At the marked this weekend it came to my attention that I know quite a bit about the shapes of medieval and renæssance clothing but much less about the medieval fabric colours- both how they were used and how they were made – so I decided to educate my self and share what I learned in the process. I decided to investigate both the fabrics used and the colours and dyes.
In this post I take a closer look at the medieval use of colours and dyes. I also look at who wore what colours and a bit about the symbolic use of colour.
When looking at what people wore in earlier times it’s important to look at what kind of source material we got to work with. We have archaeological finds (not many when it comes to fabrics), historical descriptions and other text evidence and we have depictions in paintings, manuscripts, statues etc. In type of source material has some problems but common for all of them is that lets us know way more about the rich and powerful than the common people.
One needs to be particularly aware that the colours represented in period paintings are not the actual colours of the fabrics as the pigments used + the artistic choices + symbolic meaning, does not lend them self well to accuracy. I am more likely to trust the shape of a dress than the hue in a manuscript painting.
As medieval reenactors in Denmark most of us are not playing as nobles, because we are at marked events as craft and trades people. So we have to combine what we know with the historical sources with our understanding of medeval economics, society and use a bit of logic.
Home made fabrics – the cheapest fabrics
Undyed wool would have been cheapest. Wool can be home grown, processed and weaved into finished fabric without investing in expensive equipment or paying anyone to do anything too it. Wool naturally comes in off-white, greys, browns and a very dark grey. You can of course also dye your wool using plant dyes which is also fairly easy and inexpensive. It does require an agent to set the colour (mordanting) which makes it a bit more expensive to do – it might require spending actual money.
Unlike today wool fabrics would have been the most affordable and practical option for most clothing. Today wool is expensive but until very recent, it was cheap and what most people wore most of the time.
Unbleached linen was also a very common fabric. While linen cloth is more labor intensive than wool, it is still possible to make within a village setting. Unbleached linen is greyish. To make it more white people could dry it in the sun, which beaches it for free and it will get you a much lighter grey.
Linen does not take colour well, while wool does. Even today your linen pants will fade way quicker than your woolen coat – which meant that linen was way more likely to be used undyed than wool.
Clothing in greys, browns and muted blues were thought most suitable for the lower class. While brighter colours were seen as less humble and unsuitable for common people. That does of course not mean that commoners never wore brighter colours, but people with higher status disapproved of the practice. Read more about the clothing of commoners here.
When looking at medieval fabrics colours we look at two categories: The cheaper home dyed fabrics using local plant based dyes, and the more expensive profetionsal dyed fabrics, that uses imported or expensive ingrediens.
You could dye your fabric at home using plant dyes and get quite pretty colours. It’s easier to dye the yarn than the finished fabric, but you get a more uniform colour if you dye the fabric. The later you get the more likely it is that the whole fabric was dyed at once.
In the country dyeing of fabric would have been a female job, while it in the cities was a profetion which was typical the domain of the men. Some dyes needs to be set with ammonia from urin, which made dying a stinky job, which ment that it was often done at the edge of town. You need quite a bit of water, so you want to be close to the river as well.
The more saturated a colour you want, the harder it was to made – in general. So as a rule of thumb, saturated fabrics were more expensive than the more faded tones. You can dye multiple set of fabrics in the same bath, but only the first bath will produce saturated colours while subsequent baths gives you more faded and lighter colours. Which of course meant that the saturated colours were the more expensive ones.
Also remember that the color symbolism of the middle ages, where quite different than today. Pink didn’t become a girls colour until after world war one for instance. Black was both an expensive colour and a monastic colour.
Men were more likely than women to wear bright colour in general and they did like to peacock, but everyone who could afford to would want to wear color. Undyed fabrics would be a sure way to mark you as poor and low status.
Using danish plants it was possible to dye fabric curry yellow, yellow-green, blue-green colors, brown-red and soft red colors. While clean jewel colours would require imported dyes, making them more expensive.
From danish plants you can get greenish and yellowish fabrics. They are not very saturated, but you can get quite pretty yellows without too much trouble using tansy, goldenrod, birch leaves and wild chervil. You can also colour fabric yellow using weld dyers’ rocket, turmeric, saffron, onion skin, marigold, chamomile, with the first ones being the more expensive ones.
