Thursday, April 29, 2021


Available Colors during the Tudor Dynasty:

There is a long-standing debate about the availability of colors during the Tudor dynasty.

The production of premium dyes, and dyed fibers such as wool, flax, or cotton was big business and caused a great deal of competition among dyers. Just as today we see knock-off's of premium clothing such as Guchi and Prada, etc., so it was during the time of the Tudors with certain dyes.

During the reign of Edward VI, son of Henry VIII & Jane Seymour, around 1553 - 1554, an Act was passed by Parliament for preventing frauds in the woolen fabric manufacture in England. In this Act, there was a statute set forth that the dyers must devote more time to studying their craft rather than making money.

According to another Act passed during the same period, English dyers were limited in the variety of colors they could use. These colors were restricted to Scarlet, red, crimson, murrey, pink, brown, blue, BLACK, green, yellow, orange, tawny, russet, marble-gray, "sad-new-color" - which was a darker tone of gray, azure, watchet (light blue) sheep's color, motley, and iron gray. While they may have been "restricted" to these colors, it bears mentioning that there were a plethora of colors that could be made from these particular colors! They would have been available in different hues and shades - and by this list it does not appear that they were limited to gray, brown, russet, golden yellow, or goose turd green! (Yes - That really was a color!)

Now, we may get the impression that the colors used for clothing during the Tudor dynasty were crude and rather dull, using the colors I just referenced, I would also like to turn your attention to the following facts for you to digest before we go any further:

During the years 1547 to 1158, the silk fibers used to weave 12 panels of tapestry for the Emperor Charles V of Spain, came from Granada gold came from Milan. The artist, Jan Vermeyen, along with 84 hand-picked weavers, set about to complete a masterpiece tapestry which took five years to complete! Fastidious documentation was kept for the dyes used in this tapestry that have survived the ages. When investigated by modern-day historians, they found 83 different tints of colors listed. Those 83 colors were each subdivided into a series of 22 colors in each shade; each of  which again compromised two to five other tones; making the total number of shades or colors used something like 8 thousand!   Numerous tints, subtle hues, and gradations of tone were used to dye the silk for the use of tapestries outside of England, if not inside of England, during that time period. Since nobility were exempt from many of the sumptuary laws, and they spent great fortunes on importing goods, it is not a long stretch to opine that they could have a diverse color pallet from which to choose from in dyeing velvet, satin, silks, and other cloth.

The colors of pale blue, deep blue, violet, peacock blue, rich deep green, rose, purple, wine, orange, gray, green, yellow, gray-blue, sandalwood, lilac, gold, and pink are some of the colors mentioned as being worn by those of higher stations in Ruth Turner Wilcox's "The Mode In Costume."  There are a small group among Elizabethan costume enthusiasts who disagree with this particular resource, because they almost exclusively follow the research of Janet Arnold, but Turner Wilcox discusses the beautiful combinations of colors and fabrics that her research has found to be available - and modern day fiber artists have now proven to be available.

Some may argue with Wilcox's research, however, it is difficult to argue with the actual color samples I have provided that have been rendered from authentic natural dye recipes from the 16th Century sources. Despite Wilcox's critics, I find her references about color helpful to inspire my client's who are planning their noble and middle-class costumes. I also find her sketches inspirational, as I do those of Norris. They offer unique style ideas for those who want something different than the same generic, cookie-cutter Elizabethan style bodice, skirt, and sleeves, i.e.. flat jacquard trim/ribbon sewn in an upside down triangle on the bodice and skirt edges; or geometrically placed trim on the forepart, and the typical hanging French sleeve with padded shoulder roll.

You will see also that those among the Commons were not reduced to wearing drab colors.  There was an assortment of colors obtained from the local plants, berries, and flora of England, as well as in France, Spain, Italy, Holland, and the surrounding countries that were both affordable and available during the Renaissance.

The people of the commons had a wide and vibrant variety of yellows, oranges, and golds, violets, pinks, greens, and blue-greens - - both bright and dark in all these shades, as well as black (Yes, I said BLACK) that has been mentioned in historical resources as being readily available from local plant materials. These colors, while not as harsh or as bright as our present day synthetic dyes, were every bit as vibrant and beautiful!

As more and more historical enthusiasts and fiber artisans attempt to recreate these natural dyes, you can now find resources available that showcase the actual colors that were rendered from vegetable and plant dyes used during the "Renaissance" period, as well as earlier centuries.

One woman in the UK (Jenny Dean) experimented with dyes available to the Celts in Iron-Age Britain (Circa 600 BC - 50 AD). Some of the results of her Celtic dye experiments are seen in the pictured left.

Look at the vibrant colors she has produced! Not at all what you would expect, is it?  I might add that they do seem to support Wilcox's opinions on the variety of colors and dyes available during the 16th Century!

In the additional pictures to the right and below to the left are some of the medieval dyes she's researched. We can see some of the range of possible colors. Notice the lemon yellow, blues, blue-greens, pinks, oranges, mauve, and purple?   The purples are accomplished with the use of "Lichens."

For those who don't believe vibrant dyes would have been available during the Renaissance era, it should be noted that in the Iron Age, the Romans commented on the brightness of the clothing of the native Britons. The result of Jenny Dean's experiments (seen in the pictures above), as well as other dyers, indicates that it was certainly possible to produce bright colors using inexpensive and readily available plants. If the Celts in 600 BC could produce these vibrant colors, they would most certainly be available during the 1500s to 1600s AD.

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