This is a very brief list of hints and tips on dyeing. For more detailed information, read this article on Dark Age dyestuffs by Carolyn Priest Dorman.
Wool and silk dye much more readily than linen. It is often suggested that linen was usually left undyed, but it will take certain dyes if an appropriate mordant is used. Note that different fabrics can turn out very differently from the same dyebath - undyed wool from one source may dye much darker or brighter than undyed wool from another source. This is probably due to the pre-processing and how much of the animal's natural oils remain. If you are a hard-core dyer, you can try authentic Dark-Age wool preparation. This involves pounding sheep dung into the wool to break down the lanolin. The rest of Wychwood may not, however, wish to associate with you while you're in kit…
These are chemicals (generally metallic compounds) which make the dye fast, often altering its colour in the process (see table below). Some mordants were used in the form of metal, rust or powdered ores, while others may have come from plants which accumulate high levels of useful chemicals in their cells. Urine was also used as a mordant. Note that some mordants (especially alum) are pretty nasty and caustic - when using them, you should always wear gloves and try not to inhale the fumes. You can use a mordant in one of three ways:
- Boil up the fabric in the mordant and dry it out prior to dyeing (e.g. boiling linen in alum before dyeing is more effective than adding alum to the dyebath).
- Add the mordant to the dyebath (usually fine for wool, but be aware that some mordants require boiling temperatures and some dyes, such as madder, should not be allowed to boil).
- Use a dyebath made out of a metal that is also a mordant (e.g. copper).
Some substances, like vinegar, will strengthen the colour of your dye but will not make the colour fast and so are not 'true' mordants.
Below, Ulfar demonstrates the dyeing process - before, during and after!
Easily available and authentic dyestuffs include:
- Madder root (pinks to reds; turns brown if boiled)
- Weld (yellow)
- Woad (blue)
- Various mosses and lichens (browns, rust colours, greys)
- Nettles (khaki green.. allegedly)
- Alkanet (greens & blues)
If you take authenticity seriously, check that the plant you are using grew in north-west Europe in the Dark Ages. For example, many retailers sell logwood, which gives fantastic greys, but this is endemic to North America.
Other dyes Wychwooders have used include:
- Greater celandine. This gives a beautiful sunny yellow on wool - just chop up fresh stalks and boil them up in the dyebath while pounding/mixing with a stick. I haven't found any evidence for this being used in our period, but it is native to the UK, very common and has a bright orange sap that stains skin and clothes readily, so it seemed a good idea to try dyeing with it.
- Onion skins. The fabric dries very bright orange-yellow, then fades to a more browny-orange. If you boil up the skins, leave them to ferment for a week or two and then re-heat and use the liquid, the colour should be better.
Note 1: If you want to experiment with dyes, make sure the plant you're using isn't a known irritant.
Note 2: The colour produced by some plants is not light stable. If you're experimenting with something you haven't seen used before, try it out on a scrap of fabric first and then leave it outside in the sun for a couple of days to see if it bleaches.//
Your dyebath should be large enough to allow your material to float freely, and bits of solid dyestuff should be able to sink well below the fabric. This will avoid blotchiness. Usually, you should add the dyestuff to room-temperature water and heat gently.
To make a colour stronger, the fabric should be dyed, dried and dyed again (maybe several times). Just leaving the fabric in the dyebath longer won't work beyond a certain point. Note that some colours require dyeing with more than one dyestuff in turn. Strong greens, for example, would be the result of dyeing first with a yellow (e.g. weld) and then with blue (woad).
The colour of your clothes is a definite indicator of status. Generally, more and darker colours indicate progressively higher status and more wealth. Ceorls/thralls should have clothes that are undyed or coloured with a cheap dye such as weld. Pale yellows and pale browns should be fine. Thegns would get more colourful, wearing reds, pinks, greens and richer browns (depending on their wealth). Deep blues and purples would be reserved for royalty and high-up clergy due to the expense involved. Woad, for example, was very expensive due to the amount of land required to produce sufficient plants for dyeing. Also, chemicals released by the plants prevent the land being fertile for some time after the woad crop has been harvested.
A note on black
Avoid dyed-black material. Black wool from black sheep should be fine, but use sparingly.
A note on white
The natural colour of linen is not white - this would require bleaching, which added to the price. Sparkling white linen was in all likelihood more expensive to buy than linen dyed sparingly with 'easy' dyestuffs such as madder.
The following chart gives an indication of what colours you can expect, but results will vary depending on quantities used and the type of fabric. Italics indicate this combination has not been tried by a Wychwooder. Where a resource says "blue," "purple" or "black," take this with a very large pinch of salt. Finally, remember that colours will look darker on wet fabric.
|Logwood||Blue - grey||Grey||Dark grey||Purple||Purple|
|Madder||Orange - pink||Orange||Red||Brown||Orange|
|Woad||Blue||No mordant required|
|Onionskin||Brown-y orange||Orange - lemon yellow|
These webpages offer good advice:
- Carolyn Priest-Dorman's Colors, Dyestuffs, and Mordants of the Viking Age: An Introduction has a referenced list of known dyes and mordants from Viking times.
- Vike Guide to Authentic Colours
- ‘í litklæðum’ – Coloured Clothes in Medieval Scandinavian Literature and Archaeology by Thor Ewing
- The Household Cyclopedia: DYING, in all its Varieties is a guide to using lots of different dyes. Not Viking themed, but with lots of practical tips. Use in conjunction with Carolyn Priest-Dorman's work or similar.
- Natural Dyes tells you where to get the dyes from.
- EarthGuild.com has some info too.
- Household Dyeing Plants in Italy is an interesting academic article on traditional dyes.
- PioneerThinking.com has an article on plant dyes, some of which are authentic for Dark Age Europe.
- Jenny Dean's Wild Colours blog - a lovely resource also full of exciting links.
- Twist Fibrecraft sell a great selection of dyestuffs, plus wool for spinning
- Knowledge of whelk dyes and pigments in Anglo-Saxon England C. P. Biggam (2006) Anglo-Saxon England 35: 23-55
- see also our vendors page.