Dyeing with Brazilwood


Presentation by: THL Lucia Thaylur

Red has long been a favorite dye color. Barber tells us red is one of the most popular colors found among the first surviving examples of dyed textiles or fibers from nearly every culture-Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, Anatolia, the Caucasus and various parts of Europe (p. 230).


The red dyes available in Europe in the 12th century include: Madder ( Rubia. Tinctorum),  Kermes (kermes vermillo) a Mediterranean insect, and Brazilwood- heartwood from the trees of the Caesaloinia family. (Penelope Walton in Crowfoot, p. 200).

Prior to the 16th century, Europe obtained brazilwood from India, Sumatra and Ceylon which arrived via the Venetian traders.  Vasco da Gama's discovery of South America led to new dye sources and the dye began to arrive in Europe via Portuguese ships. (Wilson, p.91).


To make skeins red.

The day before you wish to dye them, you must take a Large pot of clear water and a little leaven and a little lead and one ounce of flour of starch. Make it reach one boil and allow to rest one day and one night. You will take the clearest in a medium-size vessel and for each pound of skeins are many things. That is, three ounces of roche alum. Make them boil for one hour and a half and replace continually the water. You also need for another hand, four ounces of brazil in a large pot with some clear lye made with lime. Make it boil one hour and a half alongside the other vessel. Remove the skeins when they have boiled the predetermined time. And have them washed in the river, or better in the canal in clear water. Then put them in the big pot of brazil and have them reach one boil and turn with a stick. Take them out and wash in clear water and let them dry. (p. 17)


While certain dye sources such as indigo and murex purple are colorfast and need no additional mordants, most of the vegetable dyes need some type of mordant to set the color permanently in the fiber. Mordants can change hues of dyes and may darken, brighten or drastically alter the color ( Barber, p 235).


Relatively little chemical analysis has been done on ancient dyes or mordants used in ancient fabrics. Early methods were very inexact and depended on the skill of the analyst and recent processes destroyed the fabric. A new process called chromatography, however, may help in future analysis and requires only a half centimeter of thread. (Barber, p 237). Barber goes on to tell us that there is much indirect evidence for use of mordants such as storage jars with hydrated lime and another with light gray ashes (decomposed potash). Another popular mordant was aluminum, in the form of alum (p. 238).


I decided quite some time ago, that I'd really like to try to take raw fiber, process it, spin, dye and then weave the fabric for an outfit. I'm very partial to plaids and plan on using gray and black to combine with the brazilwood dyed yarn.  I spun 2500 yards of merino for the brazilwood portion of the project.


After talking with a Dale Leonard, a friend and chemist, I decided to forego the use of lye of lime. As I understood the Plictho recipe it was intended to help break down the fibers of the brazilwood. Rather than use such a harsh chemical, I decided to use time and heat to achieve the same results. I covered my shavings with water and let them ferment for five weeks, occasionally adding heat and bringing them to a simmer and then allowing the brine to cool. As water evaporated, I replaced it with clean tap water.  The process seems to have worked. Over the course of the five weeks, the shavings reduced in bulk by about one-third the original volume.

I also decided to forego the use of iron. I did, however, use alum. Rather than boil the skeins, I choose to bring the skeins to a simmer, cooled them completely and then did it again. After mordanting, I rinsed them in clear tap water and added them to the dyepot. Again I choose the heat, cool, reheat method over actual boiling-that CAN'T be good for fiber! It took the better part of one day and long into evening before I decided the yarn had obtained the desired color. After rinsing in cool water, I hung the skeins to drip dry.


I'm happy with the results. The yarn is scarlet, which I preferred to a true red. It appears to be fairly evenly dyed.

Works cited:

Barber, E.J.W. Prehistoric Textiles: the development of cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.  Princeton University Press, 1991, Princeton, New Jersey.

Crowfoot, Elizabeth, Francis Pritchard, & Kay Staniland. Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450.

Edelstein, Sidney and Hector C. Borghetty (translators). The Plictho of Gioanventura Rosetti. 1548. MIT Press, London, England.

Leonard, Dale. Personal conversations Jan-Feb. '04
Wilson, Kax . A History of Textiles. Westview Press, 1979. Boulder, Colorado

Last updated: 5/21/2005