has been recorded to produce differing shades of purple.

Lightfoot (1777) “Violet colour on alum”

Withering (1796) “Stains paper or linen purple” (all Grierson)

Other berries in the same family are Blueberries, Huckleberries, Farkleberries, and Mountain cranberries. All produced varying shades of pinks, orchids, and purples. These dyes employed the whole fruit, or for those more frugal, the mush remaining after jelly making. (Casselman) While Red Maples were primarily employed in producing blue dyes, one grandmother was credited with producing a purple color by using the rotten wood with iron as a mordant. (Casselman)

In 1783 the Tartan makers of Bannockburn were making a purple dye by top-dying indigo over cudbear. (Grierson) Top-dying indigo onto either madder or cochineal would give other shades of purple. (Casselman) Dye analysis provides one of the best examples of purple dyes being employed in the 18th century. Christina Young used cochineal to create “an elusive pink-purple” color in the plaid she dyed and wove in 1762. (Grierson)

The easiest way of producing pinks was to employ a limited dye bath in any of the red dyes. Cochineal produced any color from pink to crimson to scarlet. (Adrosko) Ammato was used to produce pinks, reddish, and orange hues on silks and cottons and yellow-orange colors in butter and cheese. (Adrosko) Pinkish red hues were derived from safflower, though it was used more in Europe than in America. (Adrosko)

In 1815, Thomas Cooper translated A Practical Treatise on Dying and Calicoe Printing originally written by D’Ambournes, of Rowen France in 1786. (Adrokos) It contains 23 different colors and the various dyestuffs used in producing it that were available at the time. Of interest to this are:


From brazilwood fixed by birchbark with a tin mordant

Fresh and dry berries of the Black alder.
From birch bark and logwood
From bran of millet, sorgoh.

From Logwood fixed by birch bark with a bismuth mordant and also with a tin mordant

Purple kidney beans
Haricots D’ espagne, spotted kidney bean
Wild germander
Roots of greater birchwood
Archille of the Canaries reddened by acids.
The listing of greens alone is almost a page long and is further broken down into what produces the various shades of olive.
This is just a sample of the colors available from dyestuffs in the 18th Century. The availability of red, blue, yellow and brown dyes, used alone or in combination, gave a wider array of colors than we ever could have imagined.

Natural Dyes and Home Dying: A Practical Guide with Over 150 Recipes. Rita J. Adrosko
Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens. Karen Leigh Casselman
The Colour Cauldron: The History and Use of Natural Dyes in Scotland. Sue Grierson.