Freebies & Features

Creating with the Experts
Appreciating Early Fabric Dyes with Paula Barnes
We interrupted Paula Barnes' busy spring show schedule to quickly pick her brain about some of the history behind the colors used in reproduction quilt fabrics, and we turned up some interesting facts.

Like anything based in history, learning more about how our favorite reproduction colors came about can give us a greater appreciation for this very important fabric category. Many of these colors are represented in Paula's REFLECTIONS OF AN ERA and BONNIE BLUE BASICS collections. Here's what she had to share:
  • Dating back to 2600 BC or earlier, fabrics were dyed using two plants, indicum (meaning from India) and woad. Both produced shades of blue. An archaeological site in Denmark showed the use of woad probably in the first century.
  • An alternative purple color was produced using murex, which was very expensive. Because of its high cost, sometime during the third century other dyes were produced; however the emperor of Byzantium, Theodosius, made it illegal for anyone other than the royal family to wear purple, a crime punishable by death.
  • Later during the 1200's lichen was used in Florence, Italy to create purple dyes along with weld, an European plant which was used to produce a yellow dye.
  • During the 1500's insects became a source for dying fabrics. Mayans ground up insects to produce a red dye known as cochineal red. Pope Paul 11 used kermes insects to create a scarlet color dye know as "cardinal purple".
  • In the 1700's England began growing indigo because it was expensive to import. By mixing iron salt prussiate of potash, they created what was called Prussian Blue.
  • Madder dye which produces a red color was (and still remains) one of the most popular natural dyes. The earliest textile believed to have been dyed with madder root was found in the tomb of King Tut.
  • Mordants used to help the fabric take the dye were metal salts that contained iron, tin and chromium. Alum was most commonly used to expand madder into a range of colors from red to rust. Iron was used with madder as well as logwood to darken or dull colors, producing blacks to dark browns, while tin produced bright reds, oranges and yellows.
  • It wasn't until the late 1800 that natural dyes began to be replaced with synthetic dyes when William Henry Perkin developed a mauve color dye. Synthetic dyes were less expensive to produce, forever changing the way fabric dyes were made.