Although textile remains from the early Anglo-Saxon period are quite rare, painstaking analysis by textile archaeologists including Elizabeth Grace Crowfoot, Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, and Penelope Walton Rogers reveal tantalising glimpses of the surprisingly colourful world of Anglo-Saxon and Viking Age textiles.
Having explored and experimented with plant-dyes for a number of years, we present here two projects to produce garments of the very brightest colours we could achieve with home grown plant dyes.
A wide range of shades, from white through creams to greys and browns, and even black were achievable simply by means of sorting sheep fleece before spinning, or by different retting techniques and sun-bleaching of plant fibres like flax, hemp and nettle-fibre.
In the Anglo-Saxon period there seems to have been an increase in access to purer white wools, and with it came expansion of potential for bright colours from dyeing using techniques which first began to be practised in North Europe in the late Iron Age.
Many native plants can be used for dyeing yet relatively few specific plant dyes appear in the archaeology; most famously, indigo blue from woad (Isatis tinctoria), luteolin yellow from weld (Reseda luteola) or dyers greenweed (Genista tinctoria), and reddish colours (alazarin) from the roots of various bedstraws including most famously, dyers madder (Rubia tinctorum). The latter, though popular among the Romans, is peculiarly all but absent from early Anglo-Saxon archaeology, returning tentatively in the 7th century, usually in expensive trim. Other dyes (tannins, lilacs and purples from lichen varieties, and others) were in use, but many secondary colours are possible simply by overdyeing these three principle plant dyes, but also through modification using alternative mordants and additives.
Plant-dyed cloth has a particular quality in terms of look and lustre that is hard to simulate or even adequately describe, and there is therefore more than just an intangible payoff for living historians pursuing truly plant-dyed costumes. It is further, false to assume that "plant dyed" means "dull", "soft" or "pastel" tones, as the results of successful plant-dyeing can be blindingly bright, though often fading with time. The affinity of light, natural de-greased wool for dyes is quite staggering, and only enhanced by mordants. Plant fibres, on the other hand, do not have a strong affinity for dyes, and at best, plant dyes produce softer hues on them. To what extent the Anglo-Saxons used plant dyes on the likes of linen is a matter of debate; there is next to no evidence of dyed linen in the archaeology, though it could be argued this is an artefact of preservation, with pigments more likely to be retained (to be detected by scientific analysis) in wool, over 1000 years in the earth, compared to linen.
Over a number of years, our team (members Lindsey and Æd in particular) have been exploring plant-dyeing, experimenting on various scales, with various dyes and recipes, drawing on the advise of a number of more experienced experts. We are particularly indebted to the Mulberry Dyer, Deb Bamford, for her guidance and expertise. Plant dyeing has a satisfying "alchemical" quality, often involving mysterious colour changes, odd ingredients, and not uncomplicated recipes.
Though not knowing the actual chemistry underpinning the process, generations of experimentation and the sharing of expertise would have led to an intuitive understanding of how to achieve good results, and it is interesting to speculate how the process by which these particular leafy greens and stale urine, when associated, can be used for dyeing. Traditional herbalism holds that woad leaves can be used as wound-dressings, and as one of the most ancient "cleaning agents" stale urine may have been used by ancient people to clean wounds. If both were applied together, ancient people may have found that their skin magically turned blue as the dressing was taken off, and through this, would have become aware of this mechanism of dyeing.
It is not a simple case of leaving the fabric in, either, for the ammonia will as readily reduce the dye already in the fabric and allow it to leach out. After days of trying we managed to get pale and patchy blues on some cloth samples; proof of concept if nothing else. We're confident, or at least are prepared to trust, that a larger, more well fed, and more "mature" vat could easily and reliably produce better colours and on a larger scale, but we are happy to leave this to other intrepid dyers with stronger stomachs.
It should be noted that while the foulness of this business can be washed from the fabric, after the dye has fully oxidised in the air, it may reek again if it gets wet. Not keen on this prospect at living history events, and wishing to demonstrate the full potential of woad-dyeing, for our exemplar costume item we made a small concession to modern chemistry and used a modern reducing agent (spectralite) to fully reduce the dye, allowing it to dissolve.
We finished the dress with brightly coloured 6th century Snartemo-V-style tabletweave in madder red, weld yellow, and woad-weld green.
As previously noted madder-dye is rare in the early Anglo-Saxon archaeological record, and is gradually re-introduced during the 7th century. Its scarcity may at least partly be accounted for by the fact that madder dyeing (more-so than the extremely strong yellow dyes) is particularly reliant on expensive mordants and as the pigment's colour changes with pH, acidic mordants such as natural tannins are not a good choice.
At least as far back as the medieval period the mordant of choice was potash alum (potassium aluminium sulfate). This mainly Mediterranean-sourced mineral would have been difficult to access in the early Anglo-Saxon period, and it has been suggested locally sourced clubmoss could have been used instead, though this cannot have been sufficient to sustain the late Anglo-Saxon dye industry, which may have returned to the gold standard of mordants; alum.
Using a large non-reactive vat, a means of maintaining a temperature of roughly 45'C, and a fairly enormous amount of chopped madder root, we dyed a bolt of the very same diamond twill fabric mentioned above.
This was first stripped of any grease, soaked in a concentrated mordant vat, and then introduced to the hot dye-bath, where it soaked for 5 days. This duration was not necessary but contributed to the depth of colour. Importantly, because of the slow and gentle "soaking" nature of non-substantive dyes, the fabric took up the colour evenly. The fabric was removed, dried, washed thoroughly, and dried again. It had shrunk somewhat in the process, possibly due to the heat and duration of the dye process. If repeating, we would likely try a slighly cooler dyebath.
Intended as a cloak, this bolt of wool had its warp ends tied into tassels, while the edges were enhanced with our own woven Snartemo-II tablet-weave, woven with yarns we had previously dyed with woad and weld.
Both garments demonstrate the vivid colours available to our ancestors. Having been dyed "in the cloth" the colour is uniform rather than alternating, with the weave pattern only visible as texture. Though it is likely the majority of dyeing was done "in the wool/yarn", colour-patterning so often seen on Anglo-Saxon living historians' costumes is actually rare in the Anglo-Saxon archaeological record, and hardly ever occurs, even in better preserved late Anglo-Saxon textiles. The look of this wool, with its subtle diamond pattern but single colour, is therefore arguably more representative of these finds.
Owen-Crocker, G.R., 2004. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Boydell Press.
Rogers, P.W., 2007. Cloth and clothing in early Anglo-Saxon England, AD 450-700 (No. 145). Council for British Archeology.
The Mulberry Dyer. [Online] https://www.mulberrydyer.co.uk/