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Medieval Dyestuffs, Dyeing & Colour Names

The rural medieval woman was often responsible for dyeing her own fabric using natural substances which were collected locally. Her city counterpart often had the luxury of purchasing fabric which was already dyed with superior substances and better mordants providing richer colours which lasted longer.

Dyeing and dyestuffs is a huge topic, so what you'll see here is a very brief overview of dyeing and dyestuffs in medieval England and Europe. For a more comprehensive look at dyes, dyestuffs and natural dyeing, visit the links page.

The detail at right comes from 1482, the Liber de Natura Rerum, a Flemish manuscript which shows dyers stirring a vat of cloth.

Natural dyes came from various sources, the most common ones are listed below:

red - madder root, Rubia tinetorum, kermes or grana from insects
blue - woad leaves, Isatia tinctoria
violet - orchil from lichen
crimson - brasilwood from the East India tree
purple - brasilwood from the East India tree
yellow - weld, dyers' rocket, turmeric, saffron, onion skin, marigold, chamomile
green - indigo, weld, turmeric
brown - walnut shells, bark

Red dye which came from madder was significantly more expensive than the blue dye which came from woad. The root of the madder plant required for the red dye was only harvested once a year, whereas the leaves of the woad plant could be gathered several times throughout the year, making it a more available product.

Flanders was a particularly successful area for fabric production and dying. The rich soil was good to grow plants used for dyeing and the area had an abundance of Fuller's Earth which was used for cleansing of wool.

One historic dye book which gives recipes and instructions on making dye is the German Innsbruck Manuscript from 1330. A selection of dye recipes are included below.

- Take filings and rusty iron and soft pitch, and let it boil long together; that makes a good brown on a red fabric.

- Take green nutshells and grind them together and let them rot seven days in a pot, and therewith make a black dye.
- Whoever wants to make black dye, he takes oak galls and pulverizes them and adds alum thereto and boils it in a skillful way with alum and in urine and dyes therewith; if he wants to make it darker, add black dye thereto.

- Take chalk in a pot and pour water thereon and mix it well together and let it sink to the bottom of the pot so that the water becomes clear and and take that same water and boil the brazilwood well therin, until it is cooked and then mix in alum and with it dye red zendel (a thin silken material).
- Whoever wants to dye whatsoever he wills red, takes cinnabar and rubs it well on a hard stone with alum-water and uses that to dye with. If he wants to make a red color darker, he mixes it with black dye or with verdigris and adds alum thereto; then he cooks everything in lime water and takes brasilwood and boils everything in human urine.
- Also, brasilwood mixed with alum, mixed with lime water or with urine.
- One should take lead oxide and should boil it with lime water/vinegar, upon which the colour becomes the colour of tiles, and should mix it with alum, and a flower in the field named zindlot should also be boiled in alum-water and strain it through a cloth, and dye therewith.
- One should take crabs and boil them well in water and throw out of the pot everything within the shells and boil the rest. Grind well in a mortar, and strain through a cloth and mix it well with alum, upon which the color becomes reddish; or if one wishes to make the color darker, add verdigris thereto.
- Take brasil wood and maple as much as you wish and boil it well in lime water and take then alum and gum arabic thereto, so the brasilwood and the maple are well cooked, then let the alum and gum arabic seeth together, and therewith color red upon white.

- Whosoever wishes to make yellow dye, takes orpiment and mixes it with alum, cooked in lime water, and dyes therewith.
- One should take barberries and peel the outer rind off; then one should peel off the green and boil it with alumwater and add brasilwood thereto and orpiment and dye therewith.

- To make a green dye, take verdigris and boil it in urine and mix alum thereto and a portion of gum arabic, and dye therewith; to make the color lighter, take the same color and add orpiment and mix it with alum, cooked in lime water and dye therewith.
- One should take elder and boil it in alumwater, that makes a green color and also a black, if one mixes it with a bit of black color.

- Whoever wishes to make a fast blue, take ground lapis lazuli pigment in lime water and boil it with gum arabic and with alum and dye therewith. If he wishes to make it dark, add black dye thereto and blue flowers which stand in the field, and mash it well and boil it in urine and mix it with alum and dye therewith.
- Take the leaves of a dwarf elder and mash them and take indigo and add thereto and grind it together and let them dry together for a long time and take lime water and let it seethe together and then take alum and grind it thereto while it's all hot. Paint it on white fabric, and it will become a good blue.

