Category:Colours and dyes
One of the trickiest aspects of authenticity is advising on choice of colour and fabric. A very common question asked of the authenticity team is “is this shade/material OK?”. Unfortunately it can be difficult to answer without some qualifying information, such as “what status are you portraying?” or “can I have a look at it?”.
Remember that all fabric had to be spun, woven and dyed by hand. The cloth for a kyrtle may have represented several months of manual labour for the women, children and slaves of a household. Fabric was a valuable and precious commodity and should be looked after carefully.
- A very informative basic dyeing guide is available, with thanks to Jane Richardson.
- An article by Thor Ewing on File:Ewing T - 'Coloured Clothes in Medieval Scandinavian Literature and', online 2007.pdf.
- The authentic dyeing background page illustrates a range of likely colours.
For lower status characters, fabrics should not be in bright or strong colours – they should be relatively pale or washed out, since cheap vegetable dyes lose their colour quickly. Ideally, lower-status characters should have clothes that look well-worn, a bit faded and generally ‘lived in’ – exactly as they would have been.
Bright or intense colours
Higher status characters may have fabrics in colours that are fresh and clear – i.e. not washed-out. ‘Strong’ colours either involve higher-quality dyes (more expensive) or more than one dye-treatment (more expensive), so they are restricted to high status.
At no point should any fabric be in a colour that in any way resembles the result of a highlighter pen. If the adjectives “hot”, “electric”, “neon”, “lurid” or an equivalent could be used for it, it is almost certainly not authentic!
Shades to avoid
Intense or pure black, white, purple and crimson should be avoided at all costs since they are prohibitively expensive to achieve with vegetable dyes.
The only permissible exceptions are:
- very high status characters (i.e. kings, queens, bishops, ealdormen, earls).
- ecclesiastical vestments, where bleached white albs were used, and black monastic habits were made (often over-dyed with deep blue woad).
Bleached white fabric
Although modern bleached white linen is too white for most garments, it was possible to create reasonably pure white clothing. This process involves soaking the cloth in stale urine and then exposing the wet cloth to sunlight, the being stretched on frames whilst it dries. With the addition of pummelling the cloth by walking on it whilst its in the urine wash (similar to crushing grapes by foot), this became known as ‘fulling’.
Undyed white wool was used for socks, whilst a mixture of undyed white and dark brown wool was used for cloaks. Only the poorest classes used undyed wool for kyrtles and trousers if they simply could not afford the dye; pale and washed-out colours are equally acceptable, reflecting cheap but quick to fade dyes.
Linen is difficult to dye and undyed garments have been found. Linen was probably used in the main for under-garments.