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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

Natural dyes

The plants woad, weld, madder and sumach, used in the production of natural dyes and shown floweringThe plants woad, weld, madder and sumach, used in the production of natural dyesBefore the advent of widespread industrial processes producing synthetic dyes, mankind utilised dyes from many plants (and animals) to colour varieties of textiles and themselves.

The four plants shown here are examples of those historically used in dyeing materials. Woad is indigenous to Britain and was used by ancient Britons to stain their bodies blue and as a skin emollient.

Along with woad, weld (yellow) and madder (red) were the most important dyes of the medieval period and were widely traded across Europe and Asia.

The narrative in this book explains in detail how best to cultivate plants to provide the highest quality of dyes and the often detailed processes used to extract dyes from the plants.

By 1874, when this book was published, the synthetic processes brought about by the advances of the Industrial Revolution had replaced these techniques with cheaper, more productive and effective synthetic dyes.

The other plant shown here is Venetian sumach, a less well known dye grown in Italy and the south of France. The colour obtained from this plant is described as ‘extremely fugitive ... employed merely as an accessory colour to heighten cochineal and other dyes’.

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