Mordants and fixatives
By 1200, Europe imported alum from Sicily and North Africa which was used as a mordant for fixing the colours in woolen cloth. The purpose of the mordant is to assist the dye in sticking to the material. It also improves the permanence, colorfastness and light fastness of the dye itself. Some mordants change the tone of the colour of the dye. Iron was used to darken colors or to tone down brightness and was often used as a post-dye bath.

Ammonia, readily available to all walk of life in the form of stale urine, was a key ingredient in processing woad. It was also used to adjust the acidity levels which alters colors in various dyes, like madder.

The mordant most in use over the medieval period was alum, which could be used both in the dye bath or as a pre-mordant. Alum brightens colors without really changing the color itself. Too much alum can make woolen fibres sticky and tartaric acid was often used with to counteract this. Finds from Coppergate show the use of club moss which was used an alternative to mined alum. The moss is high in natural alum and was useful in areas where alum was difficult to obtain.

Copper is another metal-based mordant which was widely used. It tends to add a blue-greenish cast to dyes. In many cases, dyeing in a copper pot might be all that was required to mordant the fibres.

Notes about colours
It must be noted that just because it was possible for a colour to be dyed, it did not mean that it was instantly adopted by all walks of life. Many colours were deemed unsuitable for the peasant class. Bright colours, it was thought, were not humble and engendered a feeling of pride which was a mortal sin. Peasants should remember where it was that God had seen fit to place them, and they should not desire anything other than God's will.

Clothing in greys, browns and muted blues were thought most suitable for the lower class. This did not mean that peasants were dowdy. Greys and browns were available in a number of shades and clever colour coordination of hoods and tunics could still make for an attractive ensemble. Blue was a colour which was available to most classes, both cheaply and expensively, in all shades ranging from muted, sombre blues to brilliant jewel blues of the upper classes.

Scarlet was a fabric which was also known as a colour- causing great confusion in clothing inventories, scarlet the cloth and scarlet the colour often being misinterpreted. Scarlet, the fabric, was an expensive fabric and limited to the very highest echelons of society. The dye process used a certain amount of kermes for all of the colours it was produced in- red, grey, black, dark grey and dark blue- not just for the bright red colour scarlet.


Medieval Colour Names
Many and varied are the names of colours used in medieval times. When reading through manuscripts or old books, colours referred to may be hard to distinguish. Listed below are those that I've personally come across and their modern colour descriptions. Many of these are obsolete today.

abraham brown
abram brown
aurnola orange

bowdy scarlet
biffe "blotted out" stripes
brassel red
brasil bright red
bristol red
brun brown
brunetta lighter brown
burel dark red woollen
burnet brown

carnation raw flesh colour
carsey yellow
cendre dark grey
cendryn grey
celestrine light blue
checkery checked cloth
ciclaton originally scarlet, then cloth of gold
cramoisy crimson, bright red
crocus yellow
cyclas purple


echiqueles checked fabric

falwe yellow

garance madder
gingerline reddish-violet
goose-turd yellowish green
graine cochineal red
gris grey
grisart light grey
gris brun drab
gris cindre ash grey
gris pommelle dapple grey
gros de dos d'asne donkey grey

bright tan


incarnate red
inde indigo blue, azure blue
isabelle yellow or light buff

jaune bright yellow


lincoln green
lustie-gallant light red

maidenhair bright tan
marble parti-coloured
medley a mixture of colours
mezereon rose-purple
milk-and-water bluish white
murrey deep claret or purplish-red made from mulberry juice


orange tawny orange brown

paonace peacock
pavonalilis peacock
pear russett red
pers deep blue
perse bluish grey
plombes leaden grey
plonquies leaden grey
plunket medium blue or grey-blue
plunket celestyne sky blue
popinjay green or blue
puce purple of reddish tone
puke purple of reddish tone. Also described as dirty brown
purpure purple


rats colour dull grey
roy bright tawny
russett a dark brown

sad dark tint of any colour
sanguin blood red
sangwyn blood red
scarlet bright red
sheeps colour neutral
stammel red

tanne tan, tawny
tawny dusky orange brown
tenne tawny orange brown
toley bright red
turkils turquoise


verdulet bright bluish green
vermel bright red
vermeil vermillion, bright red
vermillion bright red
vert green
violet purple

watchet pale greenish blue
woad blue


ynde indigo blue
yellow-carsey yellow


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