For the nobles yellow represent gold as a heraldic colour, meaning that nobles with yellow in their coat of arms would wear yellow and yellow details.
Brown is also easy to achieve using plant dyes. You can get a beautiful rich brown using walnut. Bark from a number of trees will produce nice brown colours.
Dark brown however was expensive to make.
To achieve proper black fabric required the fabric to be dyed multiple times, which made the fabric quite expensive. A mix of the three basic dyes, madder, weld and woad, with a lot of alum, could create a black. Acorns were allegedly used as black dye, as were ‘galnuts’ or oak apples, which were also used to make ink. The use of large amounts of alum is hard on the fabric and reduce the life time of the fabric drastically.
“- Take green nutshells and grind them together and let them rot seven days in a pot, and therewith make a black dye.
– Whoever wants to make black dye, he takes oak galls and pulverizes them and adds alum thereto and boils it in a skillful way with alum and in urine and dyes therewith; if he wants to make it darker, add black dye thereto.” – German Innsbruck Manuscript from 1330
Black clothing symbolised humility and plainness, and for this reason was associated with monastic life. Around the reformation it became popular both with the nobility and the rich merchant class for that reason. A lot of male hats are black throughout the period and some female hoods are black particularly towards the end of the period.
Madder red was created using madder root and dries fabric a burnt red colour. It used to be grown in Denmark and was much less expensive than scarlet cloth. Red dye which came from madder was significantly more expensive than the blue dye which came from woad. The root of the madder plant required for the red dye was only harvested once a year, whereas the leaves of the woad plant could be gathered several times throughout the year, making it a more available product. Madder can also be used to make pink fabric, which were worn by men and women alike.
Brazilwood can also be used to make pink and purple tones.
The raisin dragonsblood was imported from India to make deep red fabric, which was quite expensive.
Scarlet cloth was dyed using the kermes dye, that is a rich red, a crimson were made from a scale insect in the genus Kermes. By the middle of the period, it was the most expensive colour after metal cloth.
Woad leafs (Isatis tinctoria) set with ammonia (from urin) was used to dye fabric a pretty cold indigo blue. The fabric can be come quite saturated using woad. In most of the middle ages blue was very alfforable and was seen as quite appropriate for just about anyone to wear.
In the early period, indigo blue was the most expensive colour, but by the middle of period, it had to make room for scarlet cloth as the more expensive colour. Virgin Mary is almost always depicted wearing ultramarine blue.
“Take the leaves of a dwarf elder and mash them and take indigo and add thereto and grind it together and let them dry together for a long time and take lime water and let it seethe together and then take alum and grind it thereto while it’s all hot. Paint it on white fabric, and it will become a good blue.” – German Innsbruck Manuscript from 1330
Green symbolized youthfulness and fertility.
Buckthorn berries and logwood are both sources of green dye, and combining woad and weld dyes and other common plant dyes could produce colours varying from muddy green to emerald to spring green.
However if you wanted a cleaner jewel toned green, that would be hard and expensive to produce. Brighter greens were achieved by dying the fabric in both a blue and a yellow bath.
You can use indigo, weld, turmeric to produce green fabric, both those would be more expensive, that the local plant dyes – they also produced the priced emerald green.
“- To make a green dye, take verdigris and boil it in urine and mix alum thereto and a portion of gum arabic, and dye therewith; to make the color lighter, take the same color and add orpiment and mix it with alum, cooked in lime water and dye therewith.
– One should take elder and boil it in alumwater, that makes a green color and also a black, if one mixes it with a bit of black color.” – German Innsbruck Manuscript from 1330
Imperial purple was made with the small sea snail dog whelk (nucella lapillus) – the dye was more expensive than gold. You need 10,000 murex shellfish to create just 1 gram of the colour. The deep, rich purple dye made from this snail became known as Tyrian purple. Purple was worn by royalty because of the insane price.
However in the 1400’s cheaper ways of dying things purple and deep violet, which made the colour less prestigious, moving the colour preference toward dark reds.
