Color: A mini-rant there-on (and possibly the beginning of a series).

by Sarah Lake Upton in

I am taking advantage of my mornings on the boat to read my favorite natural dying text book, Natural Dyes; Sources, Tradition, Technology, and Science by Dominique Cardon.  As always, reading about the history and chemistry of natural dyes has me pondering how much we take colorful garments for granted today, so much so that we seem to have collectively forgotten that dye stuffs were ever even a consideration or that color itself was valuable.  Most potted history of the middle ages will at least mention how expensive spices were, pepper in particular (and the naming of whole island groups still reflects this) but no one seems to remember that dyestuffs were an equal or greater driver of commerce.  When the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, in addition to requiring an annual supply of gold, the Aztecs were also required to supply large amounts of cochineal (an insect that lives on cactus and creates a very bright red dyed) which was considered second only to ships full of gold in terms of value.   We remember and romanticize the pirates that hunted the Caribbean attacking ships full of gold bound for Europe, but just as often those pirates were after ships full of logwood (which produces a deep purple dye, or black when used with tannin and iron) cut from the forests of Central and South America. 

The need for mordants (mental salts that help the colorants in dye plants “stick” to the dyed fibers, and which greatly affect the color and color-fastness of the finished product) shaped history too.  In her encylopedic textbook on natural dyes, Cardon compares the importance of alum (the most commonly used mordant)  and alum producing areas in fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe to our modern need for oil.  

I majored in archaeology (or as close as I could come - there was no “archaeology” major offered at my school at the time I graduated - it’s a long story) and sat through endless hours about ceramics and flaked stone tools and food procurement/production and post-hole remnants and hearth remains and metal production and etc.  and quite a lot of that is preservation bias (ceramics and stone tools are often all that remain) and quite a lot of that is male European archaeology bias (in which high status tools and weapons and status symbols play a very strong role - in some ways archaeology is still very much stuck in the Victorian era - hopefully that has changed a bit in the last fifteen years) and some of that may very well just have been the interests of the professors who taught the classes, but in all of that, even when the topic was pollen analysis or analysis of residues scraped from inside all that ceramic, no one mentioned dyes, dye plants, or mordants.   Looking at the many photos of the archaeological traces of dye works in Dominique Cardon’s book it makes me want to bang my head against the wall in frustration that I twice got to help excavate at a major Andean temple complex and no one mentioned dye plants or fiber production, even though we know from skeletal remains that when the site was in use there were very, very large llamas living there (though we don’t know what the site residents were doing with those very large llamas).

I have long wanted to include more information on the history and chemistry of the dyes I regularly use on my website.  I may finally be getting around to it.  Stay tuned.