Thursday, April 29, 2021


16th Century Dyes:  The Color Blue

If we see blue mentioned as one of the three premium dyes included in the Sumptuary laws, are we to conclude that wearing blue was mainly for the wealthy?

This color is particularly confusing and controversial. There were said to be two main sources for rendering blue dyes: Woad - which was indigenous to England and readily available, and Indigo which was imported from Asia.

One source makes assertions that blue (from woad) was so expensive that, "...One barrel of woad could be used to dye three pieces of cloth. A burgher's (middle class) wife might pay as much for one dress as she might to buy a small house." (Dyes from Plants, Seonaid M. Robertson, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1983). Other sources I've found state that in England the color blue was so common it became known as the color of servitude (servants). I wonder how a dye can be both so expensive that one dress dyed from woad could cost the same as a small house, yet at the same time become so commonly worn among servants that it became synonymous or suggestive that one worked as a servant.

On a website in the UK dedicated to the history of Woad I found the following:

"Woad is native to the Mediterranean, originating in Turkey and the Middle East, from where it spread into Europe. As early as the Neolithic, 5 to 10,000 years ago, woad seeds were stored for future use. . . Blue-couloured bast fibre, presumed to be linen or hemp dyed with woad, was found in the French cave of l'Adaouste, Bouches-du-Rhone."

"Woad and indigo were used by the ancient Egyptians: dyes have been found on cloth of about 2500 BC, and later mummy wrappings, though they were apparently not in common use until 300 BC. Linen is a difficult fiber to dye, so color was used sparingly, mainly in the border of fabrics.

"Blue-dyed textiles were found in the Hallstatt chieftain burial sites of Hochdorf and Hohmichele, Bavaria (800 to 400 BC).

An Iron Age grave from the first century AD, located at Loenne Heath (L√łnne Hede) close to Varde, Denmark, was found to contain a young girl wearing a blue dress, comprising a blue blouse and skirt, with edgings and borders in an intricate blue and red pattern. The blue colour is said to come from woad."

A box of woad seeds were also included in the 9th century (835 AD) Oseberg royal ship burial in Norway. The queen was dressed in a red dress of wool-muslin decorated with silk, but the second woman was dressed in a blue twill woolen dress dyed with woad."

It seems that the discrepancy lies within what type of dye was used by those employed as servants, and perhaps even the date.

From my research, and what I've gleaned from the research of others, it appears evident that Woad dye was used more commonly due to the availability of the plant used to produce it. However, while it was indeed common and a lucrative business for England, it was a painstaking process to produce it.

One source I found states the process of producing blue dye from woad included fermenting for many weeks in manure which had to be constantly stirred. While another states it involved soaking the leaves from three days to one week in human urine, ideally urine from men who had been drinking a great deal of alcohol - which was said to improve the color of the dye.  Whether or not both processes are factual, remains unanswered, but urine was used in the 16th Century to produce "ammonia" to whiten linens; so it is not a far stretch to believe urine would be used in the fermentation process for woad, which would make it a rather smell affair.  Here are some samples of fibers dyed in Woad.

I have to consider whether or not the Sumptuary Laws instituted by Elizabeth was referring to dyes rendered by the use of Indigo or Woad rather than a blanket restriction on the color of blue.

Wikipedia (which is NOT a wholly accurate resource) states that blue became a common color for clothing during the Renaissance, just as we will read Pope Pius claimed. But how is that possible if the only reliable dye source in England was rendered from Woad, and one barrel could cost as much as a single house?

I think we have to assume that there were other dye stuff that was used to render blue dyes, and in fact, I will show you an example of one source that became very popular as a 'knock-off' for Woad.  However, it should also be noted that those employed as servants by the Landed Gentry, nobility, and royalty were not members of the lower or labor class (the poorest class), but were more often than not members of the middle or yeoman class. Also of note, if a servant was dressed poorly it reflected on the financial success of the family who employed them; therefore, it might be plausible that servants would have worn blue dyed liveries (uniforms) provided by their wealthy employers; which could account for blue being considered "too common" or synonymous with servitude.

Furthermore, it may be of interest to note that those who served the King or Queen (more specifically those assigned as ladies and gentleman of the privy chambers) - and were in closest proximity to them on a daily basis, would have been chosen from among the noble houses. Servants working in the King's (or Queen's) house, i.e., household, cooks, laundress, etc., would also have come from the upper middle class. They would have been better dressed than the poorer classes; while not in the same manner as those among the titled nobility or the untitled landed gentry, but they would not have been dressed in rags as it would reflect poorly on the Queen or King. While woad may have been too expensive for a commoner (a day laborer, shop-keeper, etc.,) or those among the lower classes to wear, there were many other plant sources from which blue dyes could be rendered.

For instance, while the following sources would not provide a dye that was as fast (long-lasting) as Woad or Indigo, plants such as dogwood bark, blueberries, logwood, cherry roots, and cornflower petals - just to name a few - could be used to render blue dyes.

I read one particular individual's argument that the lower classes would not use or wear clothing dyed from these types of natural sources because they faded too fast, and that the lower classes in the16th Century would not have "time" to redye their clothing - being too busy eeking out a living in the fields, etc.  Since there is more information available about the upper classes than those in the lower classes, this assertion is mere speculation; or in other words, "individual opinion" without any documentation to support it.

One dye that came into common use to render blue dye was Logwood. However, it wasn't used much until 1575. John H Munro's "Early Modern Techniques of Dyeing Black" states that in the early to mid 16th Century the Spanish discovered large stands of Logwood trees in South America. The importation of Logwood was banned in 1581 by Parliament. It has been suggested by some sources I found in the SCA that Logwood dyes and dyed materials were banned because it was competing with the Woad industry in England, and in some cases were being passed off as Woad, only to eventually fade to an ugly brown, and my research suggests there is validity to that claim.

The picture to the left is yarn and linens dyed with Logwood.


Depending upon the mordants used it rendered red, blue, or black. In "Color: A Natural History of the Palette" on page 98, the author states it was banned by Parliament "...because the colors produced from it [Logwood] were of a fugacious character [meaning it faded quickly], and pretended they were looking after the interests of the users, although the fact that it represented a profit for the Spaniards cannot have helped."

So again we see some evidence that due to this dye source being imported by the Spaniards  it was regulated or banned, using the excuse that it was an inferior dye. In reality, it wasn't as color fast as Woad, but it was less expensive and because England did trade large quantities of goods from Spain, it is likely to have been available, which would compete with England's Woad trade. England appears happy to trade goods with the Spain, so long as those goods did not offer competition for items that were lucrative.

Summing it up, woad blue was used as far back as the First Century A.D. Its production reached its zenith in the 1500s. Since Woad and Indigo were considered to be premium dyes (premium as in expensive and highly desired), and blue mentioned was specifically in Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws, I think it wise to assume that the Middle Class and Upper classes were definitely wearing blue. However, if the commons did wear blue, the question remains: What dyes did they use, since Woad and Indigo were too expensive?  It appears by the reports of abuse of Logwood and passing it off as "woad" dyed, that blue was indeed commonly worn.Unfortunately, I cannot answer that definitively. Therefore, I would take my cues from the exact "fabrics" mentioned in Elizabethan Sumptuary laws, as well as recommend royal blue and dark indigo blue for those among the gentry and nobility, and other shades of blue for those portraying household among either of the aforementioned classes.

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