The term ‘Turkey red’ applies not to the colour but rather to the process that was used to create the bright and fast red that is seen in the National Museums Scotland Turkey Red Collection. The process was complex, repetitive and expensive, but the end product enjoyed a wide popularity and was the most profitable of all the cotton finishing sectors in the nineteenth-century textile industry.

For centuries, British and European dyers had been seeking a bright red dye which could withstand strong sunlight and frequent washing without fading, and knowing of the Turkey red process - so-called because it was thought to have originated in the Levant region – they were keen to reproduce it. Skilled dyers in Holland and France first perfected the process in the west but were determined to keep the technique a secret and despite espionage expeditions and financial incentives from the Society of Arts in London, it was not adopted successfully in Britain until the 1780s, first in Manchester and then Glasgow.

Ingredients and method

The Turkey red process involved multiple steps, could take weeks to complete and required almost constant attention from the workforce. The main component was madder, a plant root, of which there many varieties but the one most commonly used is called Rubia tinctorum, or ‘dyer’s madder’. A number of other ingredients were also required, including rancid olive oil and sheep’s dung, which were used for oiling and preparing the cloth before it was dyed. During the actual dyeing, the madder extract (alizarin) was combined with bullocks’ blood, though the blood seem to have been more for ‘alchemical’ than any real chemical purpose.

Descriptions of the Turkey red process vary greatly, with some purposefully oblique, reflecting the secretive nature of the industry. The man who is credited with first bringing the process to Scotland, Frenchman Pierre Jacques Papillon, published his method for Turkey red dyeing in 1804 as part of an agreement with the Board of Trustees for Fisheries and Manufactures, in return for a financial incentive to remain in Scotland and develop his business. In simplified terms there were five main stages:

  • cleaning (or bleaching) the cloth or yarn to remove impurities and prepare it for the dyeing process (in the early stages of the industry this required prolonged exposure to air and sunlight)
  •  preparing the cloth or yarn by saturating it in rancid olive oil and sheep dung
  • mordanting the cloth or yarn with alum to ensure that the dyestuff would stick and be fast
  • dyeing the cloth or yarn in vats containing madder extract and bullock’s blood
  • cleaning and brightening the cloth by boiling in a solution of chloride of tin.

Each step was repeated frequently and the process could take up to twenty-five days. The work was labour intensive and required gallons of clean water at each stage for the repeated washing, boiling or immersion in dyes. The abundance of water from the fast-flowing River Leven was one of the main attractions of the area, the other attraction was space for the extensive sheds, drying greens, equipment and machinery required for production.

Improving the recipe

Turkey red manufacturers were constantly looking for ways to improve, simplify or speed their process and they also employed university-trained chemists who conducted experiments on new dyestuffs, including the development of synthetic dyes. Artificial alizarin generated a simpler and more consistent dyeing process that reduced labour costs, and because it required less oiling and mordanting, and less soap for cleaning, the material costs were also reduced. However, the ‘natural’ method of dyeing still enjoyed the highest prestige and ‘authentic’ Turkey red cottons from the Vale of Leven factories sold well into the twentieth century.

The industry, employing thousands of skilled and well-paid workers, had poor labour relations. Strikes were frequent, as were lay-offs later in the century, and the Turkey red process was noxious and dangerous. The hands of the Turkey red workers were permanently tinged red, and since they mostly lived in close proximity to the factories, in families where often all of the adults worked for the same firm, with oppressive management regimes to ensure that the technical secrets of dyeing and printing were protected, the businesses involved were viewed with scant affection. The impact on the natural environment was also problematical, with industrial pollution in the River Leven a cause for concern and local resentment throughout the life of the industry.

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

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