Multicolored Map: 300-Year History of Dyes on Textiles in Europe and Asia

Exhibition place:Textile Conservation Gallery, China National Silk Museum

Exhibition time:2019.5 - 2019.8

It’s as early as the Bronze Age that Europe and Asia had cultural and technical exchanges, which became more frequent from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century. And trade in textiles was obviously prosperous during that time. Dyes, which can reflect popular colors of various regions and mutual exchanges in production techniques, are main sources of textiles’ colors. The exhibition will illustrate features and similarities of European and Asian dyes through displaying historical relics and unveiling the results of dye identification, providing some evidences for the global history of textile technology.
There are various kinds of dyes in Europe and Asia, which can be roughly divided into animal dyes and plant dyes. Minerals, such as alum and iron, are mostly used as mordant. Most animal dyes are obtained from insects by extracting pigments in them. For instance, cochineal and lac can be used as mordant dyes with the carbonyl and the adjacent phenol groups participating in the fiber–mordant–dye complex to get different shades red and purple; gray and black can be got by dyeing galls of different sumac species with iron. As an essential part of natural dye, plant dyes have always been a priority for dyers who, in the light of local realities, will use the part with strong pigment of a plant as dyes when dyeing, such as cores, trunks, rhizomes of trees, sappanwood, madder, safflower, buds of pagoda tree, peels of pomegranate and walnut. Dyers, for the sake of abundant colors, will not only use mordant and various acidic and alkaline additives to help, including dark plum and lye , but over-dye according to characteristics of plant dyes to get secondary colors like purple, green and brown with various shades. The 300-year dyeing history of Europe and Asia shows both superb dyeing and weaving techniques and wisdom of dyers and weavers in our history.

Part 1 The Glorious Europe

In the mid-late 16th Century, the Spaniard discovered that American cochineal was widely used in South America as a mordant dye. Then, it was introduced to Europe, quickly replacing the native kermes. Besides, Sappanwood, native to Ceylon, and Indigo, indigenous to India had been imported into Europe around the 17th century as well.

Chinoiserie Brocade
No. 2016.18.24
France, 191cmx72cm
Dyestuffs: Kermes(red) and lac(crimson)

The Kermes (kermes vermilio) grows on kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) and originates from the Mediterranean, including France, Spain, Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon. The main component of the scale insect dye is kermesic acid. Another branch of the Coccidea family that people are more familiar with is Dactylopius spp., indigenous to Central and South America. At present, there are still some villagers in Peru and Mexico feeding such insects living in cactus of the Opuntia family. This product consists predominately of carminic acid.

Due to prosperous overseas trade, England and Holland were developed into both important financial centers and European centers of the dyeing industry in the 16th century. After Louis XIV ascended the throne, his chief minister dedicated to developing economy. The textile industry was given a priority and issued regulations stipulated that dyeing wool must use some certain of dyes.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the widely used dyes in Europe were mainly obtained from American cochineal, madder and sappanwood. One of the main flavonoid yellow dye sources is weld. And turmeric, was often used as a direct dye, mainly in combination with other dyes. In addition to over-dyeing with blue and red dyes, lichen dyes would also be used to gain purple.

Brocade with Lace Design
Holland, 94cmx39cm
Dyestuffs: Sappanwood(red), safflower(red), weld(yellow) and indigo(blue)

Weld (Reseda luteola), wild but also cultivated, grows in Southwestern Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa. It was the most-used yellow dye from the 17th to 20th century, with main components of luteolin, apigenin and relative glucosides.
For Europe, both sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan) and safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) were the exotic plant dyes. The former is native to Southeast Asia and the latter probably Egypt. Dyeing with alum, sappanwood can produce wood red. The dyeing process of safflower is highly complicated and little carthamin can be obtained after removing yellow pigments. However, the pure and bright hue of carthamin was so charming that dyers of Europe and Asia could not help falling in love with it. As a result, it had been widely used to color red with various shades from the beginning of the 17th century to the end of the 19th century. There are two kinds of maritime creatures used as natural dyes, molluscs and lichens. With complicated dyeing process and high costs, different shades of purple can be obtained from molluscus. Lichens, fungus organisms growing in rocky cliffs of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast, can be used to produce orchil or archil dyes they were obtained. The record of dyeing with lichens can be dated back to 2,000 years ago. Using lichens, blue purple will be produced amid alkaline conditions, while red purple be obtained within acidic conditions.

As 18th century was an age of scientific exploration, chemists and dyers had great interests in dye science which included in Newton's Color Theory. At the same period, people had an even larger demand of colors after the invention of the Spinning Jenny. Indigo carmine, as the first semi-synthetic dye came out in 1740, later synthetic aluminum sulfate took the place of alum. One hundred years after that, the invention of mauveine ended up the market of natural dyes.

Part 2 Asian traditions

Although there are many countries in Europe, the types of their dyestuffs are similar. Whilst dyestuffs in Asia have unique and distinctive features vary with areas.

