How many times on a living history have you heard someone say to a member of the public, something to the effect that, black is a very expensive dye and only the rich wear it, or that black is a difficult and corrosive dye and therefore the fabric rots away, which is why it is an expensive colour. To a certain extent these comments have a kernel of truth in them, but I want to examine whether re-enactors have exaggerated these effects.
Black is difficult to produce
Black was a difficult colour to produce well, so a true black is difficult, but brownish or blueish blacks are easier. Country dying used alder bark or gallnuts, but dying black commercially involved overdying, and mordanting with iron. When a good viable dye for black, logwood, did appear from the Americas in the late 16th century, the immediate reaction was to ban it, to protect dyes already in use. There was a statue of 1581 which rather unfairly declared logwood to be “false and deceitful” (Munro, 2007). The act was supposedly in force until 1662, but in actual fact the dyestuff appears frequently in the import lists for London, Bristol and Southampton, so was obviously coming into the country in some amounts.
Black rots the fabric.
Dyes that use iron mordants (copperas) have a long term problem in that iron can rot the fabric and weaken the fibres, particularly of animal based materials, such as wool. This effect can be seen very clearly in existing blackwork embroideries, where in many cases the embroidery has rotted away leaving only the drawn lines of the design. However this is not something that happens immediately, or indeed even in the life time of the person who did the work. An analysis of a late fifteenth century tapestry for example, showed that many of the black threads had been replaced in the eighteenth century. Black dyes are incredibly complex and difficult to analyse. The earlier dye in the tapestry was tannin based, extracted from gallnuts, alder bark or sumac, whereas the later eighteenth century dye involved complex overdying using a indigo dye bath, with cochineal, madder and possibly weld, after which gallo-tannins also appear to have been added (OK I’m probably getting too technical here). (Degano, 2011)
Huggett’s (1999) analysis of Elizabeth rural wills includes no gentry wills, those involved are yeomen, husbandmen, tradesmen, even servants and labourers, and their widows. Interestingly on the occasions where colour is mentioned in the wills the commonest colour for men’s wear is black, followed by blue, and for women red, frequently petticoats, followed by black for gowns and kirtles.
Black fabric is more expensive.
Some dyes are so expensive that they affect the cost of the material. In the Middle Ages this was true of scarlets produced with kermes, dyed in grain as it was often called. By the end of the Middle Ages the term scarlet sometimes means not the colour, but a better quality of fabric, and so you get references to black scarlets. (Munro, 1983) This is not true of black dyed materials. An analysis by Strong (1980) of Charles I’s clothes shows of 62 suits purchased 10 were of black, and a further 8 were in shades of grey ranging from dove to lead, but the prices of these clothes appear to be no different from those of other colours. The bulk of his suits range from around £40 to £70 and, with one exception, the black suits fit well within this range being from £44 to £54. There are exceptions and these are the suits where Edmund Harrison is also paid for embroidery. Even here the £146 paid for a suit of black taffeta embroidered with gold and silver, is exceeded by £155 for a cinnamon coloured suit and £226 for a watchet (bluey-green) suit.
Yes a true black could be difficult to obtain, but lesser blacks were common, and were worn by all classes of society. Black cloth was no more expensive than any other colour, and although the fabric might rot, it would not do so in your lifetime.
Degano, I. et al. 2011. Historical and archaeological textiles: an insight on degradation products of wools and silk yarns. Journal of Chromatography A. 2011, Vol. 1218.
Huggett, Jane. 1999. Rural costume in Elizabethan Essex: a study based on the evidence from wills. Costume. 1999, Vol. 33.
Munro, John. 2007. Early modern techniques of dyeing black: logwood. Medieval clothing and textiles. 2007, Vol. 3.
—. 1983. Medieval scarlets and the economics of satorial splendour. Harte, N. and Ponting, K (eds). Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe. Essays in Memory of Professor E.M. Carus Wilson. London : Ashgate, 1983.
Strong, Roy. 1980. Charles I's clothes for the years 1633-1635. Costume. 1980, Vol. 14.