The vocabulary of dyeing is by turns practical and evocative, while the etymologies of the words related to this craft reveal the long history of an ancient practice. In aid of book research I spent a day with Claire Wellesley-Smith, learning about natural colour and the history of dyeing with plants.
Claire is a textile artist, educator and writer based in Bradford, West Yorkshire. She specialises in projects that use local, natural colour, created from home-grown and locally foraged plants. Dyes and stitches on reclaimed cloth are used in slow processes that allow time for the consideration of methods of production and narratives of use.
Claire’s book about textiles, Slow Stitch, was published in autumn 2015.
Descriptive and Arcane
“The words related to the practice of dyeing are highly descriptive and arcane. I love piecing together the stories connect to them.
“I think ‘sadden’ is the most interesting term in dye vocab. It’s so expressive and I’m very fond of muted palettes. The process of saddening a dye bath is also immediate, and that shift in colour is exciting to watch. In some old recipes, the colour made from the saddened dye bath is itself called ‘sad’.
“Madder is my favourite dye plant. It’s because of the madder plant itself, I think. When you dig the roots for harvesting, or to propagate new plants, you lift them from the earth and they look completely alive – you have a visceral reaction. They are an entirely different red to any other.”
– Claire Wellesley-Smith
Many dye plants have their use referred to in their scientific name, with the Latin tinctoria or tinctorum, from tinctus, ‘dye’, from tingere, ‘to soak in colour’. Rubia tinctorum is dyer’s madder and makes red, Isatis tinctoria is dyer’s woad and makes blue, and Cota tinctoria is dyer’s chamomile and makes a yellow dye.
The word dye is from the Anglo-Saxon word deag, ‘a colour or hue’ and is probably related to the word deagol, ‘secret, hidden, dark’. Dyers conceal the natural colour of cloth – linen, cotton, wool, silk.
Before being dyed, cloth is treated with a mordant, so that the pigment from the dye fixes to the cloth. Mordant comes through Middle French from the Latin mordere, ‘to bite, bite into, nip or sting’ and was first recorded as a word used by dyers in 1791. A mordant literally allows colour to bite and hold onto cloth.
After cloth has been treated with a mordant, and dyed, the colour of the cloth is deemed to be fast, from the Anglo Saxon faest, ‘firmly fixed, secure’. The dyed cloth is considered colour-fast (colour will not wash out) or light-fast (colour won’t fade in sunlight). Colours that fade when washed or exposed to sunlight are known as fugitive, from the Latin fugere, ‘flee’.
Before it’s dyed, the cloth is drab, from Old French drap, ‘cloth, piece of cloth, weave’ (from where we get the word drape). Drab can also refer to the process of knocking out the brightness of a dye.
Dye baths can be treated in different ways to alter the colour they’ll produce. If a dyer wants to make a colour darker or dimmer they sadden the dye bath. To create the opposite effect – to brighten cloth – a dyer rouses the bath. Rouse, ‘to stir up, awaken’ is originally a hawking/hunting term and refers to hawks shaking or ruffling their feathers.
Once cloth has been mordanted and dyed it can be ‘flyped’ and stored. A Scottish word, flype means to fold or turn and refers to the cloth being folded back and forth on itself – piled-up – to keep it from creasing.
If the fabric has been dyed-in-the-wool (the wool has been dyed, rather than the woven cloth) it might be spun into a clew, from the Old English cliewen ‘sphere, a ball of thread or yarn’. It’s where we get the word clue – a thread one can follow to solve a mystery. The word’s modern sense evolved from unwinding a ball of wool on the way into the maze or forest; one can follow the skein back out (the word skein, from the Irish sgainne, means a clue or ball of thread).
Dyers were also writers, researchers and diarists. The foreman dyer – a job held for life as the keeper of knowledge about dyestuffs, local water, cloth used and other factors unique to a particular mill – kept a book in which his detailed recipes for particular colours were written, sometimes in code. These books also contained marginalia and ephemera: medicinal remedies, notes on the weather, personal notes and other general information useful to the work of the mill or foreman.
Thanks to Claire Wellesley-Smith for the information contained in this post. All errors are my own.