Tuesday 5 June 2018

Dyestuffs in the stock of 17th century dyers

Title page of Der Volmaakte Verwer CC

I have blogged in the past about colours of clothing, and recently people have been discussing dyes, so here is some information about what dyestuffs dyers had in their stock in the 17th century. These very few examples are extracted from the several thousand wills and inventories I have trawled through for the Stuart Tailor project. 

Dyeing was a very specialist occupation and was often concentrated in a single place, for example when the Gloucestershire village of Bisley, in the north of the county, had a manorial survey done in 1608 there were 140 adults for whom we have occupations:  41 were engaged in agriculture and 63 in textiles, and not only weaving, as the manor had six fulling-mills, four dye-houses, and fourteen rack-rooms. For those interested in Stroudwater reds, Bisley is only four miles from Stroud.

The dyers examined here are small to medium sized, having between one and three dye vats with two to three furnaces, plus copper and lead cisterns, presses, tubs, etc. None of them are on the scale of the sixteenth century John Winchcombe (a.k.a. Jack of Newbury) who, on the basis of orders and receipts, used an average of half a ton of woad a week, and was reputed to have employed forty men in dyeing.

The dyestuffs

Some of the dyers, such as John Paine of Marlborough (1634) only list their equipment and not their dyestuffs. Others have only a general comment such as George Smalredge of Lichfield (1670), “Dying goods £25 10s 0d” and William Smith the elder, of Stratford on Avon (1683), “In the dyehouse, goods there, oade [woad], scales, weights and dyers cullers £10”

The blues 

Woad was probably the most common dyestuff. Katherine Sewell of Lincoln (1664) has two tons in stock worth £35 and Thomas Wright in Shropshire (1662), has six hundredweight worth £4. Woad was one of the dyestuffs which Sprat says “will not yield their Colours without much grinding, steeping, boyling, fermenting, or corrosion by powerful Menstrua” Although woad was grown in this country most was imported from France, mainly the Toulouse area, which even today has Le museum du pastel celebrating the industry’s importance. 

Indigo, which like woad also gives blue, was held in much smaller quantities.  Thomas Wright had “10 ho. [hundred] weight £1”, Katherine Sewell had an unspecified amount worth 8s and Anne Smalldridge of Litchfield 1679 (widow of Thomas, not George) had a mere 9lb of indigo  but valued at £1 5s 6d, which may mean that it should read hundred weight rather than pound.

The reds

Madder was also held in large quantities, Wright had “Three hundred [weight] of madder £4,” Sewell “7 hundred of madder £14 0s 0d“ and Smalldridge a more complex, “One end of madder: 300lb £4 10s 0d, One end of madder more 500lb £5 15s 0d and A small parcel of mull madder, 15s 0d” Mull madder is madder of an inferior quality and according to Partridge was only used “in dyeing blacks, bottle-greens, and dark browns”.

Brasil and redwood. The first thing to say about this dyestuff is that the country is named after the dye, not the dye after the country. The Asian tree Cæsalpinia sappan was known to produce a red dyestuff as early as Chaucer, in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale he compares it to grain (kermes); “colour for to dyghen with brasile, ne with greyn of Portyngale.” When South America was discovered the Cæsalpinia echinata tree also came into use for dying reds. Sewell lists both red wood (two and a half hundred weight) and brasil (an unspecified amount), while Smalldrige has “halfe a hundred of old red wood £1 10s 0d” and Wright has a mere “two quarters of red-wood 10s”, plus a further one shilling’s worth. Sampson Buckley of Broseley (1711) has 3lb of brasil worth 1s. It may be that the older western dye is referred to as brasil and the newer American version as red-wood.

Other red dyes. There is no kermes (graine) in these inventories. Smalldridge has £1 worth of cochineal (cucineale) in the cloth house; she also has 100 lb of sanders, with no price given. Sanders, or red sanderswood, is sandalwood from India, in 1672 the Privy Council received a petition against its importation by the Dutch East India Company, sanders wood being  “a very fading cheeting dye”.

