[My Chamber of Textile Thoughts. No: VII | By Viveka Hansen]

Alum was of universal importance for textile dyeing before the introduction of chemical dyes in the 1850s. Thanks to two of my textile history projects, I have had the possibility to study the significance of the alum quarrying and trade in several geographical areas. Foremost around Whitby in England and through Carl Linnaeus’ observations of the south Swedish alum works during the mid 18th-century, but also via his long travelling Apostles’ diaries, which include notes on alum as a mordant for textile dyeing of yarn, cloth and leather in North America, China, Libya, Russia and Turkey.

The quarrying of alum became a lucrative local business as well as a long distance trade of great importance – foremost from the early 17th century up to mid 19th century – in many places with suitable geological and geographical conditions. One of the most important areas of use was as a mordant for the dyeing of yarn and cloth. Additionally before the introduction of chemical dyes in 1856, the usage of alum was both one of the simplest and most inexpensive way to get natural dyes to fix the colour to the fiber with a satifactory result. Here alum shale and its processed salt. Courtesy of: The IK Foundation & Company, London.

The quarrying of alum became a lucrative local business as well as a long distance trade of great importance – foremost from the early 17th century up to mid 19th century – in many places with suitable geological and geographical conditions. One of the most important areas of use was as a mordant for the dyeing of yarn and cloth. Additionally before the introduction of chemical dyes in 1856, the usage of alum was both one of the simplest and most inexpensive way to get natural dyes to fix the colour to the fiber with a satisfactory result. Here alum shale and its processed salt. (Courtesy of: The IK Foundation, London).

The age of pre-industrialism did not only imply an increased need of alum for the dyeing of textiles, but also for a number of other necessities: like paper making, Epson salts, for pickling, glove making, baking powder and deodorant. These early industries made extensive changes to both the landscape and the people in the affected areas. For example Andrarum’s alum works in the most southern parts of Sweden grew to become one of the earliest larger ”industries” in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, with significant implications to the surrounding areas. When the alum work reached its peak during the 1760s, the earlier sparsely populated area had grown to a population of nearly 1000 inhabitants. Where the workers produced 5800 barrels of alum a year (c. 140 kg/barrel), primarily exported to other European countries. For the town Whitby and nearby areas along Yorkshire’s coast in north eastern England the changes had a similar pre-industrial growth. By the early 17th century, the town was expanding following the development of quarrying in several nearby alum works. Large ships were built in the town for the alum trade and the shipyards increased during the course of the century in both number and size, with the result that by 1700 Whitby could boast a fleet of 113 vessels.

On the continent, in Britain as well as in the Nordic countries, alum factories through the centuries occupied hundreds of workers in this complex process. Here depicted from Liège in mid 18th century (Diderot, Encyclopédie, vol. XXIII, 1768).

On the continent, in Britain as well as in the Nordic countries, alum factories through the centuries occupied hundreds of workers in this complex process. Here depicted from Liège in mid 18th century. (Diderot, Encyclopédie, vol. XXIII, 1768).

The last alum workers at Andrarum’s alum works in Skåne, Sweden. An industry started by the Danish nobleman Jockom Beck in 1637. (Photograph by Alfred B. Nilsson 1903).

The last alum workers at Andrarum’s alum works in Skåne, Sweden. An industry started by the Danish nobleman Jockom Beck in 1637.
(Photograph by Alfred B. Nilsson 1903).

Even if alum was of the utmost importance as a mordant for textile dyeing of yarn and cloth – both for professional dyers and domestic needs – this salt could be added or replaced with a number of other mordants to further deepen, lighten or strengthen the colours of the natural dyes. Foremost; iron, potash, cream of tartar, copper sulphate and tin, also even more highly toxic elements were in use like lead and arsenic.

This sampler from 1848 was embroidered with wool on linen fabric by an eight year old girl, it shows a clear example of how a textile with a variation of colours can with certainty be dated before the introduction of chemical dyes. The majority of these colours – with exception of the indigo blue – was most probably prepared with alum as a mordant before or during the natural dyeing process. (owner: Whitby Museum, Sampler Collection). Photo: The IK Foundation & Company, London.

This sampler from 1848 was embroidered with wool on linen fabric by an eight year old girl, it is a clear example of how a textile with a variation of colours can with certainty be dated before the introduction of chemical dyes. The majority of these colours – with exception of the indigo blue – was most probably prepared with alum as a mordant before or during the natural dyeing process. (Owner: Whitby Museum, Sampler Collection). Photo: The IK Foundation, London.

SOURCES

  • Hansen, Viveka, The Textile History of Whitby 1700-1914 – A Lively Coastal Town between the North Sea and North York Moors, London – Whitby 2015.
  • Hansen, Viveka, ‘TEXTILIA LINNAEANA – Global 18th century Textile Traditions & Trade’, [ongoing project, publishing date December 2016]
  • Singer, Charles, The Earliest Chemical Industry – An Essay in the Historical Relations of Economics & Technology illustrated from the Alum Trade, London 1948.
  • Stoltz, Elof, ‘Andrarums alunbruk en försvunnen bruksbygd’, Svensk Geografisk årsbok, 1932, pp. 65-121.

PLEASE REFERENCE AS FOLLOWS:

  • Hansen, Viveka, ‘Alum and Textile Dyeing (E 1).’, TEXTILIS (September 12, 2013); http://textilis.net/ (Accessed: Day/Month/Year)

❊ ❊ ❊