Since we discovered how to transform plants into articles of clothing, as an inherently creative species, we have probably also pondered how we can beautify and enhance an unnecessarily dull piece of garb and elevate it in order to make a more decorative and interesting garment. Perhaps rather like the lady in this wonderful Mexican-inspired assemblage. Creative.

Outlandish habillements

Outlandish habillements. Photo by Eva Rinaldi

Some of the earliest archaeological  evidence of dyeing comes from Mohenjo-daro, or ‘The Mound of the Dead’ in the Sindh province in Pakistan.

Textile (cotton) artefacts have been recovered from the archaeological site, which was a huge settlement and one of the first notable early ‘cities’ in the modern sense of the word. The artefacts recovered from Sindh have included pieces of cotton dyed with a madder-based (Rubia tinctorum) vegetable dye, and Indigo, (Indigofera tinctoria) from an ancient dyeworks:

‘One of the greatest accomplishments of the subcontinent was the development of the technology of dyeing and patterning of fabric. This is evident from the discovery of a dyer’s workshop at Mohenjodaro. . Indigofera tinctoria, source of the most fabled dye, grew in abundance on the banks of the River Indus. Over time various embroidery techniques were developed in the quest to further embellish the fabrics’  (Article from The Free Library, Bilgrami, Noorjehan, 2008)

Common madder

Common madder

Common madder (Rubia tinctorum) produces anthraquinone pigments in its roots, one of them being alizarin (1,2 dihydroxy anthraquinone) which has been used for dyeing textiles since 2000 B.C.’

The incredibly long, thick roots of the common madder (Rubia tinctorum) are a source of red dyes generally known as ‘rose madder’ and ‘turkey red‘, the intensity of the final colour depending on the type and amount of mordant (dye fixing agent) used.

Variety of colours from common madder root natural dye

Variety of colours from common madder root natural dye

A celebration of colour in India, the spring festival of Holi (translated as ‘burning’) sees the fury and vibrancy of reds and oranges, cadmiums, and siennas, moody blues and verdant greens thrown every which way over the human body.


Primarily, Holi is a celebration of the beginning of the new season. There is also evidence in Indian literature that it has been a celebration of agriculture, good spring harvests and fertility – (which has latterly been transposed onto married women). In the Hindu faith, it is commonly seen as a  time to enjoy the new proliferation of spring colours.

Some participants in Holi still prepare plant-based pigments derived from Butea monosperma, a beautiful tree with flaming blossoms  indigenous to tropical and sub-tropical Asia. The flowers are crushed to yield a bright yellow dye.

Beauteous Butea

Beauteous Butea

The festival ushers in the dominance of good over evil and the arrival of spring. Traditionally it is a day of forgiveness and an opportunity to socialise, heal rifts in relationships, and generally have a darn good hoot. Holi is celebrated at the approach of vernal equinox, and is closely linked with the full moon falling closest to it.

As a colour steeped in mystery and royal mythology, purple is an interesting colour case history. ‘Royal Purple’ or Tyrian Purple, was the colour of choice for the gods and kings of the ancient Greeks (and more latterly of diminutive purple pop-professor Prince – legend has it he still insists of Tyrean methods to embellish his raiments. (Not actually true).

Prince's gloves & Madge's underwear

Prince’s purple gloves, (bottom left) Madge’s underwear and a hat from a Rolling Stones tour at the Hard Rock Cafe in Toronto. Photo Toms Bauģis

The purple dye known as Tyrean or Royal Purple was extracted from the mucous glands of Mediterranean Murex brandaris (a species of mollusc) by the Canaanites and Phoenicians. It was initially extremely costly and time consuming to extract – four million molluscs for one pound of dye (hence the preserve of the regal).

The pauper’s version of Royal Purple could be simulated using a lichen, Roccella tinctoria. Unfortunately it was just as stinky and unpleasant as the Phoenician city of Tyre (famed for Tyrean Purple) and its overwhelming stench of rotting shellfish, because it requires weeks of steeping in ammonia (or piss, to you and me) for the colour to bind.

While Royal Purple is not derived from plants, composite purple dyes can be made by mixing blue dye extracted from Isatis tinctoria (woad) and Indigofera tinctoria (Indigo) with  Rubia tinctorum, (common madder).

Other plants capable of producing purple shades are Morus nigra (Mulberry), Bryonia dioica (white bryony) and Caesalpinia echinata (Brazilwood) using sulphuric acid (or vitriol)  as a mordant. I often employ vitriol myself on people I don’t like. Not the acid version – that would be GBH. Just the less harmful ‘ascerbic tongue’, which runs in the family. And I usually keep it to myself, (where possible).

‘Mauveine’, ‘Perkin’s Mauve’, or ‘Aniline Purple’ was the first synthetic chemical dye to be invented. It was discovered  by William Henry Perkin by accident in 1856, in a failed attempt to sythesize quinine.

Usually I include a Hebden Bridge quip but I can’t find many reasons to joke this week. Before the height of the Industrial Revolution in West Yorkshire, I’ve heard anecdotes that the river Calder was hopping with salmon. From 1850 onwards, there were no fish stocks left, largely as a result of the chemical runoff  industrial dyeworks discharged along the banks.

As a child growing up in Hebden Bridge, I still saw what appeared to be similar practices happening from time to time well into the 1980’s. Apparently fish are now beginning to reappear.

Track of the Week

‘Purple Rain’, by Prince

Art Spot

Purple Paintings ‘Purple Brown’ by Mark Rothko and ‘Purple King’, by Kazuo Sharogo

Also highly recommended viewing: ‘A History of Art in Three Colours’ a triptych of programmes with Dr. James Fox commissioned by BBC4 in 2012.

Book of the Week

‘The Colour Purple’, by Alice Walker

More Blogs on Plant Dyes and the Iconography of Colour

Details of  another  blogger’s  experimental forays into vegetable and natural dyes can be found here. Another interesting blog read on purple is WTFArtHistory.


I have used what appear to be reliable sources, you can find further information on these by clicking on the links. Where I have quoted directly I have provided further information.

Images: Wikimedia Commons, attributions stated where necessary



  1. Pingback: Indigo | Find Me A Cure

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