A few weeks ago, our entire research centre travelled to Lejre, Denmark, to spend four days at the experimental archaeology reserach centre (Sagnlandet) to learn how textiles were prepared and dyed centuries ago. During the first two days, using real firewood to heat up the water, and locally grown plants such as woad and madder to dye our woollen samples, we were guided in this amazing coutryside setting by Fria Gemynthe through the processes of historical dying, creating some fantastic hues of yellows, oranges, browns, purples, blues, and greens. Just look at how beautifully the different of colours of naturally dyed wool, bathing in sunshine, have taken in the colours!
The first task of the dye-workshop was to set the fire going and heat up the water. We were lucky to have our Spanish colleague Miguel Angel in our team, because he absolutely loved chopping firewood!
When the water was heated up to 90 celcius degress, the undyed wool yarn samples could be placed in the in mordant bath. The purpose of the mordant (we used alum and cream of tartar) is both to bind the colours as well as to make them brighter.
While the wool was soaking in the mordant, we prepared the dyestuffs, using local plants: tansy for yellow, woad (or indigo) for blue, weld for green and madder for red. Some of the recipes required quite complex calcuations. Below our director Marie-Louise Nosch and our long-term reseracher Mary Harlow are working out the maths for a dye recipe, which was then written down on the black board.
Most of the plants that we used were grown in the experimental reserach centre’s own garden. Below is a bucketfull of locally grown dried tansy, that gave the wool a beautiful, warm yellow colour. We also tried weld, which normally gives a bright yellow colour, but our samples did not turn out well.
The red wool, died with madder, turned out absolutely stunning! However, since madder is not the most effective red colourant, our flax samples (seen in the pictures below) did not take in much colour.
This is the reason why in the past, the most expensive crimson reds in textiles and clothing were dyed using intensive and expensive dyestuff, the kermes and the cochineal (produced from the bodies and eggs of a small type of insect). For the high cost and prestige of the colour, these reds were reserved only for the most welathy and powerful members of society.
We created blue using waod and indigo, and, by mixing woad with tansy and weld, we got an amazing green that was almost greener than the nature itself!
By the end of the workshop, we had a great variety of colours, inlcuding orange (mix of madder and weld) and purple (mixing madder, cochineal and woad). We tied all the samples in neat bundles according to Fria’s instructions, and took them back to our study rooms to be used in our teahcing and research.
What did this experience teach us? The re-creation of the dying process really made me understand the value of colour in the Renaissance period, for the complex and expensive process of dying, from getting and fire wood and water to growing or obtaining the dyestyff, processing and preparing it, mordanting, and controling the fire and water tempreature all required a lot of time, technical knoweldge and patience.
Our research centre, the Centre for Textile Research, is specialised in the study of experimental archaeology. Scholars working especially on pre-historic textiles have used and developed a wide variety of hands-on techniques to make the invisible ancient textiles, crafts and production techniques visible. We are currently planning to set up a workhop, where we think about issues such as how a historian such as myself can benefit from experimental archaeology, and what is the difference bewteen experimental and experience archaeology.
You can read more about our workhsop in Sagnlandet in Lejre from an article (‘Forskere går på eventyr i forhistorien) in Videnskap dk at http://videnskab.dk/kultur-samfund/forskere-gar-pa-eventyr-i-forhistorien