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Fabric Dyeing in the 18th Century and Dyeing with Tumeric

Marigold dye pot

Dye pot using marigold

Humans love color. One of the most common ways to express this love is through clothes. For thousands of years, people have used the color of their clothes to not only express personal preferences but also status (royal purple) and occupation (British soldiers and their red coats).

Modern dyes were accidentally discovered while researching uses for coal tar in the mid-19th century. Synthetic dyes have been used since then. So how did people dye fabric before this? Dyers used a variety of plants, lichens, fungi and insects to create dye recipes that made good colors. Plants that make a good stain usually do not make a good dye. An example is green grass stains that fade to yellow.

Over time, dyers learned which plants gave better colors than others.

Natural dyeing was a complicated, time consuming, and usually smelly chemical process. Mordants (chemical binding agents) were used to help the dye bond to the fibers of the fabric. They could also alter the colors of the dye, so a variety of shades could be created. 18th century dye sample books and fabric sample books show a variety of bright vibrant colors. Professional dyers would protect their dye recipes from competitors.

Marigold dye on linen

Marigold dye on linen

Yellow and Tan

Yellows and tans are the most common dyes from plants. The most used European yellow dye came from the weld plant. Other sources from the New World became popular because they were easier to use. Silk dyed a brilliant yellow was fashionable in the 18th century. It must have looked amazing in a candle-lit ballroom.


European woad was the main source of blue until the importation of the indigofera plant from tropical regions