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It's that time of year when everyone is busy preserving the summer harvest to enjoy over the winter months, but as well as fruit for Jam and vegetables for pickles, how about colour!

It's often believed that people in the past had very little access to colour, only existing in a world dominated by shades of brown or grey. This could not be further from the truth, just armed with a little knowledge plants can yield a delightful range of colours such as red, yellow, blue and even lilac.

Until the mid-19th century textile dyes were derived from natural sources, mainly plants, but some from insects . So to help furnish our historic houses with examples of colour we are embarking on a project to reproduce the traditional dye process and see what we can create.

Volunteers, working alongside the preventive conservation team, have been busy rediscovering the dye garden at St.Fagans. While removing the weeds we were lucky enough to find a few dye plants surviving, there was a nice clump of Madder, a few Weld plants and Woad. These few survivors were a good start, Madder produces a red dye, Woad a blue and Weld a yellow.

The red is extracted from the root of the Madder plant, this was first washed, cut up and minced, then gently simmered in water to extract the colour. The Weld leaves and seeds were cut up and simmered in water to also extract the colour. We will have to be a bit more patient with the woad, as the best blue is extracted from the fresh young leaves of the first years growth.

Mordants have been used traditionally to help the dye fix to the wool and create a more intense colour. By the medieval period a naturally occurring mineral called alum was used to pre-treat the wool before dying.  We therefore decided to test a few options, so we dyed wool previously mordanted with alum, wool mordanted with Rhubarb leaves and wool not mordanted at all, just to see what impact there would be on the final colour

Once the dye baths were made, 50g batches of washed wool from our Llanwenog sheep were dipped and allowed to soak up the dye. The dye bath was heated to just below boiling and then allowed to cool. The fact that sheep were bred early on in our history to produce a greater proportion of white wool to grey or brown is an indicator that colour was just as important then as it is now.

Here are the results of our first batch.

Penny Hill

Preventive Conservator, Historic Buildings

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