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The Story Of Dyeing

There have been a lot of big changes in my world lately - perhaps that is why I have been so drawn to this craft that is all about change. I have been not-so-quietly obsessing over dyeing (the good kind, not dying!) for some time.

Those of you who follow my Facebook or Instagram will know that I spent a wonderful weekend facilitating a Dyeing and Weaving Workshop for with some incredibly passionate Montessorians a couple of weeks ago. I was hoping to have The Story Of Dyeing ready to share with them, but didn't quite make it so here it is for all of you to share and enjoy.

Of course there is a lot more to it. I struggled to keep it as short as it is now, which, I realise is actually not very short - but the subject is just so rich and interesting!

The Story Of Dyeing

Have you ever thought about the colour of the clothes you are wearing? Maybe when you got dressed this morning you felt like wearing something bright and colourful so you chose light coloured clothes or maybe you wanted to wear the colours of your favourite sports team. I wonder if you stopped to think about how the colour got there.

We know from our work with the Timelines of Early Humans that a very long time ago people came up with ways to make clothing to keep them warm and protect them from the environment. We also know they needed fabric for sacks to carry things in, blankets to keep them warm, sails to carry them around the world, curtains to block the light from their windows, scarves to hold back the hair whilst they were working and so on. There are so many reasons that humans needed to develop different fabrics and textiles. But there is another aspect to textile development that I’d like to talk about today. It’s not something humans needed to do, it’s something they wanted to do.

Humans not only work to fulfil their physical needs but they also fulfil their spiritual needs and part of this is making things that they enjoy looking at. Once humans developed clothing that was functional, kept them warm and protected them, they started to think about how they could make them more beautiful. This could be done through design - making better shapes of clothing, but it was also done through adding colour.

Nowadays we can buy fabric or clothing in any colour we can imagine. But we know that the cotton comes from a plant and it is naturally white and we know that we don’t have rainbow sheep to provide brightly coloured wool. So how did our clothes become the colours that they are today, and how did humans figure out where to get these colours from?

We think it all began around 70 to 100 thousand years ago, when early humans began to notice that some of the rocks and minerals around them were different colours to all the others. (We know now that these colours came from mineral deposits such as iron, malachite and coloured clays.) Those clever early humans found that if they crushed some of these colourful rocks, and mixed them with animal fat or tree sap, they could paint them onto the walls of their cave to make the very first works of art.

Archaeologists have found what they believe to be the world's oldest paint box in a cave in South Africa. This picture was drawn on the wall using red ochre and is believed to be the oldest known drawing by human hands. The paint box they found with it contained carved blocks of red ochre, grinding stones and bone mixing tools.

Here is another cave painting, this one also uses ochre and a black pigment to create a picture of a bison. It is believed to have been painted around 14,000 to 12,000 BCE and it still exists in Spain today.

This one is from Patagonia in Argentina. Can you see how one of the hands in the painting is brown and the other ones are white with a brown outlines? We think that the white one was made by somebody holding their hand against the cave wall and blowing the paint over it. These very early humans were not only experimenting with colours but they were also developing their own painting techniques as their hands became the very first stencils.

Humans started adding colour to all sorts of things around them, they made body paint, cosmetics, colourful baskets and worked with different clays in their pottery to add patterns and textures. They loved to make things beautiful. It’s one thing to stick the colour to rocks, clay or even skin, but making it stick to fibres for clothes is a whole different challenge, and it took a little longer for humans to figure out how to do this. You see, for colour to stick to fibres it must first be dissolved in a solution and then be absorbed into the fibre molecules. This can be tricky, as many dyes don’t remain in the fibre and simply wash out the first time the clothes get wet.

We don’t know exactly when humans figured out how to make colours stick to their clothes, as archaeologists don’t have many examples as evidence. We think that humans would have discovered the first clothing dyes in the same way some of you might have done. Have you ever split your food down your shirt and found it really hard to wash it out? Sometimes it leaves a stain that lasts several washes or even longer, doesn’t it? Well this is a problem if you don’t want the stain on your clothes, but at some point, somebody thought it might be a good idea to use the stains to colour the whole piece of clothing.

They would have discovered through preparing food, that some plants turn the cooking water a different colour and some foods change colour when they’re fermented. At some point some clever human being would have wondered what would happen if they added some of the fibres or clothing to that cooking or fermenting pot and they would have discovered that the colour stuck! Maybe I didn’t stick permanently, it might have just lasted through a few rainy days, but maybe they liked that change in colour so much that they thought it was worth continuing with the experiment to see if they could make it last a little longer.

They would have experimented with all sorts of plants around them, making dye baths from all the different parts: the leaves, the roots, the flowers, the bark, and the seeds. Some of these experiments would have been successful, producing bright colours that lasted a long time. Some of them would not have been so successful so they would know not to try using that plant again. People would have learned which plants around them produced the best dyes with lasting colour and started to use them on all of their textiles.

We know that some plants grow well in some parts of the world and other plants grow well in other parts of the world. This means that different regions each have their own plants that produce good dyes and particular colours became associated with each culture and region according to availability and production techniques.

Dyeing became an important and respected trade in many cultures. There are not many remaining samples of ancient textiles but archaeologists believe complex dyeing techniques have been used for at least 6000 years. This picture shows the world’s oldest example of a rug which was made in the fifth century BCE. It’s colours have lasted thousands of years, as archaeologists discovered it in the frozen grave of a Scythian nobleman in the mountains of Kazakhstan. You can clearly see the deer around the border and the warriors riding horses. I wonder if the makers of these rich reds, yellows and blues would have guessed we would be looking at their work thousands of years later.

