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In early Ireland, dyeing was considered to be a somewhat magical process, and was strictly a women's craft, there being a taboo on dyeing fabric in the presence of men. The book of Lismore contains a passage in which St. Ciaran's mother tells him to go out of the house, since it is unlucky to have men in the house while dyeing cloth. He curses the cloth so that it dyes unevenly, then later recants. There were also rules about which days of the month or week were proper for dyeing -- the information not recorded in this source). (Bríd Mahon, Traditional Dyestuffs in Ireland, p. 116). Dyers also had a reputation for being herbal healers, since many dyestuffs were also used in folk medicine. (Mahon, p. 122)
Many Highland dye recipes involve steeping the wool for as long as several days or even weeks in order to achieve the proper depth of color and degree of fastness. This is sometimes attributed to the harsher quality of Highland wool. (Kok, p. 224)
Linen is particularly hard to dye; however, indigin (as contained in woad, and, later, in imported indigo dye) and the purple from Murex snails do dye linen, as they adhere to the surface of the fiber rather than penetrating the fiber as most other dyes do.
The word for dyestuffs in the Book of Leinster is 'ruaman'; the root word is 'ruam' or red -- which reinforces the idea that the Celts loved bright colors and wore them as much as possible (Joyce, vol. 2, p. 357). More information on dyes and dyeing can be found at: Natural Dyes Mailing List.
-- A link to 14th c. German dye recipes -- shows what was being done elsewhere in medieval Europe
-- Color in Lowerclass Elizabethan Clothing -- shows what was being done elsewhere in the British Isles
-- To make a Beautiful Colour -- Period Dyes in the 16th Century
The term 'saffron', as used to describe Irish and Scottish leinte, is used to describe the color of the linen. The color is actually derived from weld, a plant that yields a light, clear yellow:
The truth is that the old English saffron does not mean crocus but any yellow colour, and generally distinguishes the weld, still retained in many parts of England and the very plant the Irish call Buídhe Mór, or Great Yellow. With this they dye their linen and fine woolen stuffs with different degrees of colour and fix the colour with urine. The yellow thus obtained is bright and lasting. (J. C. Walker, Materials used by the Ancient Irish, quoted in Brid Mahon, p. 118-119)
Other materials used to obtain a saffron-yellow include poplar bark and leaves, heather, Meadowsweet (Airgead Luachra; produces a pale yellow), sorrel, gorse blossoms, onion skins, a species of lichen (called Féasóg Ghabair or Dath na gCloch) and Mare's Tail (Cáiti Collagan). (Mahon, p. 119)
In a recent workshop on natural dyes, we got a yellow very similar to that yielded by weld using the leaves of the sweetgum tree, using alum as a mordant. The workshop was held in mid-May; I don't know if the results would be different using leaves gathered later in the year.
A mordant (from a French word meaning 'to bite') is a substance applied to fibers before dyeing which helps the dye adhere to the fibers. The type of mordant used will usually affect the end color of the fabric. Mordants used in Ireland and Scotland included:
Animal Dyes: Kermes (an insect related to Cochineal); Murex snail (Murex; Purpura lapillus -- known in Ireland in 7th c. CE, possibly earlier) (Mahon, pp.116-117)
Vegetable Dyes: The roots, leaves, flowers, or bark of plants; different parts of the plant sometimes yield different colors.
Lichens: usually require no mordant, as they are very 'fast' (permanent) dyes. They were usually gathered in July and August, dried in the sun, and used without mordants to dye wool in an iron dyepot. The lichens were fermented with fual (stale urine) for as long as three weeks over low heat. Ammonia can be used for modern dyeing instead. Dyeing time might be up to four hours, or even longer for deeper, more color-fast dyes.
-- Article on Orchil Dye
Some of these dyestuffs are listed several times; this might indicate some confusion on the part of the person gathering the information; but some plants can be used to obtain different colors, using different dyeing techniques and mordants.
The lower classes were most likely to wear saffron and black. Trews and cloaks were also frequently dyed black. (Mahon, p. 121)
In Uibh Ráthach, Contae Chiarra they never let children wear white underclothes lest they be swept away by the puca and as a safeguard they picked sceochan na gcloch, to dye the garment a yellowish brown. (Mahon, p. 122)
George Buchanan, in his History of Scotland (1580), writes that the favorite colors of Highlanders were blue and purple. The blue was most likely obtained using woad (Isatis tinctoria), which contains the dye indigotin. In later periods, blue indigo dye was imported from India, where it is derived from the indigo plant. It is easier to get indigin out of the indigo plant than it is from woad, since indigo contains a higher level of indigin pigment than woad does, so it takes less plant material to get the desired dye. The procedure for getting the indigotin out of the plant material (used either for woad or for indigo) is a lengthy and finicky process involving the fermentation of the plant material and several other steps too complex to go into here (see the link to The Woad Page for further information). Indigo dye, either synthetic or natural, can be obtained from several sources, including Earthguild, along with instructions for making an indigo dye vat using modern powdered chemicals rather than the traditional stale urine, lime water or wood ash lye from which these chemicals were originally derived.