It is nearly impossible to think of Valentine’s Day without thinking of red or pink roses and hearts. Red is a popular color for fabric too. Truly brilliant red colors were seen in antique linens and wools. Egyptian tombs held shreds of bright red fabrics, and there are Biblical references to scarlet cloth. As one of the most difficult dyes to create, red dyes have been a valuable and expensive commodity in the past.
Wool takes colors very easily, and holds color better than many other fabrics. Linen also holds color quite well. Cotton is one of the most difficult fabrics to dye. Natural dyes from flowers and herbs are still used in yarns today, and most of them produce shades of yellow, orange, and brown. Some of the natural dyes used on wools will color a cotton in a pastel form, but most will fade without the use of chemical fixatives. The earliest dyed cottons were blue. Indigo plants were used to produce lovely blues and purples for hundreds of years, long before other colors and techniques came to cottons. But even the early indigo dyeing techniques required using an alkali compound to produce the dye, and a lime bath to finish it. When cotton is in the processed of being dyed with indigo, it appears yellow until it is air-dried; oxygenation turns it permanently blue.
The Industrial Revolution, which had such a profound effect on the manufacture of cotton fabric, also drove the quest for more colors in cloth. The growth of trade with India and the Near East had brought lovely new cottons with more colors. European, and later American, fabric makers were quick to incorporate these new techniques, with green, pink, and even red splashes of color coming to their products.
In the earliest red cottons, the use of binding agents from animal matter was explored. The protein from eggs, milk, blood, urine or even dung was worked into the dye to make it colorfast. Insects, plants and roots, tree bark, and some minerals were all in use for wools and linens from the 2nd century on. Over time, people learned that these methods did not always insure colorfastness, but the idea of egg to thicken a dye paste, or dung to scrub out a chemical mordant, remained well into the 19th century.
While early wool dyers sometimes used the root of the madder plant to create dyes, it became a refined process early in the 19th century. Madder root actually contains the base chemical from which the first synthetic dyes were extracted. They can create red and brown shades, which vary by the mineral used in the mordant that prepares the cloth for dyeing, with alum, copper, and iron being commonly used as a mordant. In 1856 the first synthetic dyes were patented, with Mauve being the first color. Turkey Red followed closely, and was widely used in quilts from this era. In some instances these red pieces have faded to brown over time.
The red dyes in use today are nearly all synthetic, with hundreds of chemical compounds used in their creation. Cotton fabric must be treated with a mordant before accepting the dye, and most mordants remain based on metals like alum and iron. They provide brilliance and elegance in our quilts, and it is difficult to imagine Valentine’s Day or Christmas without them.
The next time you pick out a lovely red or pink fabric, take a minute to think about the amazing people who experimented with all sorts of ways to create red fabrics over the centuries. Wouldn’t they be amazed at the glorious selection we have today!
I always wash red fabrics before cutting them for a quilt. Like dark colors, even highly processed ones can bleed a bit, and I would like to get that out of the way before hand. And for me, that extra washing before sewing with them means I have to chance to cut down on chemical residue that may remain after manufacturing processes.
©2011, The Curious Quilter, thecuriousquilter.net, maryeoriginals.com.