An Overview of Textiles, Dyeing and Colour Use in the 14th and 1

Gwen Nowrick

While readily available domestic dyestuffs were used for most dyeing, dyers were not limited to indigenous materials as main trade routes for imported dyestuffs had already been established by the 12th century. Venice was one of the major distribution centers for imported dyestuffs. From Venice the dyestuffs were traded by ship around the coast of France to Flanders, Southampton and London; in the Mediterranean at Florence, Pisa and Genoa; and northward on the continent to the distribution centers of Basle and Frankfurt Frankfurt housed trade fairs from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries that dominated the trade of locally grown woad along with many other dyestuffs.

By the 13th C. commercial textile production was well established and regulated by guilds, and dyeing was no exception. The London Dyers' Guild was mentioned in 1188 and received its first Charter in 1471. Both the French and Italian guild structures were well established and recognized by the beginning of the 14th C. Bruges was famous for its high-quality cloth during the Middle Ages, and its geographical location made it the region's most important commercial center.

European dyers were regulated by the Guilds, who vigilantly maintained a high standard of quality. Dyers were graded, and only the master dyers were allowed to use the most costly dyes. After 1357, dyers in Ghent required an additional apprenticeship of one year, and an additional fee, from anyone wishing to become a blanwer, a blue dyer, rather than a general dyer. The guild deemed this special training and cost to be necessary in order that a dyer might acquire the skill to properly utilize woad, an imported and costly dye. In some places possession of major dyestuffs was restricted to Guild Members.

While the guilds controlled access to the varied dyestuffs and carefully guarded the recipes used to dye commercial cloths, not all dyeing was done by Guild dyers. In small towns and in the countryside, cottage dyeing was limited to inexpensive and domestically grown dyestuffs which produced softer, less dense colors. It is a commonly thought that natural dyes will produce only dull, drab earth colors. While it it true that colors dyed with natural dyestuffs lack the metallic clarity of modern chemical dyes, a huge range of colors and tints can be achieved by combining two and sometimes three basic dyestuffs, and by varying the mordants used to give the colors permanence and richness.

Three common and readily available vegetable dyestuffs were used for most dyeing: Madder, the root of the herbaceous perennial plant Rubia tinctorum produces red; weld or dyer’s rocket, the herbaceous plant Reseda luteola produces yellow; and woad, the cruciform plant Isatis tinctoria produces blue. An experienced dyer can combine these primary colors to create a broad palette of colors. Bright yellows, oranges and ochers, yellow- browns, deep blue-greens, olive and light, bright greens, blues from indigo to palest sky, crimson, mauve, purple, pinks and bright reds, even a good black - can be made from just these three plants.

With the spread of wealth, knowledge and materials came the association of certain colors with specific attributes. Color symbolism can be tied to the growth of secular literature and art during this period. While not all color choices have a motive beyond personal preference, some colors are associated with certain classes or groups, and some color symbols are relatively widespread and persistent.

White is often the symbol of excellence, purity, beauty, and good. It is a color associated with virginity, although it would not be associated with wedding attire until the 1880’s. Black can be associated with sadness, remorse, and anger, but it is also a somber color, adopted early on by religious fraternities and the pious.

Red is the color of blood, the sanguinary temperament and is associated with Mars, the god of war. Red cloth was used as both a preventative or curative measure because it was thought to posses ‘sympathetic magical properties’. A popular color, red could be produced a number of ways- with madder root and other inexpensive alizarin-based dyestuffs, or with kermes. Often called “grain” because of the similarity of shape, kermes dye is composed of the dried bodies of female kermes insect (Kermes vermilio), a shield-louse that lives on the host tree Kermes oak native to several Mediterranean countries. Kermes contained coloring matter which produced a beautiful permanent scarlet dye.

“Scarlet” was a fine, costly woolen fabric, produced in many places, including England. The method of finishing distinguished scarlet from other woolens, not the color. Made only of the finest fibres, the woven cloths were often sent to Flanders for finishing. The cloth was napped and shorn as many as 4 times, ultimately obscureing the weave entirely. The cloth was finally pressed, and the surface became as smooth as silk. The labor involved in this extensive finishing made scarlet expensive, and cloth was not called scarlet unless it was suitably finished. In the 14th C, wardrobe inventories indicate scarlet cost 2-3 times more than woolen broad cloths and silk satins, costing as much as silk velvets. A finished cloth of scarlet might be dyed any color, but because red dye from kermes was so costly, it was quite often used.

