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

The fifth observation from North America has been inspired from my visit last summer at the most interesting Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The aim with this article is to give some comparable views of dyeing methods, from before as well as after the introduction of the synthetic dyes by discussing and illustrating a few gems from its museum and research library. Textile dyeing is overall a complex process, but the craft also has a number of separate functions/limitations – as sign of wealth and status, long living local traditions, amateur or specialist dyers perspectives, water and light resistance considerations or just the desire for a beautiful colour.

 Box of synthetic indigo dye, ca. 1916. (From the Museum exhibition “Making Modernity”). Photo: The IK Foundation & Company in 2014.

Box of synthetic indigo dye, ca. 1916. (From the Museum exhibition “Making Modernity”). Photo: The IK Foundation in 2014.

The basic chemical structure of synthetic indigo was worked out by the German chemist Adolf von Baeyer in 1865, but difficulties arose when synthesising the “new indigo” and therefore the substance was first fully developed around 1880. During the coming decades it became a widespread dye substance, gradually making the lucrative indigo plantations in numerous countries unprofitable. The synthesised form of the popular blue dye became cheaper as well as quicker to produce and Jenny Balfour-Paul describes in her book Indigo, that a smaller number of chemical producers in the 1890s – initially German, Swiss and French – dominated the market.

Additionally the illustrated box of synthetic indigo dye and its informative printed text enlightening the history of demand, transportation and the awakening production of this dye in U.S. for jeans and other garments/fabrics. The exhibition states in this matter: ‘To satisfy customers’ perennial preference for the color blue. American dyers eagerly bought the synthetic indigo carried by the submarine Deutschland. But they soon discovered that dissolving the highly compressed German dye cakes was nearly impossible, forcing them to buy from the U.S. companies just starting indigo manufacture.’

Some further search into the history of this submarine, reviles that Deutschland was built in 1916 as a blockade-breaking German merchant submarine, and acted as one of seven freighters of this type carrying cargo to the U.S during the First World War. This particular submarine made two journeys only as a cargo submarine (1916), whereof the piece of indigo illustrated here was carried on the second. However, it was primarily on the first journey as dye stuff was carried in any substantial quantities (125 tons), probably due to the problems cited above with highly compressed indigo.

The Museum exhibition also describes that the Navajo have had a long tradition of using natural dyes, but with the introduction of synthetic substances a gradual change gave way to greater variations and the possibility to buy synthetically dyed yarn. Noted as follows; ‘The brightly colored rugs and other textiles woven by the Navajo during the 1860s and 1870s became known as “Germantowns,” after Germantown, Pennsylvania, home to the mills that produced the synthetically dyed yarn. This lightweight, brilliantly colored yarn in shades of red, blue, green, purple, black, and yellow never before available to the Navajos enabled weavers to create new, intricate designs of dazzling complexity.’ (From the Museum exhibition “Making Modernity”). Photo: The IK Foundation & Company in 2014.

The Museum exhibition also describes that the Navajo have had a long tradition of using natural dyes, but with the introduction of synthetic substances a gradual change gave way to greater variations and the possibility to buy synthetically dyed yarn. Noted as follows; ‘The brightly colored rugs and other textiles woven by the Navajo during the 1860s and 1870s became known as “Germantowns,” after Germantown, Pennsylvania, home to the mills that produced the synthetically dyed yarn. This lightweight, brilliantly colored yarn in shades of red, blue, green, purple, black, and yellow never before available to the Navajos enabled weavers to create new, intricate designs of dazzling complexity.’ (From the Museum exhibition “Making Modernity”). Photo: The IK Foundation in 2014.

3. chemical red dyes jpg

The science of colour illustrated by a late 19th century Sample book of aniline/chemical dyes. (From the Museum exhibition “Making Modernity”). Photo: The IK Foundation in 2014.

Going back in time to pre-synthetic dyes – here pictured with a professional dyer hanging ramie cloth to dry in the 1820s China. Watercolour on pith paper (Reproduction) in the Museum exhibition “Making Modernity”. Photo: The IK Foundation & Company in 2014.

Going back in time to pre-synthetic dyes – here pictured with a professional dyer hanging ramie cloth to dry in the 1820s China. Watercolour on pith paper (Reproduction) in the Museum exhibition “Making Modernity”. Photo: The IK Foundation & Company in 2014. [This is one of sixty-two water colour images. Here you can see the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s complete digitised collection of “The Story of Ramie from Seed to Finished Garment”].

For a brief study of natural dyes I visited Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library (Rare Books) at the same Foundation. This library is holding a selection of pre-1800 dye books, predominately European. One such example is The Art of Dying Wool, Silk and Cotton by Jean Hellot – printed in London 1789. The book is translated from the French and each part of the book by a different translator, not an entirely unusual way for an 18th century dye book. Translations from or to German, French, Swedish, English etc are something I have come across several times when studying early dye books in both Sweden and England. Meaning that many recipes are repeated over and over again with some variations, additionally the “borrowing” of images from one book to another was not uncommon!

This book printed 1789 is comprised of more than 500 pages including very detailed descriptions/recipes, divided into three sections clearly separated due to the various methods for wool, silk and cotton & linen thread. Several descriptions assist each dye plant, insect bodies or mollusc shells, based on knowledge with its roots in the 17th century or even earlier. These dyeing instructions were primarily intended for the professional dyers, while most recipes are complex in various degrees and can not be carried out without one or several imported dye stuffs.

Plate I from Jean Hellot’s dye book ‘The Art of Dying Wool, Silk and Cotton’, printed in London 1789.

Plate I from Jean Hellot’s dye book ‘The Art of Dying Wool, Silk and Cotton’, printed in London 1789.

A selection of recipes follow to demonstrate some of the great variations – especially for red, blue and green colours – included in the 1789 publication.

  • Dyeing Wool: The cold Indigo Vat with Urine, Gum-lac Scarlet, Madder Red, The colours obtained from a mixture of Blue and Red, The method of blending Wool of different colours, for mixed Cloths or Stuffs, Brasil Wood, French Berries etc.
  • The Art of Dyeing Silk: For boiling of silks intended to be Dyed, Remarks on Crimson, False Rose colour, Softening of Black, Violet Crimson of Italy, Genoa Black for Velvets etc.
  • The Art of Dying Cotton and Linen Thread…: Theory of dying stuffs prepared with alum, Cochineal and colouring insects, Red Cinnamon, Olive and Duck Greens, Saxon Blue etc.
Plate II from Jean Hellot’s dye book ‘The Art of Dying Wool, Silk and Cotton’, printed in London 1789.

Plate II from Jean Hellot’s dye book ‘The Art of Dying Wool, Silk and Cotton’, printed in London 1789.

It is always a privilege and joy to handle a rare 18th century publication, but this interesting and informative book can also be found in full text online – from one example kept in North Carolina State University.

To be continued…

Sources:

  1. Visit at the Museum exhibition “Making Modernity”.
  2. Visit at Roy G. Neville Historical Chemical Library (Rare Books).
  3. Online http://www.chemheritage.org/index.aspx
  4. 62 Chinese Water Colours – “The Story of Ramie from Seed to Finished Garment”  https://www.flickr.com/photos/chemheritage/sets/72157615484616621/

PLEASE REFERENCE AS FOLLOWS:

Hansen, Viveka, ‘Natural and Early Synthetic Dyes – A Study in Philadelphia (H 5)’, TEXTILIS (January 25, 2015); http://textilis.net/ (Accessed: Day/Month/Year)