As humans continued their experiments with colour more and more discoveries were made. The most important one was found by early Egyptian, Indian and Chinese dyers around the first century A.D. as they discovered the use of mordants. The word ‘mordant’ comes from the French word meaning ‘to bite’ as it is a chemical treatment that allows the dyes to bite into the fibres, making the colour stick permanently. This discovery changed everything for dyers as it meant they could work with a greater range of colours that would last a much longer time.

Mordants are simply salts made of metals - usually aluminium, but sometimes iron, copper or tin. The salts are dissolved in water and the fibres are gently simmered in this solution and then rinsed before they are placed in the dye bath. It’s a very simple process once you know how to do it, but at the time, it was a great discovery.

Plants aren’t the only materials that humans used to dye their textiles. Do you remember the story of the Phoenicians who travelled the world and on sailing ships trading their goods and communicating with people from all different cultures? Remember they did lots of complex calculations, buying and selling things from all over the world? They had to come up with efficient methods to keep records of their trades, which helped develop the written language that we use today.

The most important resource that the Phoenicians traded was a very special dye that came from shellfish that grew in the Mediterranean Sea. The Phoenicians learned that if they crushed murex shells and fermented their glands, they could produce a rich purple dye that would stay bright for a very long time. This was an exciting discovery and people all around the world wanted to wear clothes dyed in their beautiful bright shades of purple. But, the sea snails that produced this wonderful dye are quite small, and each one only offers a tiny amount of colour. This means that a lot of murex were needed to produce dye. In fact, it took more than 9000 of these little sea snails just to make a single gram of the dye - that’s not even enough to dye one dress!

And there was another problem, if you have ever walked along the beach where shells are starting to rot you will know that they smell pretty strong. To make the Tyrian Purple dye the shellfish had to be left out in the sun to ferment in the heat for several days before the colour developed and the slimy mucus released its beautiful purple. Not only was the dye itself very stinky, but the people who worked with it found they could never really wash off the smell. It was so bad, that the Phoenicians passed a law saying that if a man took up with the trade of dyeing, his wife was entitled to divorce him because of the smell!

You would think that the smell, the difficulties in producing the dye, and the far distances it needed to travel, would have put people off wearing it but none of this stopped people from wanting purple clothes, it just made them incredibly expensive. In fact, by 300 CE the special dye that became known as Tyrian Purple was three times more expensive than pure gold!

The ancient Romans in particular loved to wear Tyrian Purple. Most of them could not afford to wear whole garments made out of it so they would wear togas with one or two purple stripes.

The colour purple became a symbol of great power and wealth in the Roman Empire so it was declared that only Emperors and statues of Roman gods were allowed to be dressed in purple. This was taken very seriously, and when The Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy visited Rome wearing a splendid cloak of full purple, Emperor Caligula became so angry and jealous that he ordered the visiting King’s death!

Ptolemy’s purple cloak may not have been his final contribution to our story of the history of colour. You probably know that the ancient Egyptians had a tradition of preserving the bodies of the dead, by treating them up with herbs and salts and wrapping them in strips of cloth. Sometimes they also gave them a coating of a substance called bitumen to help waterproof them. This oily coating turned then a rich brown colour which became attractive to European artists around the 1500’s. The Egyptians of that time began to grind up the remains of mummies, mix the resulting powder with oils and herbs and turn them into paint which they sold in Europe.

Although the paint was referred to as ‘Mummy Brown’ most artists didn’t actually know where the colour came from and when its source was discovered in the 1800’s many artists were upset by this and stopped using it. This was just as well because most of the mummies had been used up by then and in the 1960’s a famous paint supplier in London announced they were discontinuing the colour as they had run out of mummies.

People didn’t stop making their colours out of dead bodies altogether though. There is a little bug that grows in certain species of cacti in South America that can be dried out and crushed to produce a vibrant red dye.

This dye was important to the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas who all used it to dye the robes of their leaders. When the Spanish invaded Mexico in 1519, they began shipping the cochineal bugs back to Europe by the tonne - making the little creatures the third most important trade item to come from the Americas. Humans still use cochineal dye to this day, not only on clothes but also in food. If you ever see ‘E120’ listed as an ingredient in your food, you will know it comes from a little cacti-dwelling bug from South America.

Colouring fabric for clothes, sheets, blankets, curtains, carpets and all the textiles around us is still important work in the world today. As humans have continued their experiments and made more discoveries, they have found ways to make dyes that are more reliable and consistent in outcome, and a good deal less expensive or stinky.

Most of the dyes we use in modern times are synthetic, which means they are man-made rather than naturally produced. But nature still offers us all of these wonderful colours and we can walk in the steps of those early humans who have discovered how to work with nature's bounty and make the colours their own.

You might like to research the magical indigo plant that produces yellowy green fibres that magically turn dark blue right before your eyes. Or you could research the green dye that caused the death of the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Maybe you would like to investigate the dye produced by lichen, that fascinating organism that’s made when fungus and algae join forces. Lichens produce a huge range of colours but they need some assistance to release them which is where the humans come in, we produce a very special chemical of our own that helps release its beautiful shades - the ammonia in human urine has been used to produce dye for at least 2000 years.

I wonder what else you can find out about colours and dyeing.

I would love to hear about the explorations your children do around colour and dyeing (or any other handwork really!). Please share your triumphs, amusements, questions and struggles in the comments section here or in the Facebook Group: Montessori Handwork Threads.

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Aug 17, 2021

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