In 1464, Pope Paul II decreed that cardinals should no longer wear Tyrian purple, and instead wear scarlet, from kermes and alum, since the dye from Byzantium was no longer available. Bishops and archbishops, of a lower status than cardinals, were assigned the color purple, but not the rich Tyrian purple. They wore cloth dyed first with the less expensive indigo blue, then overlaid with red made from kermes dye.
While purple was worn less frequently by Medieval and Renaissance kings and princes, it was worn by the professors of many of Europe’s new universities. Their robes were modeled after those of the clergy, and they often wore square violet or purple caps and robes, or black robes with purple trim. Purple robes were particularly worn by students of divinity.
Purple and violet also played an important part in the religious paintings of the Renaissance. Angels and the Virgin Mary were often portrayed wearing purple or violet robes.
White is a highly impractical colour and symbolizes purity. Natural wool, linen or even cotton is not white and has to be bleached to become pure white. You can bleach both linen and cotton fairly white in the sun, but to get a proper white, you need chemical help. Rich people would wear pure white underthings and head wrappings, while everyone else made due with unbleached fabric.
Strips, diamant, herringbone, houndstooth and plaid fabric were both known in the period – unlike what you see in the paintings and at most markeds. Both can be made at home without too much difficulty, though it is more time consuming.
Complex patterned fabric: brocade & damask – the most expensive fabrics
Brocade is fabric in which contrasting colors are woven into specific areas to make patterns. Brocade is a class of richly decorative shuttle-woven fabrics. In the early middle ages brocade fabric was a luxury fabrics worn by nobility in Byzantium and the designs woven into brocade fabrics were often Persian in origin. It was also common to see Christian subjects depicted in the complex weaves of the fabric. During the Renaissance in Italy, brocade became very popular, particularly with the upper classes and people of nobility. While many of the designs remained Chinese or Indian in style, however, Italian brocade embraced Renaissance values and was elegant and complex.
Damask is a reversible figured fabric with a pattern formed by weaving. Damasks are woven with one warp yarn and one weft yarn, usually with the pattern in warp-faced satin weave and the ground in weft-faced or sateen weave. Twill damasks include a twill-woven ground or pattern. Damasks derive their name from the city of Damascus. Damasks became scarce after the 9th century outside Islamic Spain, but were revived in some places in the 1200’s. By the 1300’s, damasks were being woven on draw looms in Italy. From the 1300-1600, most damasks were woven in one colour with a glossy warp-faced satin pattern against a duller ground.
Woodblock printing on textiles is the process of printing patterns on textiles, usually of linen, cotton or silk, by means of incised wooden blocks. It is the earliest, simplest and slowest of all methods of textile printing. Block printing by hand is a slow process. It is, however, capable of yielding highly artistic results, some of which are unobtainable by any other method.
Textile printing was known in Europe, via the Islamic world, from about the 12th century, and widely used. Block printing of fabric was used in Italy in the 1300’s, this would properly have been a cheaper way to have fabric with complex patterns than the woven brokade and damask. Larger printed textiles were mostly wall-hangings as they didn’t need washing.
Sumptuary laws: Who were allowed to wear what?
The laws governing who were allowed to wear what colours and types of fabrics were not at all uniform throughout Europe or throughout time. However a few things were common. Many places restricted some fabrics to royalty and nobility. In England silver and gold cloth (made with actual gold and silver tread) for instance were restricted to royalty. Purple was restricted to the emperor in the Roman empire and has been a royal colour after that. Many places would also restrict some forms of silk to the nobility. The colours that was most often restricted were: red, purple and black – so those were the more desired colours, that commoners would be able to afford and there for challenge the status of the nobles.
Links and resources
- bucks-retinue.org.uk – details on each olour + symbolic meaning of the colours
- denrenemiddelalder.dk – (in danish)
- dragt.dk – very in depth (in danish)
- medievaltextiles.org – examples of medieval textiles
- medievaltailor.com – plant dying
- historicenterprises.com – color examples of period dyed fabric
- thoughtco.com – in depth infomation about the materials including articles on different types of fabric
- distillatio.wordpress.com – Bleaching linen in medieval times
- luigi-bevilacqua.com – silk and silk production
- somnardetbegavsig.blogspot.com – introduktion to medieval clothing (swedish)