Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Textile dyes

Dyes vs Pigments



Natural dyes from the Middle Ages used to color a variety of textiles were largely derived from vegetables. Some of the most popular were weld (Reseda luteola) which produces a yellow, madder (Rubia tinctoria) can give tints and shades from pale pink/peach to reds/purples to near black and Indigo (Indigofera) and Woad (Isatis tinctoria) for blues. New World contributions were Cochineal, brazil and log woods plus Quercitron.  Textiles were dipped into vats containing these dyes. The coloring agent adhered to both sides of the goods with a weaker color often on the backside. 

Back of Indigo dyed fabric

The only dye with affinity for cotton is Indigo. All the others had to be fixed onto the fabric with mordants. These metallic salts were printed or painted onto the ground cloth which was then processed in a dye bath. The mordant (alum and iron were the most popular) ‘bit’ both the dye stuff and the cotton fibers to form a stable bond.


The early 19th century mineral colors (Prussian blue, manganese bronze and the chromes…yellow, orange and green) were often printed on cotton textiles as insoluble pigments.  A binder was necessary to enclose and then attach the pigment to the cloth. Albumen from either eggs or blood was used during the 19th century as a textile pigment binder. Pigments sit on top side of the fabric and give a pale beige or taupe color to the back side.


The first synthetic fabric dye was discovered in coal tar residue in 1856…mauveine. Some of the early synthetics were printed on cotton as pigments until the discovery tannin mordants. Other aniline dyes followed in 1869 for alizarin (the coloring agent in madder) then in the early 1890s a good aniline black and finally in 1897 artificial indigo. A version of this is still used today to dye our beloved jeans!

Print pastes incorporating pigments into an emulsion were used for fabric printing during most of the 20th century. Today many of the printed fabrics in the quilt marketplace use fiber reactive dyes with occasional details provided by pigments.
Dargate Treasury by Andover Fabrics
Dargate Treasury due late April/May  Shop owners please contact your salesperson. They should receive the sample cards this week!



  1. Thanks for the information, Margo. I recently tried to tea dye a shirting that I wanted to darken slightly. It did not work and now I know why.

  2. Can't wait to see the new fabric! As always your blog is full of info and is interesting to read.