Black Dyes

  • In Use Between 1150 - 1250 AD.
  • A Few Points About The Colour Black, And Its Use In Our Time Period.
    By L. J. M. L.

    There has been some concern among members about the widespread existence of black in clothing and heraldry. In the course of researching other things, several members, most notably Raechel Carroll has discovered that black was not as rare nor as difficult to obtain as was first thought. In the household accounts of a noble woman from the early 13th century, a servant was sent to purchase 10 ells of black fabric. An ell is roughly 45 inches long, so just under a meter. “Ten ells of black serge for only 17s were bought for Richard De Montforte before his departure for Bigorre-this quantity was sufficient for a robe and also trappings for his horse.” Another notable piece of information from this same source says “The articles (of the Guild of Cappers, March 1270) warned against the common fraud of dyeing an old cap black, and reselling it, as new. This particular sharp practise was soon detected as the colour ran in the rain.”

    Black ink as used in illuminations was made with the combination of oak galls, water and iron salts (ferrous sulphate). To make it into ink, a few spoonfuls of gum Arabic or arrowroot were added. The ink looked light grey when first going on to the page, but as it oxidises, it slowly turns black. This combination was taken from a Dover books translation of a text by Cenini. To get a dye for textiles, leave out the gum Arabic/arrowroot, and there you go. If you heat silk in it, you’ll get a dense blue black. On wool, it gives a very, very, dark brown colour. When held next to a modern t-shirt, it looked black, but compared to the silk, it had a definite brownish tinge. This information comes from Jennifer/Rannvik of the Vanaheim Vikings, who had tried the methods suggested above.

    Oak galls are a concentrated source of tannin. If you can’t find oak galls, Jennifer suggested that a similar effect was produced by boiling 3 teabags in a cup water for about a quarter of an hour. It wasn’t as good but overnight, the ink turned a reasonable black. The oak galls improved overnight, even though they had been strained out of the mixture by passing it through a coarse cloth, such as muslin. After leaving the ink overnight, it turned as black as India ink within minutes of being applied to the page.

    If you wanted to be completely period, then rather than using iron sulphate crystals, iron filings or rust would work as a source of iron to blacken the ink. Vegetable tanned leather turns black when exposed to iron rivets and fittings. The iron reacts to the tannin in the leather to produce the same black compound. The oak gall ink dyed wood black also. When the ink was used for writing, as it ran out of the quill, it went a little grey, which meant that to keep the continuity of colour, there was a need to dip the quill more often than would be necessary with Indian ink. Other suggestions for the origin of the colour black within textiles are the combination of overdying woad and walnut several times. This will approximate black, but does tend to fade to grey or brown quicker than the oak gall method. The clergy wore black, which mainly was wool, from the type of black sheep known in northern Europe.

    In the book “The Arcana of Arts and Sciences” by Dr. M. Parker (Washington, US; J. Grayson, 1824) there is the further verification that galls with salts of iron gave the colour black. In this book he continues, by giving several recipes for linen, wool, and silk dyes. It has been shown, by Professor Barber in her book “Women’s Work: The First Million Years”, that it was quite possible to produce a good black on undyed textiles as far back as the Bronze Age. Again, this is utilising the combination of iron fragments, oak galls, and also the addition of vinegar. No quantities are specified however, it is up to the dyer to experiment, but that’s half the fun! Within the SCA publications, Dame Elayne Courtenay (of Carolingia), and her article in the _Pikestaff Arts and Sciences Issue_ of December A.S. XXVI (1991), "Instructions in the Art of Dyeing Black," pp. 51-53, contains useful information.

    There has been archaeological findings too, of one pair of men's pants from Hedeby (10th century Denmark) that were dyed with walnut hulls and iron, and of some early Byzantine samites that included black silk. Additionally, many early Coptic tapestry weaves are catalogued as "purple," although their appearance is a pretty convincing black. Perhaps they were overdyed purple and then saddened with iron.

    Other period sources for black: (dubh-Celtic): Alder (bark with copperas), Blackberry (young shoots w/ salts of iron) bog mire (mud), boiled in iron pot; described as very color-fast dull black; to make glossy black, add oak twigs or chips, alumina (from urine), Dock (roots) , Elder (bark), various lichens, Oak (bark and acorns) Yellow Iris (roots) , Meadowsweet - whole plant, Waterlily (roots), crotal (lichen) . The helpful and informative chart found on the homepage of Mara Reiley, a long time dyer and Celtic re-enactor, which is at , who was kind enough to share this with me via the H-Costume mailing list on the internet.

    The Vikings also used various shades of bright colours including Jet black and brilliant white. Black was made by mixing three of the most expensive dyes: cochineal, woad, and weld, which is a brilliant yellows. This information comes from ‘Annex 2’, “Colours of the Vikings (NFPS)-Equipment Guide No.1-Basic Costume”.

    An excellent source on the Innsbruk manuscript comes via the excellent page by Drea Leed. (I thought I had mentioned this as the home source, but I hadn't...sorry for any confusion there.) A somewhat later primary source for the use and recipes for black dye, comes from the Innsbruck Manuscript. These dye recipies were translated from the Innsbruck Manuscript, which was written circa 1330 AD in Tirol, in what is now western Austria. They are the oldest recipies for fabric dye to be found in the German language. The Innsbruck Manuscript was a great many things: A Latin-German dictionary of fish, insects, birds nad plants, a treatise on astrology, and a collection of household recipies and remedies. The text itself I found in “Ein Buch von Alten Farben” a wonderful work on medieval textiles and dyeing by Emil Ernst Ploss. He included the original text and facsimile of the Innsbruck manuscript, along with commentary and suggestions concerning the identity of the more obscure items used therein.


    Nim grün nusschaln vnd stozz Take green nutshells and grind them
    die vnder einander vnd lazze together and let them rot seven
    das siben tag vaulen in einem days in a (stoneware?) pot, and
    hevelein vnd da mit verb therewith make a black dye.*
    schwarcz varb.

    Swer swarcz varb machen welle, Whoever wants to make black dye,
    der nem aychephel vnd stozze die he takes oak galls and pulverizes
    wol ze puluer vnd alaun dar them and adds alum thereto and
    vnder vnd siude das in perchweis boils it in a skillful way with
    mit alaun vnd in harn vnd verb alum and in urine and dyes
    da mit; wil er tunchel machen, therewith; if he wants to make it
    so mische swarcz varb dar vnder. darker, add black dye thereto.”
    (This also looks a lot neater on Drea's page.)

    These sources prove to me that black was far more common and prevalent in our time period, before our time period and well after our time period and into the current day as to make it more accessible to most members of the nobility. As we are portraying nobility within our persona’s in the Companie I see no reason why the use of black within clothing and so on cannot be allowed.

    Primary sources:
    Innsbruk Manuscript, Tirol, Austria, Holy Roman Empire, 1330
    Labarge, Margaret Wade, A Baronial Household of the 13th Century., Eyre and Spottiswood, England.

    Secondary Sources:
    Anon, Colours of the Vikings (NFPS) Equipment Guide No. 1-Basic Training, Annex 2, 1991
    Barber, Elizabeth, Womens Work: The First Million Years,
    Courtenay, Elayne, “Instructions in the Art of Dyeing Black” , Pikestaff Arts and Sciences, SCA Publications, Carolingia, December A.S XXVI 1991.
    Parker, M, The Arcana of Arts and Sciences, J.Grayson, USA, 1824
    Ploss, Emil Ernst, Ein Buch von Alten Farben

    Tertiary Sources:
    Leed, Drea, Dyes,
    Reiley, Mara, Celtic Dyes,