This section describes the Turkey red process in greater detail, the different printing methods used in the industry, and the rise of synthetic dyes.

Introduction

We live in a world today of seemingly endless varieties and shades of colour, with little popular understanding of how dyes are created, or of how recent is this bright and multi-coloured experience. Yet for most people in most periods and cultures before the nineteenth century, colour in textiles was limited and for many the colour of everyday clothing was simply that of the raw materials when woven. The brightest and deepest hues were always the most expensive and were therefore the preserve of the rich, along with pure white and pure black. The expense of bright colours was due to reliance on imported dyestuffs, such as indigo for blue which was traded across the globe for centuries and was always costly because the indigo plant is difficult to grow. Red, from cochineal (a South American insect) or madder root was another expensive colour. Cardinals and popes, kings and queens, and military leaders wore red, and its close relation purple.

Colour has meaning and red is widely seen as the colour of love and youthfulness, fertility and virility, whereas black is the colour of seriousness and dignity. The nineteenth-century widespread adoption of black, particularly in men’s clothing, is commonly associated with the cult of seriousness. But the character and cost of dyestuffs is also partly responsible for this trend, since the cheapest dyed colour in nineteenth-century textiles – costing a fraction of natural red, blue or purple – was black made from logwood. Prior to the discovery of logwood dyes, black was expensive because it was made from blending the darkest indigo with the deepest red madder, and those dyes were costly.

Black represented a revolution in colour in the nineteenth century, and the comparable revolution in the twentieth century was probably the wide availability of white. Another colour that was costly in the eighteenth century, but became cheap in the nineteenth with new dyeing technologies was yellow. Red, however, remained an expensive dyeing process throughout the nineteenth century before the complexities of the finest of the reds, known as Turkey red, was undermined by the cheap synthetic dyes that we all enjoy today.

  • Imitation tie dye, peacocks and plain red centre

    Imitation tie dye, peacocks and plain red centre
  • Giraffe and Leopard

    Giraffe and Leopard
  • Intricate stylised flowers, black trailing vine

    Intricate stylised flowers, black trailing vine
  • Prince of Wales feathers

    Prince of Wales feathers
  • Saturn and Stars

    Saturn and Stars
  • Train

    Train


Next: The Turkey red process >

Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Dyeing and printing techniques.’

Back to top

We’re reopening our museums

After nearly five months of closure, we have started to welcome visitors back to our museums with a phased reopening.

Find out more