‘Turkey red’ is a complex dyeing process which produced a bright, fast red. Find out how this centuries old process came from the east to Scotland, how the Vale of Leven in Dunbartonshire became one of the main centres of production, and about some of the firms who were involved.

Introduction

The Turkey red dyeing process was typically used on cotton cloth and yarn and was produced in large quantities in the nineteenth century. The dyeing process used natural alizarin, which was extracted from madder root, along with mordants of oil and alum to fix the dye to the cloth. Other natural but unpleasant substances, including sheep dung, bullocks’ blood and urine, were also used in a complex, secretive and lengthy dyeing process that gave a highly valued colour that did not fade in bright sunlight or with frequent washing. The fabric produced was sold as plain red, but was also printed with elaborate and colourful patterns for many uses in Britain and abroad.

Although produced for centuries in the east (hence the name) it was not until the late eighteenth century that European dyers perfected the Turkey red process. It was brought to Scotland by a French entrepreneur in 1785 and quickly adopted by a number of manufacturers with factories on the banks of the River Clyde and in the Vale of Leven in Dunbartonshire. It was a large industry, employing many thousands in the mid and later nineteenth century, producing millions of yards of dyed and printed cloth and yarn, which was mainly for export.  

  • Spotted hankie with undulating lines in border

    Spotted hankie with undulating lines in border
  • Marshall St Arnaud

    Marshall St Arnaud
  • Paisley shapes in wavy lines

    Paisley shapes in wavy lines
  • Peacocks in a paisley shape and large peacock right

    Peacocks in a paisley shape and large peacock right
  • White stripes on red ground

    White stripes on red ground
  • Black stylised flowers on red ground

    Black stylised flowers on red ground


Though competitive and profitable, the Scottish Turkey red industry faced challenges from Manchester production and by the end of the nineteenth century was gradually undermined by Asian manufactures and the development of cheaper synthetic dyes from Germany. In an effort to protect their businesses, the three prominent Vale of Leven firms, William Stirling and Sons, John Orr Ewing and Co. and Archibald Orr Ewing and Co., amalgamated to form the United Turkey Red Company Ltd in 1898. The UTR continued production to 1961, when their final factory closed, bringing the industry to an end after almost 200 years.  

Next: Printed cottons in Scotland >

Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Turkey red in Scotland.’

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