Purple, the Prince of Dyes


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Dyeing fabric, wool and yarn with natural plants is a magical, or more accurately, an alchemical process.

Take the colour purple. Before the invention of mauveine or aniline purple in 1856, the production of purple garments was reserved for the very rich or very important. Imperial purple was an expensive dye. The secretion used in the production of purple or Tyrian purple (as it was referred to in the ancient world) was found in a mollusc shell. Each shell dripped but a few drops of this precious substance. It would have taken millions of molluscs to dye the fabric for the fashionable garments of the day. By the 15th century production of antique purple had come to an end and the Catholic Church had to accept garments dyed with Polish cochineal.

Cochineal top dyed with indigo does give a good purple. But this is a long and complicated process. It is also expensive. Logwood, blackberries and elderberries are alternatives, but the colours are neither as rich nor as lasting. The outcome of a dye bath is also dependent on any number of factors: quantity and quality of both the fabric or yarn, dyestuff, water and heat, and of course the mordant used. A mordant, usually a chemical is the substance which allows the colour dye to bite into the yarn or fabric. But the colour quickly fades once exposed to the light. This is what is meant when colours are described as fugitive. Purple fades to lavender and to grey.

However, the very thing that was once the bane of the natural dyers art is that which most appeals to the modern sensibility. In a brightly coloured chemical world, something that is subtle and delicate is unusual and desirable. It has a rarity value and a quality of colour that has a life of its own. Dyeing can be a fun and experimental process. Hand dyed fabrics, as the photographs taken by Marsha Arnold of Katherine Sheers’ fabrics can also be exquisite.

Katherine has generously provided the two main recipes which she has used for her silk and cotton dyeing. Guelder Rose Berries were boiled up and strained to create a standard dye vat (they produced the pale mustard hues), and a dye vat that mainly consisted of figs with a small amount of blackberries was added to darken the pale, dusky pink of the figs. No measuring of the ingredients was involved, since Katherine simply harvested and used as much as she had to hand at the time. The fabrics were then mordanted with alum.
The crushed blackberries were simply placed and lightly crushed into damp, mordanted silk. The blackberries were harvested later in the season than the ones used to make the dye vat, which might account for the darker, colder hue. Nevertheless, these wonderfully delicate lavender hues will fade, albeit to very beautiful shades of grey Catch them while you can.

‘TRACES’ at the Tabernacle, Talgarth: An exhibition of new work by SUSAN MILNE, KATHERINE SHEERS and HELEN WATKINS. Open to the public from 27th May – 5th June 2016. 11am-5pm

Katherine’s favourite book on the subject is ‘The Modern Natural Dyer’ by Kristine Vejar. Besides being a treasury of copious practical information and recipes, it is a feast for the eyes.

‘The Craft of Natural Dyeing’ by Jenny Dean also has a good section on dying lavenders, greys and purples.

Photography by

Marsha Arnold

Read more in Issue 0

The Silk Butterfly Collector by Tracy Thursfield

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