Wordjoy: dyestuffs

I love the names of commodities, especially the sorts that might have been traded back and forth in days of yore. Along the Silk Road, over the Atlantic Ocean, from ancient Rome to the far-off shores of northern Britannia. Yep, nothing makes me happier than a well-stocked warehouse.

Dyestuffs have always been a hot commodity. Lots of common plants can be used to make dyes: walnut hulls for greenish-brown, onion skins for cheerful yellow, or pokeberries for poisonous purple. The world before aniline dyes was a very different-looking place. There were a few superstars in the Old World of dyestuffs, though …

Woad grows over much of Europe and Britain, and contains the blue dye indigoferin. Something worth noting about indigoferin is that it requires some chemical manipulation before it actually turns blue. The dyebath itself, before the dye oxidizes, is greenish-yellow. Anyway: many have theorized that the ancient Picts used a paint made with woad to decorate themselves with blue designs before battle. There is, it turns out, no historical reason to be sure of this. They might have been tattooing themselves, or they might have been using blue mineral salts instead.

Weld is another old European dye-plant. It makes a slightly greeny yellow color.

Madder together with woad and weld rounds out the medieval dyer’s primary triumvirate: it makes a red dye with an unfortunate tendency to fade to peachy-brown over time.

Murex is a kind of sea snail in the Mediterranean area. The ancient Phoenicians extracted Tyrian purple dye from it, which was used in royal garments.

Now, let’s talk about the next great wave of dyestuffs, after Europe learned to explore a little.

Indigo is of course the source of the word “indigoferin.” It comes from Asia or Africa; no one is sure which because it has been so heavily cultivated and traded for so long. It contains a much higher concentration of indigoferin than poor old woad, so it become the preferred source of blue dye as soon as Europe was able to trade with the far-away, warm climates where indigo grows best. Your favorite bluejeans are “indigo blue,” though most these days are colored with aniline dyes.

Cochineal is a South American insect. If you soak these bugs, they emit carmine red dye. This is not only a prettier shade of red than madder, it’s far longer-lasting. The British army’s famous red coats were dyed with cochineal, which begs the question: would they have bothered sending the military to the Americas if they hadn’t needed cochineal to dye their military’s coats red so they could invade America? Hm.

Cutch or catechu is derived from an Asian acacia tree. It dyes fibers yellowy-brown, and was also used to dye leather during the tanning process. It’s edible, too, and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries.

I hope you enjoy these words as much as I do. I think I’ll do a regular series on groups of words I like.


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