The first recorded mention of fabric dyeing was in China in approximately 2600 BCE. Early dyes were made from plant fibres and natural pigments, mixed with water and oils, the same techniques that had once been used in prehistoric cave paintings. Dye colours varied by geographical region, depending on the source material available within the different climate zones.
Shades of red, orange, and brown are among the colors of the oldest remaining textile samples, dating back to the Neolithic Era and were discovered in southern Anatolia. Studies have shown that multi-colored fabrics were developed in Egypt somewhere between the 2nd or 3rd millennium BCE, woven with a red-brown warp thread and an ochre-yellow weft. Patterns and designs could also be created using wax-resist techniques during the dyeing process.
The most common plant-based dyes came from woad, indigo, saffron, and madder, creating shades of blue, yellow, and red. Animal based dyes like the cochineal beetle, lac insect, murex snail, and cuttlefish made red, red/violet, purple, and sepia brown respectively. The colors that they produced were so popular that people started raising them commercially, becoming vital trade goods in Asia and Europe.
Some dye colors were in such demand that their sources were hunted to extinction, most particularly the purple (purpura in latin) for the murex mollusk. It is estimated that it took over 8,500 mollusks to create a single gram of dye so during the days of the Roman Empire, purpura-dyed, otherwise known as Tyrian purple, silk was literally worth its weight in gold. It is for this reason that the colour purple has long been associated with extreme wealth and royalty, as they were the only ones who could afford to wear it.
But even in the ancient world, fashion was subject to interpretation and imitation, so by 300 CE, fabric dyers had discovered mixtures of red and blue dyes to create new shades of purple that would be more affordable to the general populace. The nobility were less than pleased with the idea of someone creating knock-offs of their special colour, so in the late 4th century Emperor Theodosium of Byzantium issued a law that expressly forbade anyone but the Imperial family from wearing purple, under penalty of death.
Dyes from insects, such as the kermes beetle, became particularly prevalent in the 15th century. Kermes dye have been found dating back to the neolithic era, but it became particularly popular in the middle ages, replacing Tyrian purple as a status symbol. The eggs of the kermes beetle resemble fine sand or grain, so cloth colored using this dye were often described as being dyed in the grain. Color variations such as black, grey, and brown were produced by dyeing the wool blue with woad before the thread was spun, then piece-dyeing the resulting cloth after it was woven. By the end of the 14th century, pure kermes red was considered the most regal, most luxurious colour on the European market.
The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs of the New World heralded the discovery of the Mexican cochineal beetle, which produced a stronger red dye in smaller quantities than the kermes beetle, and quickly replaced it as the primary source of luxury red dye in Europe. The red dye produced by the cochineal became the standard color of fox hunter’s coats, as well as the trademark red of the coats worn by the British army. It was also a shade particularly favored by Louis XV of France and his mistress, Madame du Pompadour, who were known to use it commonly in their clothing and decor.
In China, red dye was created by heating white lead pigment to create lead tetroxide, or by using the madder plant to colour silk fabric or to make read lacquer for furniture. In India, the rubia plant to create a similar colour in their silks.
Yellow dyes were among the easiest to produce naturally. Saffron, pomegranate rind, turmeric, and onion skins could create variations of the shade, making it a common color to wear among all classes. Green, however, was much more difficult. The Lincoln green cloth that was associated with Robin Hood was created by over-dyeing woad-colored blue wool with weld or greenweed. This technique was used for a number of years, until it was replaced in the 18th century by a brighter shade known as Saxon green, which was produced using indigo and fustic.
The earliest synthetic dyes were discovered by accident in the early 1800’s. A young chemist named William Perkin was conducting experiments in an attempt to discover an alternative cure for malaria, as the only known cure at the time was the bark of the South American cinchona tree. During his experiments he discovered that the mixture of coal tar that he was using had turned from black to purple. He called the dye color “mauvine”, what we know today as “mauve”. His discovery was an immediate success in the London dye houses, and he left the Royal College of Chemistry shortly afterwards to start manufacturing synthetic dyes. Quite an accomplishment for someone who was only fifteen years old.
His other colour discoveries were known as Britannia Violet and Perkin’s Green. He also found a way to commercially produce the red dye from the madder root. Since then, the synthetic dye industry exploded worldwide, creating colors like fuchsine (discovered in 1858), safranin (discovered in the 1880’s), induline (discovered 1896), and thousands of others.
Until the 1860’s the only synthetic green dye that was available was developed using arsenic, earning the color the completely appropriate moniker of “poison green”. Almost a decade later, new formulas called aniline greens replaced the toxic substance, and led to the later development of brighter shades that we now call “electric yellow” and “electric blue”, after the colors produced by early light bulbs. But not everyone was on board with the bright aniline dyes. At the turn of the 20th century, the Shah of Persia banned the use of aniline dyes in carpet manufacturing, but instead of reinstating Emperor Theodosium’s draconian death sentences, he declared that the producers of aniline-dyed rugs were to be heavily fined and the carpets themselves seized and publicly burned.
A few years later, a scientist by the name of Adolf von Baeyer (yes, the very same man who created the formula for aspirin), figured out the molecular structure of indigo, and started working on a chemical process to produce it synthetically, quickly replacing the natural dye.
Today dye colors are more than a status symbol or a mark of individuality, they are a marketing tool. Modern fashion designers have made a point of declaring colors de mode one season, and unfashionable the next, in an effort to ensure that “fashionable” people continue to consume product on an almost monthly basis, rather than relying on single pieces for several years. Colors can also become associated with the brands themselves. For example, Chanel and the “little black dress”, or the Hudson Bay company and their primary-colored stripes. Pantone announces its “color of the year” every December, working with international brands to incorporate the “psychology and emotion of color in their design strategy”.
If anyone was curious, the colour for 2018 is called Ultra Violet.