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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Madder, Minerals and Indigo:
Cotton Dyeing in the 18th & 19th Centuries
by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

Excerpts from *  

Cotton is a cellulose fiber with molecules shaped unlike the carbon-based protein molecules of natural dyes. So, they do not attract each other naturally. Wool and silk molecules are liked shaped and do not require the help of mordants to produce colorfast results.

The early dyers believed that adding animal proteins to the dye mix would help the penetration of the dye into the cotton. "Animalizing," as it was called, meant adding one or more of the following: urine, blood, milk, dung, or egg albumen. Turkey Red, a highly valued rich, deep, brilliant red dye for yarns and fabric, was known to use blood, dung, and urine in the dyeing process, and it was extremely colorfast. Glancing through the back pages of old recipes for dyers, one may find a recipe for beer…where urine was needed, beer stimulated (shall we say) a quick source of supply. Eventually it was recognized that animalizing proved insufficient in obtaining colorfastness. Yet "dunging" continued to be used for the removal of extraneous mordant until well into the 19th century, and egg albumen continued to be used as a binder for pigment dyes.

Mordants were the answer. There are many different kinds of mordants, but the main ones used in dyeing cotton prints were mineral salts: aluminum, iron, tin and copper. Alum was the most widely used, as it helped get shades of red and rust from madder. Iron was also used a lot, with madder, logwood or by itself, to darken or dull colors and to produce blacks and dark browns. Tin gave an extra brightness to reds, oranges and yellows, and it resisted iron, which was a plus when using the multiple dyes. The least mentioned mordant seems to be copper, which was less harsh on cotton than tin, but could still be harsh. It brought out green tones, and darkened dyes, generally. An analogy of mordant dyeing would be a bridge over water. The mordant forms a bridge between the dye and the cotton, enabling the dye to travel into the molecule and bond with it . . . 

Many reds, pinks, rusts, browns and purple dyes came from the root of the madder plant . . . 

Colors produced from mineral dyes include Prussian blue, manganese bronze, chrome yellow, orange, blue, or green, antimony orange, iron buff and teal green. There were two ways these pigment colors could be fixed to cotton. Early on, egg albumen was used as a binder for lighter colors, and blood was used for the darker colors. Gluten from wheat and lactarine from milk were other binders, but all binders needed heat and an acid to make them colorfast. Ultramarine blue was made in this manner. In the other method, the pigment was printed directly onto the fabric and then passed through a second dyebath, usually of potassium or alkali, to cause a chemical reaction between them on the surface. For example, chrome orange was produced when chrome yellow was passed through an alkaline treatment, and Prussian blue came from iron and potassium . . . 

The primary method of Indigo dyeing was called vat dyeing. A vat is a chemically reducing dyebath . . .

Simply adding more dye to the bath would not produce a darker shade of blue. It required repeated submerging followed by oxygenation. If an area were to remain white it would be covered with a resist paste made of wax or wheat, to keep the dye from penetrating in . . . 

Eventually, stable direct printing of indigo was possible in the last quarter of the 19th century. Glucose utilized indigo in such a way that the reduced version combined with steam would fix the color. German scientist, Bayer, first synthesized indigo in the 1880s, patenting it in the early 1900s. Commercial dyeing with synthetic indigo didn't begin until 1897. It essentially replaced the use of natural indigo by the early 1920s . . .

* For complete article and pictures, click on: Vintage Fabrics - IN SEARCH OF WARP ENDS. Found at: http://www.fabrics.net/joan1002.asp


 * Fabrics & Dyes

© 2002 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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