Beginning in about the twelfth century, blue signified excellence and appeared with increasing importance in heraldry and literature. By the beginning of the 14th C., blue represented the virtues of humility, loyalty, courage and fidelity. In France it had become a popular fashion color. By the 1360’s, blue symbolized loyalty and faithful love, and was the signal color of the Virgin Mary. By the 15th C., it was the premier color of social status.

Sometime in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, dyers developed a method to produce a blue that was luminous and dense, different from the costly indigo that produced a deep blue between blue and violet on the spectrum. Cloth dyed with woad produced the choicest of all blues, a rich shade called perse. Cloths of this color sometimes reached the price of scarlet dyed in grain, as compared to the cheapest of all cloths dyed a lighter blue. The most luxurious fabrics were dyed with this new brilliant blue, and royalty wore the garments made from it on ceremonious occasions, while peasants continued to wear dull, dark blues. The differing tones of these blues constituted a nuance of import in recognizing the cost of a garment.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, green was the traditional color of foresters, woodsmen and hunters. It was acknowledged that “Lincolne dyed the best greene of England”, and the town of Lincoln henceforth gave its name to the high quality green dyed there. Kendal green was a poor quality, coarse woolen cloth used by seaman and laborers.

During this period, clothing was governed by “sumptuary laws”. Apart from seeking to contain luxury and excess, the decrees on clothing were designed to reinforce the distinctions between social classes and make them universally apparent. Riches set the tone for men and women alike. Sumptuary laws addressed the cut, color, fabrics, design of clothing, headcoverings and jewelry, among other things.

A very general rule of thumb to follow is that the deepest, richest and truest colors are the most costly to produce and should therefore be the purview of the upper classes. These rich colors were achieved by successive over dying which consumed huge amount of dyestuff and was hard on the cloth-- only the finest cloth could take such treatment. In general, the young and rich wear brighter colors than the old and poor. For example, a young dandy might wear bright red, while his dignified father deep blood red or murray. A poor drover and a landed gentleman might each own a blue doublet or coat; that of the drover would be a thin grey blue, while the gentleman’s garment would be of luminous sapphire perse. A townswoman and a lady might both wear red gowns, but the townswoman’s gown would be a earthy orange red of madder, compared to the lady’s deep crimson gown of scarlet.

Fur, too, was regulated by sumptuary laws. Marten, gris, vair and ermine were generally reserved for royal or court dress while beaver, otter, hare and fox were worn by the lesser nobility and middle classes; budge (lambskin), sheepskin and goat were for the common people.

When planning reproduction clothing, it is well to consider all the relevant factors of the wearer. Social class, financial standing, proximity or aspirations to a higher class, geography, superstitions, religious and/or social views and age should be carefully weighed, as all should effect the colors and types of fabrics chosen.


Selected Bibliography

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Black,J. A. and Garland, M. A History of Fashion, Wm. Morrow & Co., l980

Crowfoot, E., Pritchard, F., Staniland, K. Textiles and Clothing: Medieval Finds From Excavations in London, Museum of London, 1996

Embleton, G. The Color of Clothes, The Dragon, newsletter of the Company of St. George, Switzerland, May 1992,

Freeman, M. B. The Unicorn Tapestries, MMoA, New York

Hallam, E. The Wars of the Roses- From Richard II to the fall of Richard III at Bosworth Field - as seen through the eyes of their contemporaries. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York

Hodges, L. Chaucer and Costume: The Secular Pilgrims in the General Prologue, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, 2000

Ponting, K.G. A Dictionary of Dyes and Dyeing , Mills & Boon, London 1980

Ribeiro, A. and Cumming, V. A Visual History of Costume, London, 1989.

Stone, R. The Weaver’s Sketch Book, 1991

Schildhauer, J., The Hansa-History and Culture, Dorset Press, 1988

Tarrant, N. The Development of Costume, Routledge, London / New York and National Museums of Scotland, 1994

Wild, J.P. Textiles in Archaeology , Shire Publications LTD., l988


© 2004- Gwen Nowrick. All Rights reserved. No reproduction via any method without the express written consent of the author.