bayeux tapestry2On a recent trip to Normandy, I was excited to have the chance to see the world heritage Bayeux tapestry. I was mesmerized by this amazing work of art and I will focus on it specifically in a blog post soon. It reminded me of my own experiments with natural dyeing I did as part of an art project in the 1990s. The fine woollen threads used in the Bayeux tapestry are limited to ten colours only. Woad, madder and weld were the three plants employed to dye the threads producing a variety of reds, yellows, blues and greens.

The practice of dyeing using natural fibres and dyes sourced from plants had always interested me. I collected berries, leaves, gorse, onions skins and seeds as dyestuffs, experimented with others more on natural fibres and recorded my recipes! I printed my findings on floral handmade textured pages, which were bound together into a notebook with raphia. Here is a very short extract from it.

samples dyeing

[…] Natural dyeing conjured up to my mind an ancient craft reserved only to the knowledgeable expert as it involves botany and to a certain extent chemistry as you need to understand the physical properties of the substances extracted from the plants […] The art of dyeing entailed, to my mind, the notion of sacred worthy of a fairies’ activity since it bore a somewhat secretive touch with well-kept recipes not available to ordinary mortals. In ancient times, highly skilled craftmen with closely guarded formulas rendered dyeing a well-protected trade. […] The Elizabethans had a number of names for various colours: rat (grey), puke (khaki green) and goose-turd green were worn by poor folk and the more unfortunate. There were a host of other names, including quite fanciful ones like dead Spaniard, ape’s laugh, mortal sin, love longing and dawn. » […]

 madderThe process of dying consists of three main stages: washing, mordanting and dyeing. […] Mordants are both natural and chemical substances that cause the natural dyes to bond with the cloth, preventing the colour from either fading with exposure to light or washing out. […] Common natural mordants are roots from the madder plant, fir-club moss, wood ash, oak galls or burnt seaweed. […] The dye substance is gathered in the dyeing pot then covered with cold water. The dyeing time can vary from 40 minutes up to 2 hours or more depending on the desired degree of colour.

 […] There is a considerable evidence that dyeing methods are more than 4,000 years old and that natural dyeing was once a key craft in international trade, household life and local commerce […] During the early part of the 20th century, a revival of interest in arts and craft, with the Art and Craft Movement led to the old methods of dyeing being rediscovered. The English artist William Morris was a major advocate of the use of traditional methods and natural dyeing was one of the many crafts he practiced.

[…] Dyeing has been in practice in Ireland since the early Celtic times. Lillias Mitchell mentions an ancient garment known as léine in Irish, that was worn during that period. “It had wide hanging sleeves and was usually dyed yellow and known as the saffron shirt.” Another remnant of past activity is a dye workshop situated on the island of Inishkea, off the County Mayo coast. It dates back to the late 7th century when the practice of extracting purple dye from the live sea fish purpura lapillus was performed extensively.


As Irish rural economy has always been strong, the raw material for wool, namely fleece has never been difficult to find. The fleece was carded, spun and, if necessary, dyed with dyes extracted from the local flora. Traditionally, the washing, dyeing, carding and spinning was the responsibility of women, while weaving was men’s domain. Wool was the main material used in a family’s clothes making. The knowledge and tools with which to carry it out were handed down from generation to generation […]

The oldest and most commonly-used dyestuff was lichen, usually collected by children on rocks after a rainy period andlocally known as crottle from the Irish word crotal. Turf soot, rich in iron, was used as a mordant or a dyestuff to produce black. Wild madder or madar, a native plant found in the Burren in County Clare, was especially favoured as a dyestuff for making the traditional red petticoat. Indigo, most popular on the Aran Islands, was exported mainly to County Donegal where it was sold at fairs and markets. It was widely used to dye yarn for weaving and knitting. Young heather shoots were only employed for spots of pale green since all green cloths were considered unlucky due to their association with the ‘little people’. The other commonly gathered plants for dyeing were sloe, blackberries, seaweed, roots of water-lilies and yellow iris, alder twigs, corn marigold, blossoms of gorse, common dock, weld, foxgloves and horsetail […]














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