Skip to main content
Student with mannequins

Gallery Exhibit: "Nature's Dyes"

Textiles From Around the Globe

This Exhibit ran from October 11, 2005 - March 1, 2006

The story of dyes parallels the technological, economic, and aesthetic history of mankind from prehistoric times. Fragments of garments and textiles representing many ancient cultures have survived. Protein fibers, silk and wool, from many locations in Europe, Asia, and South America are colored. The Egyptians, however, primarily used flax to produce fabrics. Flax, being a cellulosic fiber, does not dye easily, so instead of showing wealth by purchasing dyed fabrics, high ranking Egyptians demonstrated their standing by having the whitest linens. Even in areas from which no fabrics have survived, wall paintings, once-painted statues, and sculptured representations of patterned garments imply that cloth was colored. The presence of dye plants or seeds from pre-historic archaeological sites where no cloth survived further supports coloring fabric, although many dye plants also were spices and medicines.

Dyers used natural dyes until the end of the nineteenth century when synthetic dyes took over. The next Textile Gallery exhibition in Spring 2006 will feature synthetic dyes and the advances that have occurred in the 150 years since their synthesis. Dyers accepted synthetic dyes because of inherent inconsistencies that occurred when they used natural dyes. Many dyestuffs from natural sources are mixtures of dyes, and since the percentage of dyes present varied because of geographic origin, soil and weather conditions, processing techniques, and the presence of impurities, achieving consistent colors was impossible.

Uzbekistan Silk embroidery on silk ground and samples of dyed wool yarn in bowl



Suzani, 19th century, Uzbekistan Silk

embroidery on silk ground
Donor: Robert P. Bainbridge. URI 2003.12.240


Samples of wool yarn dyed in Greece with different dye-mordant combinations
Loan: Linda Welters




Madder (Rubia tinctorum)

Madder was one of the first natural dyes used to produce red, orange, and purple colors on cotton, wool, and silk. Since ancient times, it has been one of the most important dyes throughout the world. The plant is found in many locations throughout the globe. Its root is stripped of its covering, dried, and beaten to remove impurities. Finally it is crushed into a fine powder and packed in tight cubes; dyers dissolve the cubes in water and boiled the solution to produce the red syrup-like dye.

Treating a fabric with a mordant before dyeing it with madder produces a color that does not fade easily when exposed to light or laundering. Each mordant produces a different color. Madder and aluminum salts, traditionally alum, created brick red color. Iron salts made the fabric purple, which could be so dark as to look black. Tin salts produce pinks. By using different concentrations and mixing the mordants, other color variations were possible. The little girl’s dress on the manikin is an example of three different mordants having been printed on cotton fabric that was then dyed in a madder solution producing three different colors.

Natural madder is not a single dye but a mixture of differing amounts of dyes including alizarin, purpurin, pseudopurpurin, and xanthopurpurin. The results of dyeing with madder vary in different locations and times because of varying amounts of the four dyes present as well as varying quantities of impurities mixed in the madder or mordants.

gallery display of child's dress and cotton cap on mannequin, and woman's long cotton printed wrapper


Child's dress on manikin, ca. 1840
Cotton, printed different mordants, then dyed in madder
Donors: Dr. and Mrs. Harold W. Browning
URI 1970.01.16

Child's cotton cap, ca. 1840

Donor: Miss Alice Howland
URI 1959.39.150

Woman's wrapper, ca. 1860
Cotton, printed different mordants, then dyed in madder
Donor: Mrs. George Humes; URI 1960.24.04



printed cotton doll's dress, doll's red stockings and bonnet, and doll's patchwork quilt

Doll's dress printed cotton, Cushman Collection; URI 1952.64.274

Doll's stockings, dyed cotton. Donor: Miss Alice Howland
URI 1959.06.64

Doll's bonnet, dyed cotton. Donor: Miss Nathalie Pierce
URI 1952.21.02

Doll's patchwork quilt, Printed cotton fabrics. Whitlock Collection; URI 1962.31.693


Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria)

Indigo is the most common and abundant of all the natural dyes. Obtained from a number of different plants, the indigo dye from the Indigofera tinctoria plant is the most significant. I. tinctoria is native to India and China. I. anil is from South and Central America, and others types are from the East Indies, West Africa, and Japan. After processing, the dyestuff, indigotin, is poured into trays and cut into block after drying. The block must be broken up and powdered. The indigotin is not soluble in water and must be chemically reduced to make it soluble. After fabric is dipped into an alkaline reduced indigo vat, exposure to air oxidizes the dye to its blue state. Repeated dippings increases the depth of the color. Applying a wax or chemical resist with blocks or brush to a fabric before it is dipped in an indigo vat produces a patterned fabric. The fabric design painted over the door to the Textile Gallery is from a late eighteenth-century indigo-resist print in the Collection.

Since reduced indigo oxidizes very quickly on exposure to air, printing with it is very difficult. Indian printers usually painted the reduced form onto a fabric with a brush (called penciling) where it immediately turned blue. European printers copied the technique, finding in the early eighteenth century that adding an arsenic compound slowed oxidation making penciling easier, despite harmful effects on painters who wet the end of the pant brush in their mouths.

