Medieval Dyes and Dyeing

This is a picture of the reproduction panel I embroidered with natural dyed yarns. In planning my dyeing for this panel, I decided to stitch 1/2 of the panel with colors as seen today and the other half with the colors full strength as they would have looked 1000 years ago. On the right side, one can see the brilliance of the colors as they looked 1000 years ago. On the left side, the colors are more subdued and faded as they appear today.

Reproduction Panel

In medieval times dyeing was done with color obtained from plants. This is called natural dyeing. Most of these plant dyes were locally grown and processed. In the 9th century Charlemagne had decreed the cultivation of flax, madder , and woad. Two of these dye plants—madder and woad– produce orange-red and blue respectively. A third color, yellow, which completes the primary hues, was obtained from ladies bedstraw, or fustic or weld. Weld and Ladies Bedstraw are plants which grew wild over Northern Europe. Fustic is a shrub (also a tree in the tropics) which grew in southern Europe. Yellow can be obtained from any of these three plants. These three plants provide all of the colors in the Bayeux—each one alone or two of them together i.e. weld and woad to get green. There are 7 hues in the Bayeux. Each of them is related to one of these three dye plants. The colors of yellow, gold and tan are from fustic and take on their hue depending on the length of time in the dye bath or the mordant used. A first dipping with alum mordant will give the clear yellow. A chrome mordant will give gold. A copper sulfate mordant will give a greenish yellow. If some of these yellows are overdyed in the indigo vat, it will produce greens such as sage green, olive green and many more. It should be mentioned that in most cases, the color of a plants’ flower or leaves or fruit is not the color which the plant will produce. The color in some plants comes from the flowers (weld), in others from the roots (madder), and in others from the leaves (woad and indigo) or fruit or even insects (cochineal). The bark of plants (fustic) and lichens will produce some lovely colors also. Clothing of this period was quite colorful as can be seen in the Bayeux.

An 8th century monk of St Gallus described clothing worn by some of the populace: red trousers, scarlet leggings, blue cloaks, and red cap. Their work clothes were less colorful with simple shades of gray (bleached out green) , blue and yellow. In the early period of medieval times, every convent or monastery was able to produce basic natural dyes for cloth. It is mentioned that the Domenican nuns of St Catherine (Germany) produced technical writing about natural dyes which included formulas. This information was probably shared with local artisans. The earliest mention of a Dyer’s Guild on the continent was in 925 in Saxony (Germany) during the reign of Henry I. These Dyer Guilds became very strong in the 12th century when they were able to control the establishment of trade routes and could block the Indigo trade which would have been detrimental to the woad growers of Holland, Saxony, Flanders and England. The use of indigo was forbidden in Europe until the 16th century. There was a real advantage to use indigo over woad as the pigment obtained from indigo was 10 times that of a comparable amount of woad. But using indigo would have put a lot of woad growers out of business. Soon after the conquest, many dyers are believed to have left the continent and settled in London. They would have been competing with the monasteries and convents where natural dyeing had been developed for centuries.

             madder plant            in bloom             concentrated blue pieces

The most important local dye in northern Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries was woad, which was primarily grown in Saxony (Germany). England imported woad from Saxony as late as the 17th century, though it had become a woad growing country. In fact, the ancient Britons when first invaded by the Romans, were in the practice of staining their bodies with a blue substance that may have been derived from woad. The ancient celtic word for blue is “Glastun” from whence Glastonbury derived its’ name (my home town!). Green may be obtained from a woad vat by overdyeing yellow yarns or cloth in the exhausted vat.

Method of Dying with Woad

All of the leaves of the woad plant were used to produce a blue vat. The leaves are gathered and crushed with wooden rollers. After drying, they are hand kneaded into balls 2-6” in diameter. They are further dried for about 4 weeks. At the end of this time the woad balls could be sold at market or used in a dye vat. There are woad and Indigo dye receipes listed in my Bibliography of books. It is a very complicated procedure. Today the woad plant is not available in the United States as it was found to be detrimental in western states where cattle graze. This plant is very invasive and will spread very quickly and choke out other existing plants. The Dept of US Agriculture in 1977 sent a letter to weaving guilds strongly suggesting that dyers and others not plant woad. When I was dyeing my materials, I used an indigo dye vat made by another weaver who had a lot of experience with this method. Since woad and indigo are not water soluble, a chemical has to be used to activate the color. In medieval times this would be urine or ammonia. The wool material is immersed very carefully into the vat and it will take several dips to produce a dark indigo blue. When this dye bath is exhausted, the remaining dye can be used to overdye the yellows to produce green. In 1971 I experimented with making an indigo dye bath using urine collected from male members of my family as this is suppose to have a higher acidic content which is good for the vat. This scenerio has been written up in my book–Shaker Textiles for the 21st Century–where I share the challenges of making an indigo vat. Having made this vat once, I decided to use a vat made by another dyer who had a lot more experience.


