The Turkey Red Collection of pattern books shows us the numerous printed designs that were produced, but the fabric samples do not always give a sense of what the end product was actually used for. Sources such as newspapers and surviving garments help us to see how Turkey red dyed and printed cotton was used in Britain.

Whole dresses in Turkey red prints were commonly made and fashionable in the early decades of the nineteenth century, with several surviving in museum collections such as Platt Hall in Manchester. Turkey red shirts for men were also manufactured. At a time when the woven Paisley shawl was still fashionable, Scotland produced and exported printed cotton shawls with fringes, with many also sold at home. Indeed, an auction of damaged piece goods in Glasgow in 1845 comprised thousands of such shawls in Turkey red and yellow or white, as well as ‘Swiss fancy shawls’, which were saved from the barque Valpariaso, which had been wrecked on a voyage from Liverpool to South America.

Children’s garments

By the second half of the century, manufactured ready-made clothing in Turkey red was mostly for practical wear, such as aprons, or was for children, where durability and frequent washing qualities had an obvious appeal. One of the more unusual lines of children’s ready-made garments was one-piece bathing dresses for boys and girls, where the market was among the middle classes or those prosperous families of skilled workers who could afford an annual seaside holiday. Examples of such garments, which were trimmed with white braid or tape, and sometimes included detachable skirts for girls, have survived in the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London. Several still have labels stating the manufacturer’s name – United Turkey Red Co. – with the declaration ‘Genuine Turkey Red’ and, in once instance, a retail price of 1s 9 1/2d.

Work wear

Printed handkerchiefs and bandannas were an export staple and were produced in their millions throughout the life of the industry, but they were also consumed at home. Male factory hands in the Vale of Leven wore them around the neck as work wear for mopping up their sweat and working class women often wore them as decorative scarves and shawls. The prominent use of such handkerchiefs was noted on the Isle of St Kilda in 1886, where, having endured over eight months of isolation due to bad weather, the St Kildians came out in celebration in June 1886 to greet the first ship to make landfall with news and supplies. As reported in the Glasgow Herald, the men were dressed in heavy garments made of blanketing and were ‘muffled’ up to their ears in big coarse cravats twisted round their necks ‘roll after roll.’ The women, however, ‘made a much more picturesque group’. They were barefoot, with short petticoats and dresses to their knees and for their headdress ‘disported’ bright Turkey red napkins, which were worn at all times.

Home dressmaking

Women had always made some of their own and their families clothing by hand, but the introduction of the domestic sewing machine transformed this activity from the 1860s. Dressmaking required cutting skills that few home dressmakers possessed, but some enterprising businesswomen in the bespoke dressmaking trade would also sell ready-cut out materials for sewing up at home. Commercial paper patterns, dressmaking magazines like Weldon’s Home Dressmaker (first published in 1888) and published dress cutting systems were widely available by the end of the century and gave ordinary women, through their own efforts and trusty sewing machine, access to fashionable clothing and styles as never before. 

The availability of sewing machines and cheap cotton textiles from high street drapers in even the smallest towns meant that housewives sometimes also turned their attention to patchwork quilt making, with many examples of these surviving in local museums. The names of these domestic quilters are mostly long forgotten, but the provenance of one unusual case is well documented. It is a large and spectacular quilt in the collections of the McManus Museum and Gallery in Dundee, which was made by Nicholas White of Dundee, a steward on a whaling ship in the late nineteenth century. The quilt comprises over a hundred differently designed textile samples, mostly in Turkey red, which were probably taken from manufacturers’ pattern books. It is assumed that Nicholas White did the quilting while at sea and the design is one that was common in Scotland and Ireland at that time. How he acquired the pattern books is unknown, but perhaps, like the fabric that was purchased by female home dressmakers and quilters on land, they were also part of a sale of salvaged stock.

  • Young children, boy in breeches

    Young children, boy in breeches
  • Red and white checked

    Red and white checked
  • Black and red small print patterns

    Black and red small print patterns
  • Red spots on black ground

    Red spots on black ground


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Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Home markets.’

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