The Yellows

Weld and Dyer’s greenwood.  Strictly speaking weld is Reseda Luteola and dyer’s greenweed or greenwood  are various forms of Genista; especially G. Tinctoria which is sometime referred to as woodwax. Sprat mentions only weld, and in the inventories the references are to woodiwiss or woodwash, so probably dyer’s greenweed. Sewell had “barks and woodwash” worth £4, while Smalldridge had 100 stone of woodwiss. Sprat points out that “although Green be the most frequent and common of natural Colours, yet there is no simple ingredient, which is now used alone, to Dye Green with upon any Material.” Hakluyt writing in 1599 of Turkey said, “Yellowes and greenes are colours of small prices in this realme, by reason that Olde [woad] and Greenweed wherewith they be died be naturall here”.

Fustic. This is another dye that was known in a western version, and then a similar plant with similar properties was discovered in the Americas. Firstly we have the wood of the Venetian sumach ( Rhus cotinus) and later the wood of the Cladrastis (Chlorophora, Maclura) tinctoria sometimes called for distinction old fustic. Sewell has “3 hundred weight of fustick  18s 6d and Wright has 5s 6d worth of fustic, plus a further amount listed with logwood. Smalldridge has “shamesd fustick” half a hundred worth 6s, and Buckley has one bag worth £1.

The blacks

Galls. Galls are also sometime referred to as oak apples. Wright had “One hundred weight of galls £2 16s” and Sewell had 10s worth. Sprat says of galls that “Of a thing truly useful in Dying, especially of Blacks, nothing increases weight so much as Galls”

Logwood A dye from the  American tree Hæmatoxylon Campechianum. In theory logwood was banned in 1581, and this was not repealed until 1673. The 1673 repeal was supposedly because “the indigenous industry of modern times hath taught the dyers of England the art of fixing the colours made of logwood,” a more plausible reason is that we now had logwood plantations of our own, and didn’t need to rely on Spanish imports. If you ever want to be really grossed out read William Dampier’s experiences of cutting logwood in 1675. Although banned Sewell has “Halfe a hundred of logwood” in stock for 16s in 1664 and Wright in 1662 has an unspecified amount. In 1679, after the ban was lifted, Smalldridge has “Loggwood 200 lb at £2 0s 0d,” so the price seems to have gone down considerably.

Sumac Sumac comes from the Rhus genus, especially R. Coriaria, which is native to southern Europe. It has a high tanning content and was widely used to dye leather black.  Wright has sumac and galls listed together, while Smallridge has “Sumack 200 lb at £1 4s 0d”

Other dyestuffs  

Orchil (lichens) appear in the inventories as archil or argell and are held in small quantities. Sewell has “One parcel of argell 3s 4d” and Buckley has “One bag of argil £1” and “One barrel of archill £1.” Orchil will mainly dye a violet or red colour.


As Sprat put it, “many of the said Coulouring materials will of themselves give no Colouring at all, as Copperas, or Galls, or with much disadvantage, unless the Cloth or other Stuff to be Dyed, be as it were, first covered or incrustated with some other matter, though Colour-less, aforehand, as Mather, Weld, Brasil with Allum.”

Alum In the sixteenth century and before alum had to be imported to Britain. In was only at the beginning of the seventeenth century that we started extracting alum from alum shale, and not until 1635 that we became self reliant in alum, with something like 1800 tons a year being produced near Whitby.  Wright has in stock “Allum 1 c 2q [one hundredweight two quarters] £2”, and Sewell has “2 hundred of allam £2 10s 0d”

Copperas Which is ferrous sulphate, otherwise known as green copperas, or green vitriol. An Act of 1565 stated that “No Person..shall dye..black, any Cap..but only with Copperas and Gall.” Wright had “Copperis 3 c [hundredweight] £1 10s”, Sewell had “2 hundred of copras 14s 0d and Smalldridge “Copparris 600 lb at £3 0s 0d”

Victoria Finlay (2003) Colour. London: Sceptre
Richard Hakluyt (1599) Principal Navigations  II. i. 163 
William Partridge (1853) Madder and indigo. In Scientific American
David Peacock (2013) Dyeing Winchcombe Kersies and Other Kersey Cloth in Sixteenth-Century Newbury, Textile History, 37:2, 187-202
Thomas Sprat (1667) General Observations upon Dying. In The history of the Royal-Society of London for the improving of natural knowledge. London,: printed by T.R. for J.Martyn


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.