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 others, 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.
What is required is a reducing agent; a chemical which will strip the oxygen from the dye molecules. Through this, the indigotin (insoluble) is converted to indoxyl, which is soluble and can soak into the fabric, although this will rapidly turn back to insoluble indigotin on contact with air. Through this process, temporarily soluble dye can enter the network of fibres which comprise the cloth or yarn, but afterwards transform to insoluble powder within its matrix and, for the most part, cannot wash back out. But what reducing agent? As with so many ancient and medieval crafts and industries, the answer was urine. Specifically the ammonia which is produced by its fermentation. This foul business is the reason dye industries tended, along with tanning, to be banished to the outskirts of medieval and later settlements.
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.
In practice, at least on a small (bucket with lid) scale, our experience of woad-dyeing with urine was frustrating as well as foul. The fabric would come out of the green vat vaguely pale green, and turn pale blue on contact with air, but weak activity of the reducing agent often meant that it would be wholly used-up reacting with air introduced along with the cloth or yarn, and take a day or two to regenerate.
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.
A bolt of fine diamond-twill wool, of a kind frequently preserved on the back of early Anglo-Saxon brooches, was the starting point for a 6th century Anglo-Saxon dress, which was then dipped multiple times into an active woad vat; entering white, absorbing the yellow to green dye, and then spectacularly converting to brilliant blue on contact with air. Additional, shorter dips (long enough to allow more dye to soak in, but not so long that the dye already locked in would be attacked by the reducing agent) allowed the colour to be made deeper and stronger, and to even out some patchiness. Pale and dark patches occur as the vat typically will have "blooms" of concentrated dye near the surface, while, additionally, in any one dip, it may be difficult to ensure the whole bolt of fabric is fully submerged without trapping bubbles. Dyeing "in the yarn", however, would mean any variation in shade would even out once it was woven, and it may be that this approach predominated.
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.
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.
Wary of piercing this fine fabric, tiny loops in the tablet-weave were integrated as it was stitched on, which provide attachment points for a brooch without pushing a pin through the weave.
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. The look of this wool, with its subtle diamond pattern but single colour, is therefore arguably more representative of a majority of finds.