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ICYMI: Fabric Dyeing in the 18th Century and Dyeing with Tumeric

Updated: Sep 5, 2020

Originally published last April, we're bringing this post back in celebration of the upcoming program Children's Tie-Dye Tote Bag Workshop on Saturday, July 25, 2020 at 10:30am. Learn more and sign up today. Spaces are limited!

Marigold dye pot

Dye pot using marigold

Fabric Dyeing in the 18th Century

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. Dyeing with indigo is intriguing. It doesn’t turn blue until exposed to oxygen. The fabric removed from the dye pot looks yellow but rapidly changes color. To get a very dark blue, repeated dips in the dye bath and exposure to oxygen are necessary.


It may sound strange, but there is no good sole source for deep green dye.The chlorophyll that makes plants green does not convert to dye. Shades of green can be made but a true deep green needs the fabric to be dyed in yellow then blue.

Cochineal dye in pot

Cochineal dye in pot


Red mainly came from the madder plant but plenty of roots were needed and it tended to fade. The discovery of cochineal insects in Mexico was a tremendous revolution in dye. The dried, ground cochineal created a vibrant, colorfast and popular red. It became an important source of wealth for the Spaniards, who had control of Mexico. They guarded the source carefully but “industrial espionage” was rampant in the 18th century. People risked their lives to steal and try to breed cochineal.

Today, cochineal is easily purchased, and natural dyeing is a hobby. Dye plants can be grown or collected in the wild. Natural fibers, like wool and linen, have to be used but are easy to find. Color outcomes are always unique, so it is an interesting pursuit.

Cochineal dye on linen

Cochineal dye on linen

Dyeing the traditional way with marigold

Dyed with tumeric

Dyeing with Turmeric

Note: A list of additional options besides Tumeric are at the bottom

When dyeing fabric, for best results, one should use a mordant or fixative. A mordant allows the molecules of dye to bind to fibers. Mordants also affect the final color of the fabric – dulling or brightening the final tone. Some mordants include iron or copper. One favorite mordant is alum because it provides one of the clearest, brightest final hues. It can be found online or in some grocery stores near canning goods.

Fixatives do much the same thing that mordants do, allowing the dye to stick to the fiber more easily. Salt, vinegar, and baking powder are all common fixatives.

Instructions for using a mordant or fixative:

  1. Let’s use salt for this example, because it’s something everyone has in their pantry.

  2. For every gallon of water, use 1 cup of salt. This is a 16 to 1 ratio.