HNW - Medieval Dyes

Jacquie Samples jacquie-samples at
Thu Aug 27 08:37:32 PDT 1998

At 08:46 AM 8/27/98 -0500, Margo wrote:
out in the sticks where people were doing their own, you could
>pretty much come up with whatever colour and depth of colour you liked and
>the local flora would allow.
>So, to the person who said that most dyeign was done commercially, maybe in
>later periods, and maybe near cities, but even in the 19th Century people
>might be dyeing their own yarns to get the colours they needed.  After all,
>stores had limited supplies in some areas, and my research on commercial
>yarn production has turned up minimal information (more always welcome!). 
>Fabric may have been dyed, but people still made things of yarn and these
>needed to be dyed if the person wanted to make more than just
>sheep-coloured items.

During the Middle Ages, textile production is one of the first things to
move to the cities.  During the Roman Period and up through the Carolingian
Period, there were "women's workshops," associated with wealthy/large
estates, which were set up to produce finished textiles. As the society
became more industrialized, the production of textiles was moved to the
cities and turned over to men's sphere of control. Although, it should be
noted, spinning was one of the last of the textile production steps to be

Only in really isolated areas (like Scottish highlands) do I know of any
real use of locally found colors. Even in 9th/10th century York, better
dyes were being imported. There is a native madder in England. But people
weren't using that. They were importing better madder from the continent. I
think way too many people
think that them country folk just did what they want and didn't have the
fashion sense to use the better dyes/the popular colors. Dye analysis of
surviving textiles actually shows a fairly limited range of dyestuffs --
the most effective dyestuffs. In local areas, if there was a good local dye
to be had, yes it would be used (like lichens or mollusk purple), but
probably in a mass production for the whole town/village type of endeavor.

Also the more times you dye something, the more time it takes and the more
raw materials you use. This makes overdyeing expensive.

The people of the Middle Ages were a lot more cosmopolitan than people
commonly think. There was widespread trade throughout "the west" which
effected the circulation of a large number of types of goods.  People
didn't/ couldn't make everything themselves. That's what you get stuck
doing when you are out on the frontier or are an early colonist in North
America. But as quick as possible, trade routes and specialists are set up.

I don't have the documentation for this as it comes from various texts and
general impressions from years of research.  The information about the York
dyes can be found in the volume on textiles in the series "The archaeology
of York."  I can't remember the volume number.  Another reference from
which I got my general impression is "Dictionary of the Middle Ages." Look
in v.4 under Dyes and dyeing, and in v. 11 under Textile technology.  By
the way, this set gives very good introductory material (and bibliographies
for further research) on MANY topics of interest to anyone who wants to
learn a bit more about the Middle Ages.


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