Toward the end of the century after copper-plate printing had been perfected, printers, especially in England, printed a paste containing ground-up indigo onto a fabric that then was dipped alternately into solutions of alkali and reducing agent. As the indigo was reduced, it dyed the fabric, but since some of it washed off during the dippings, the color was never as intense as in the fabrics that were dipped into the indigo vat. The color produced was called "China Blue"

Although a very popular dye in the east since its development, indigo did not reach the western world mass market until the Dutch East India Company imported it in the sixteenth century. After general acceptance by European dyers replacing woad, indigo became an important import, and the Company set up many indigo plantations. After the discovery of America, indigo plantations were placed all across the colonies in the Caribbean, southern North America, and Central America.

Indigo remained one of the most important dyes following the textile revolution in America and stayed on top until the discovery of synthetic indigo in the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, manufacturers and retailers promoting natural environmentally friendly products used indigo for products such as jeans.


Trousers, ca. 1830.
Yarn-dyed cotton fabrics, variety of woven patterns
Donor: Muriel Buckley
URI 1967.13.16

A rare example the working man's clothing from the early 19th century.






Silk slippers, ca. 1820
Donor: Mrs. M.L. Holst
URI 1953.61.04



Kermes and Cochineal

Representing the Old World and New World, female kermes and cochineal scale insects produce a red dye used for thousands of years on silk and wool. Hundreds of wingless female insects are impregnated by a winged male that then dies. The tiny females (3-4 mm) become little round balls as they suck nourishment from a host plant and as the eggs develop within them. Just before they lay their eggs, they are harvested, killed with heat or steam, and dried. In this dried state, they can be stored until used to make a red dye that is more brilliant than madder.

Greek and Roman writers recorded the use of kermes, but did not quite understand what the shriveled dried insects were, calling them seeds, pits, or berries. The best known kermes scale insects (Kermes vermilis and Kermes ilicis) lived around the Mediterranean coast on oak trees (Quercus coccifera and Q. ilex). Other types of Kermes insects fed on grasses and roots of a host plant. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the collapse of production of purple dyes from purpura (shellfish), kermes took over as the most important red dyestuff. It was extremely expensive, and only the wealthiest could afford textiles dyed with it.

When Venice assumed a leading role in silk production during the Renaissance, the city became a center for kermes trading. For a number of centuries, fabric dyed with kermes was called Venetian scarlet. The red yarns in the Gothic tapestries woven in Flanders and France are kermes-dyed. The color has lasted quite well in those tapestries; some experts report that the kermes yarns have kept their color better than the later works dyed with cochineal, which took over in the mid-1600s.

Cochineal mordanted with tin chloride produced a more brilliant red than kermes. Imported to Asia and Europe from the New World by the Spanish, cochineal scale insects (Dactylopius coccus Costa) date back to 1000 B.C. in Mexico and Central and South America, where they feed on cacti. Many extant Peruvian textiles contain bright cochineal-dyed yarns. The Spanish were not able to keep the secret of cochineal production from other countries, but only Java bred cochineal and the host cacti in a significant amount. Cochineal breeding still takes place in Central America and the Canary Islands.



Detail of Foundi (part of bridal costume), Greece
From Attica, Messoghia villages
Embroidered with kermes-dyed silk yarns, the pink ones
Donor: Diane Cormier; URI 2001.08.01







Turkey-red crib quilt, ca. 1855.

printed cotton fabrics
Donor: Mrs. Mervin Miller
URI 1956.03.260


Turkey Red Calico

Producing a bright red color with madder on cotton, a cellulose fiber, is difficult, even with a mordant. Thousands of years ago Indian dyers developed an oil and mordant treatment to make bright red madder-dyed cotton. The process spread through Persian, Armenia, and Syria to Turkey and Thessaly, Greece. By the 1600s, these dye centers using Tournant oil (rancid olive oil) treatments produced an enviable red color on cotton.

Marketed as "Turkey red" yarns or fabric, the brightly colored cloths drew the attention of French entrepreneurs. By the mid-eighteenth century, after much experimentation, French dye works also had perfected the process. After that, dye houses world-wide tried to imitate the procedures that produced the highly desirable madder-dyed products. Most were unsuccessful, but many sold products labeled Turkey red, even dull red ones.

The color is created by the repeated use of oil on cotton yarn or cloth. Because each fiber must be dried completely between each oiling, the process can take up to several days to complete. Many towns in Turkey and eastern Europe erected large buildings or "hanging towers" especially for drying the yarns or fabrics. The penetration of the dye into yarns is not great, but the color on the outer fibers is much brighter than regular madder and mordant-dyed cotton. However, the arduous process lowers the abrasion resistance of the fibers on the outside of the treated yarns. Heavy use of a Turkey red fabric results in the weakened outer red-colored fibers breaking off, exposing interior undyed white fibers. This is a method of identifying Turkey red fabrics.

Consumers wanted the patterned Turkey red fabrics, so dyers developed a method of printing the bright red fabrics with a paste containing a chemical discharge. To the print paste they added dyes that were not harmed by the discharge chemicals so that they discharged the madder dye while printing colors in the discharged spaces. The resulting fabric is called Turkey red calico.