Yorkers Could Dye Yarn a Rainbow of Colors in 1829
My last two posts were on Seifert the blue dyer, one on the blue dyeing craft and the other on his unruly children. My excursion into 19th century dyeing methods was sparked by the ad above, from the June 23, 1829 York Recorder. Charles A. Morris’s ad reads:
DYE STUFF. The subscriber has received, at his Drug Store, a few doors east of the Courthouse, a fresh supply of dye stuffs, consisting in part of LOGWOOD, MADDER, BRAZIL WOOD, INDIGO, FUSTIC…COCHINEAL, ALUM, etc, etc. Solution of indigo, for colouring green, kept constantly on hand. In selecting the above articles particular attention has been paid to their quality. Private families, who do their own colouring, will find it to their advantage to call… .
Families raised sheep for wool as well as meat and grew flax to process into linen thread. Cotton, shipped from the South, was also available. After the yarn or thread was spun, the next step was dyeing the fibers before they were woven into cloth. The York County tax records show quite a few craftsmen listed as dyers or blue dyers, but dyestuffs could be purchased from druggists or merchants for home dyeing.
Some of these natural dyes have been used for centuries. Plant-based dyes may be making a comeback because they are natural and renewable. See below for more on the dyes featured in the Morris ad.
Logwood is from the heartwood of a tree that grows in the West Indies and Central America. The dye produces shades of green, purple, pink and blue.
Madder, from the root of the madder plant, produces dyes in warm shades of red.
Brazil wood dye is processed from a tree that was first discovered in Asia, where it is now cultivated for commercial use. Brazil wood produces a bright red dye. (Brasa means a hot red coal in Spanish.) The tree species found in Brazil is said to be the source of the name of that country.
Indigo plants, the origin of an intense blue dye, grow best in the tropics. It was extensively grown on plantations in the early American South and West Indies, often with the help of slave labor. A comparatively small amount might still be grown in Asia. Sources say it was difficult to use, which may be why “blue dyer” emerged as a commercial occupation.
Fustic is obtained by boiling chips from the heartwood of the tree known as Old Fustic, or Dyer’s Mulberry, again originally found in Brazil and the West Indies. It produces colors from warm yellows and oranges to peach. It is said to be one of the easier natural dyes to use. “Do. [ditto] Ground” in the ad probably meant you could buy Fustic in chipped or ground form.
Cochineal, which is used to dye fibers pink to rich reds, comes from a tiny scale insect that lives on prickly pear cacti. It was used widely in Central and South America over 1,000 years ago and exported to Europe soon after discovery by explorers. Cochineal became popular because the reds were deeper and more permanent than those produced by madder. Cochineal dye colored the coats of the British during the American Revolutionary War. Ninety percent of current production is still from Peru.
Alum is needed for dyeing many fibers, because it is a mordant, a chemical agent that binds the colors to the fibers. This is especially important when dyeing plant based fibers, such as cotton and linen.
The solution of Indigo mentioned was made by mixing indigo in water with other substances to change the color, producing a green dye.
Click the links below for more on home dyeing.
How to–from the 19th century.
An informative site from a current British supplier.
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