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The nineteenth century saw many technological and chemical developments which affected industry at large. For the Turkey red manufacturers, the discovery and development of synthetic dyes, replacing natural materials such as madder, had significant consequences for the industry.

The Scottish Turkey red industry was based on a sophisticated but traditional dyeing process using natural materials. Madder root, which was grown and processed in France and the Netherlands, was expensive but also produced the brightest of reds. The active component of madder is the chemical substance known as alizarin, which was isolated and described by European chemists in the early nineteenth century. Other chemical components of natural madder were identified and applied by the mid-nineteenth century, including purpurin, which produced a delicate lilac colour, and green alizarin, which was patented in Britain and famously displayed at the 1867 Paris International Exhibition.

The influence of William Henry Perkin

Although the first synthetic dye – picric acid, which produced a bright yellow on silk – was invented in 1771, the man widely regarded as responsible for the rise of synthetic dyes was William Henry Perkin. In 1856, while still a chemistry student, Perkin, who was trying to synthesize the anti-malarial drug quinine from coal tar, accidentally discovered the first major aniline or coal-tar derived dye. A black residue that formed during his experiments, when dissolved in methylated spirit was found to produce a purple solution that worked well on silk. The colour of the dye, which came to be known as ‘mauve’, was a fashion sensation.

As an industrial novice Perkin took advice from the textile industry, including Pullars of Perth, bleachers and dyers, and John Hyde Christie, the chemist and general manager of John Orr Ewing and Co., on the commercial development of mauve. Though limited in its applications, the potential presented by coal-tar waste from the ever increasing numbers of gas works in Britain and Europe sparked a frenzy of activity among research chemists, leading to further synthetic colours such as magenta and green. 

Artificial alizarin

The new synthetics had two advantages over natural dyes. The first was cost and the second was consistency. Natural root products such as madder extract varied from batch to batch according to the growing and storage conditions. Indeed, madder powder was so easily damaged by exposure to light and atmosphere that even the transportation was expensive. German chemists, Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann were the first to synthesize artificial alizarin from coal tar in 1868, which was available commercially in Britain from 1869 and soon adopted in the Turkey red industry. The natural Turkey red process was not immediately superseded, however, and ‘authentic’ labelled goods that highlighted the natural dyeing process continued to enjoy a premium in the market place. 

German chemical companies led the way in artificial alizarin production and sales, but by the early 1880s the British Turkey red industry was fighting back with endeavours to restrict the use of this foreign commodity through the creation of the British Alizarine Company Ltd. The Scots continued with their endeavours to further improve natural Turkey red and alizarin dyeing, but the European dyestuffs companies were adept at developing not only their cheap products with guaranteed consistent results, but they also provided technical advice and services for their clients, which meant that dyeing and printing businesses were able to cut the costs of specialist staff at their works. The penetration of German dyes into the Indian market came at a time when imperial policies of industrial restriction were increasingly seen as politically unacceptable and the impact on Scottish Turkey red was inevitable. 

The fight for market position in India resulted in the founding of the United Turkey Red Company Ltd in 1898, but by this stage all of the Vale of Leven companies were major users of artificial dyes. The Dalquhurn works in 1898 produced yarn dyed in Turkey red and alizarin red, along with aniline versions of purple, green, orange, blue, pink, yellow and maroon. It was also starting to use a new type of artificial red, called ‘para’ red, which was first invented in Germany in 1889 and eventually replaced artificial alizarin. In 1912, napthol reds superseded para reds. The UTR, based mainly in the Vale of Leven, continued to maintain a chemical development division and in the 1920s was conducting trials on the artificial dyestuff known as ‘Hydron blue’, which was the new cheap rival to natural indigo blue. But companies such as this could not compete with the great chemical giants that now dominated the international dyestuffs industry.

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

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