Iran’s dyestuffs represented Central Asian dyestuffs and its carpet is a world famous specialty. And the rise and fall of the carpet industry also indicated the development of dyes. The Safavid Dynasty (Mid-16th to Mid-18th centuries) was an era of carpet-weaving when Iran was ruled by Persians. Dyes of high quality are required for fine patterns and brilliant colors. Subsequently, records on carpets are even less due to the war. It was not until the late 18th century, with the establishment of the Qājār Dynasty, that the carpet industry was gradually restored. For 300 years, Iranian dyers have been using madder as red dye, larkspur as yellow dye, pomegranate peels and sumac galls as black dyes, Lac and indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) from India were also used for dyeing Iranian textiles.
India is a country in South Asia with pretty long history, but unfortunately very few pre-16th century textiles reserve. At the same time, thanks to the protection of Indian handicraft industries, nearly 20 kinds of natural dyes today are being used in village dyehouses all over the country so far as we know. The textile printing industry in southeast Asia is influenced by India and China with local characteristics.

Ceremonial Boat Cloth
Indonesia, 232cmx56cm
Dyestuffs: Indian mulberry(red), turmeric(yellow) and indigo (blue)

Larkspur (Delphinium semibarbatum), which is used for making yellow dyestuff is unique in Iran, Afghanistan and north India. There are few historical records about it. The Kesi robe dyed with larkspur in the Uighur period was unearthed in Xinjiang, China.

Indian mulberry (Morinda citrifolia) is a typical red dyestuff in southeast Asia. Its main component is an anthraquinone compound, morinone. In the 17th and 19th centuries, Turmeric (Curcuma longa) was the most widely used yellow dyestuff in Southeast Asia, Indochina and Southern China. The dyestuff is easy to tint but has low light fastness. The main components are curcumin and its two derivatives.

In regard to characteristic dyestuffs, East Asia takes China for its represent. The Qing Dynasty, which is the last feudal dynasty in China from the 17th century to the 20th century, follows the etiquette system and the textile printing and dyeing technology of the Ming Dynasty. Tiangong Kaiwu (Exploitation of Products from the Nature by Combination of Artificial Skills and Natural Power), written by Song Yingsing in Ming Dynasty, introduces the dye varieties and dyeing methods at that time; The Book of Cloth, which was written in Qing Dynasty, shows the methods and formula of dyeing cloth in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. The record of the Textile and Dyeing Department of Nei WU Fu in Qing Dynasty, which is an important historic reference, not only records the names of colors, but also records dyeing recipes. Both the silk and cloth dyeing industries are concentrated in the south of the Yangtze River. The printing and dyeing technology in Japan and the Korean Peninsula is similar to that in China as China’s dyes and dyeing methods were introduced to these regions before 17th century.

Brocaded Satin with Patterns of Clouds and Dragons
China, 85cmx42.5cm
Dyestuffs: Safflower(red), sapanwood(red), indigo(blue), amur cork(yellow), pagoda tree(yellow) and turmeric(yellow)
By the Qing Dynasty (1616-1912), there were more than ten kinds of dyes used to dye textiles. The most frequently used dyes were safflower, sappanwood, bud of pagoda tree, amur cork, turmeric, indigo, gallnut and top of oak tree fruit. Among them, pagoda tree and amur cork are special East Asian plant dyestuffs.
Bud of pagoda tree is the main vegetable dyestuff in Ming and Qing dynasties as it is rich in rutin so that it can produce bright yellow. Amur cork (Phellodendron amurense) is a berberine-based plant, producing yellow. In addition, using amur cork as the base and over-dyeing with safflower can produce red while consuming less carthamin.

Embroidered Crane Roundels
China, 30cmx22cm
Dyestuffs: Sapanwood(red), indigo(blue), amur cork(yellow), turmeric(yellow) and Huangjing (Vitex negundo)(yellow)

Tannin and Indigo

Tannin-type dyes were mainly used to produce blacks on textiles all over the world in the past, for example, various species of oak trees (Quercus spp) have been widely applied to dyeing and producing black with iron from the 17th century to the end of 19th century. In addition to oak, European and Asian dyers dyed black with sumac, not only barks and leaves (e.g. Rhus coriaria) but also galls (e.g. Rhus chinensis) of these plants contain abundant of tannin. In Central Asia, the dyers would use local specialties such as pomegranate (Punica granatum) and walnut (Juglans regia) to produce black. It is quite difficult to identify plant sources of the black dyes as most of them contain mainly tannins and they would form ellagic acid after adsorbing on fabric fibers in most cases. The similar problem also arises when distinguish the different species of indigo-based plants, such as Isatis tinctoria (Europe), Polygonum tinctorium (East Asia), Indigofera tinctoria (Southeast Asia) and strobilanthes cusia (South Asia) as extracts of all indigo dyed textiles have indigotin and indirubin as the major components. Among these four plants, Indigofera tinctoria and strobilanthes cusia contain high content of indigoids, so they were widely used after the 18th century. Therefore, India became the largest exporter of indigo in the world during the 17th century to the early 20th century.

Through the presentation and identification of cultural relics, the exhibition gives a review of 300 years history of use of dyestuffs in Asia and Europe, presenting typical dyes which were often seen in different regions of Eurasia. According to the dye distribution map, we can clear see that some dyes such as the orchil and larkspur have distinctive regional characteristics; some are widely used in the East and the West like sappanwood and safflower; some have different origins but eventually adsorbing on the fabric and being the same pigments like tannin and indigo. As early as the middle of last century, the natural dyes have been replaced by the synthetic dyes in the textile industry. The era of using natural dyes was gone. However, nowadays people have stronger eager for a natural, ecological and harmony life, while the appropriate application of the natural dyes exactly meets that eager.
Pay attention to us ×