In the above reproduction, Harold is shown with a mantel of a vivid indigo blue. One can also see a little green on his crown and belt which was yellow overdyed in the blue vat. His robe is fustic with madder used for the fold lines.

This picture on the right shows the left half of the Bayeux reproduction with the faded colors as they look today. The leggings are madder outlined with indigo and the tunic is fustic outlined with madder. Indigo, green (fustic overdyed with indigo), madder and fustic are colors to be found in the tower. More detailed indigo, woad and fustic recipes can be found on internet sites.

Madder (rubia tinctorum)is the next important dye plant. The three year old roots of this plant produce a red dye based on the alizarin acid content within. It is used with a mordant to produce a fast and clear color. This dye plant has been used since antiquity where it was used by the Egyptians and Hebrews. By the 9th century, Charlemagne recognized the profit from this plant and ordered that it be cultivated on his lands. Present day Holland, France and Italy with their alluvial soil, were the principal growers in the middle ages. They had a very profitable trade of madder with other countries. In Florence, madder was known as “rubia” which is the origin of the name of the famous “della robia” family.

The three year old roots of madder contain the color . The roots are picked, dried and sometimes crushed into a powder. I used the entire dried root which I soaked in water for several days. The next step is to heat this madder bath—very carefully. If too much heat is used the dye will go from red to brown. I used a thermometer to keep the heat below a boil –just a low simmer.

This is my method for dyeing madder:

Madder Receipe

  • Soak 8 ou of madder in a 3-4 gallon stainless steel pot for 2-3 days
  • Bring this to a simmer—not over 160°–for a red color
  • Maintain this temperature for one hour.
  • Remove the roots, strain and allow to cool before dyeing
  • Add 8 ou pre-mordanted* wool yarn which has been loosely tied in skeins
  • Heat slowly to a simmer and maintain for one hour
  • Remove the fiber and rinse well in warm water
  • Hang in a shady place to dry.

*I mordanted my yarn with alum plus 2 t of cream of tartar several days before the dyeing. I purchased my madder roots from a dye house in Australia. In 2008 the cost of madder is about $10.00 per ounce. Almost every dye book and the Internet have madder recipes.


In the above picture, the robe of Harold is yarn dyed with fustic (see below) and the folds in the robe and the mantle are dyed with madder.

Weld, Ladies Bedstraw and Fustic

The third dye plant used for the Bayeux is any one of the following: weld or dyer’s weed, ladies bedstraw, or fustic. Two are flowering plants—weld and ladies bedstraw. The third—fustic– is a shrub whose branches produce the deep yellow.

Fustic Tree

Fustic Tree

Weld is considered to be the oldest yellow dyestuff known to mankind. It was known to the Romans and Egyptians. It is an annual herb which grows to a height of 3’. The leaves of the plant are the richest dye potential. For every ounce of material to be dyed, one needs 3 ou of dye. In 1977, I was not able to purchase or grow large amounts of weld or ladies bedstraw. I could purchase fustic bark from a dye house. This is what I used for the yellow dye knowing that it was also available in the 11 th century. At that time fustic in Europe was referred to as young fustic and came from a shrub-like tree native to southern Europe and Asia. Its’ dye properties have been known since the time of the Romans. The method of dyeing with fustic (Rhus cotinus) is very similar to madder. The roots or bark are soaked in water for several days.

Receipe for Fustic:

  • 1 ou fustic bark cut into pieces to fit into a 3-4 gallon stainless steel pot for 2-3 days covered with water
  • Bring this to a simmer for 45 minutes. Boiling will dull the color.
  • Remove the bark from the dye bath, allow to cool, strain out the bark and sediment.
  • Add more water if necessary to make two quarts.
  • Add 8 ou pre-mordanted* yarn in skeins.
  • Heat slowly to a simmer for 30 minutes.
  • Remove and rinse well in warm water.
  • Hang in a shady place to dry.

I mordanted my yarns several days before dyeing.

  • 1 skein with alum plus cream of tarter
  • 1 skein with chrome
  • 1 skein with copper sulfate.

All of these mordants can cause breathing problems. When dyeing, make sure to wear a mask and use rubber gloves. In medieval times dyers may not have used mordants. Instead the pot in which they did the dyeing would have mordanted the yarns i.e. iron pot—would add a greenish or dull cast, a brass pot for golden colors etc. It is best to order these dyes from a dye house rather than picking bark which might harm the plant.

In conclusion, I would suggest that the dyeing of the yarns for embroidery was done in a convent or monastery. Natural Dyed YarnsThese places have been shown to be the center of learning. In addition, the Domenican nuns of St Catherine (Germany) produced technical writing about natural dyes which included formulas. Such information might have been shared with other convents. In this picture are my natural dyed yarns with full strength at the bottom and the faded ones at the top. In the faded photo, the pink looking yarn is the faded madder. In the full strength, the orange yarn is the madder. This orange color is misleading as it has more of a red cast but the camera did not do a good job here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: