Dye-versity for International Archives Day

Guest blog by Anita Quye, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Science at the University’s Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History. Her work on the Dye-versity project has combined textile history and chemical analysis to further our understanding of synthetic dyes in the mid-nineteenth century. A Flickr set of the manuals Anita worked with can be seen here.

Dyeing manuals from 1857 to 1983 housed in Special Collections and the Library Research Annexe have been central to the Dye-versity project’s research. This Friday, in celebration of International Archives Day, we are looking to crowd-source further research for which we need your help! Read on to find out a little more about the history of dyeing and what you can do to help us find out more.


Examples of dye samples used in the Dye-versity project (L-R: Samples from William Crookes’ Dyeing and Calico-Printing (LRA Store 32264) , Samples from Edmund Knecht, Christopher Rawson, and Richard Loewenthal’s A Manual of Dyeing (LRA Store 32323-32325), Samples from David Smith’s A Dyers Instructer (Sp Coll RB 5094).)

To open a nineteenth century book and find fabrics in beautiful colours attached to the pages is both surprising and delighting. For the industrial textile dyers and colourists for whom the books were written, the dyed samples were a way of sharing skills that until then had been closely guarded secrets by individuals for centuries. Called dyeing manuals, these books made their way into the textile factories and workshops of the Industrial Revolution, of which there were many in and around Glasgow.


Synthetic dyes revolutionised the colours and quantities that fabrics could be produced in. This etching depicts women working with threads in a Coats of Paisley textile mill. (UGD199/32/25/23)

Prior to the discovery of synthetic dyes, fabrics were coloured using natural dyes – usually derived from plants, but occasionally from shellfish or insects. James Napier, a chemist living in Partick, published his first dyeing manual for natural dyes in 1855. Dyeing manuals gave written instructions, called ‘receipts’, for dyeing large industrial quantities of textiles. Information about dyeing conditions and additives for specific dyes were provided. Dyed samples, called ‘patterns’, were added to show the shades that could be achieved.

In 1857, chemistry became especially important to the dyeing industry, when the first synthetic dye derived from aniline in coal tar was marketed on a large commercial scale. This was a defining moment for the burgeoning textile industry, and the start of a world-changing era for colour production in the wider society.

The revolutionary synthetic dye was Perkin’s mauve (also called aniline purple). William H. Perkin unintentionally discovered the colour in 1856 while clearing up a failed experiment; when mixed with alcohol he found that a black precipitate of coal tar created a purple colour more able to withstand sunlight than any other natural purple dye then in use.


Queen Victoria – usually famed for wearing black – was responsible for the popularity of Perkin’s mauve in the 1860s. (DC21/279)

The popularity of Perkin’s mauve was driven not by novel artificiality however, but by fashionable colour, affordable cost and economic use. Other commercially-successful aniline dyes soon followed, including magenta, Hofmann and methyl violets, and aniline blue, despite their tendency to fade in the daylight. Practicalities aside, the popularity of the colour exploded in 1862, when Queen Victoria wore a gown dyed in Perkin’s mauve to the Royal Exhibition. Scientists who understood the chemistry of the new synthetic dyes, the so-called “coal tar colours”, published dyeing manuals and books about the chemical properties, manufacture, and quality tests for industry and public consumers to use on the dyes they purchased.

By 1891 over 300 different synthetic dyes were in commercial use. Yet over 30 natural dyes were still of industrial value then too. Synthetic dye equivalents for the important natural dyes like madder and indigo had major impacts on natural dyes in 1870 and 1899 respectively. However, natural dyes like cochineal, cudbear, archil (lichen), turmeric and logwood, co-existed alongside synthetic dyes right from the beginning in 1857 and well into the twentieth century, while some of the earliest aniline synthetic dyes were still of commercial importance then too, like methyl violets. These forgotten facts become evident from the dyeing manuals of the period and enrich us with a more colourful view of Victorian Britain.


These Victorian fashions (from a House of Fraser catalogue of 1898) may have been as colourful as they were ornate. (FRAS 504/2)

The dyeing manuals mentioned in the above blog post have been central in the research of Dr Anita Quye. Her findings on aniline violet, blue and magenta dyes can be used by curators and conservationists to identify dyes with the most sensitivity to light and moisture. This allows heritage collections of dresses, furnishing fabrics and other decorative textiles to be displayed in conditions with minimal risk to their colour, and helps with their preservation for future study.

Crookes comparison3

Comparative samples from William Crookes’ A Practical Guide to Dyeing and Calico-Printing show differences in the dyed colours – however this may be due to the digitisation process.

For International Archives Day (#IAD2017) we’re looking to continue exploring the history of dyeing, and crowd source further research with Anita. Specifically we’re asking Libraries and Archives to dig out and photograph copies of The Journal of the Chemical Society – Volume 23 – which features the article ‘On artificial alizarin’ by William Perkin with examples of Perkin’s dyed fabrics – for comparison with our own editions.

Fabric samples from ‘On artificial alizarin’ by William Perkin in our Chemistry Branch Library (left) and in our ASC collections (Right, ref: Sp Coll 3099)

The above image shows the copy our Chemistry branch library holds on the left and the Archives and Special Collections copy on the right – surprisingly different! Finding these samples and noting their differences has us very intrigued to see what we can find out about samples in other copies and what this can tell us about how these samples were made and used, as well as highlighting any differences in colour which could indicate preservation concerns. With your help we may even be able to piece together the larger, original pattern using the combined samples.

You can get in touch with ourselves and Anita on twitter at @UofGlasgowASC and @AnitaQuye, through uofglasgowasc on Instagram. Please join in using the hashtag #PerkinPatterns !

We want to hear from you if you aren’t on social media too, in which case please get in touch with us through our email address: library-asc@glasgow.ac.uk.

SpColl 3099 Perkin crop

Fabric samples from ‘On artificial alizarin’ by William Perkin (Sp Coll 3099)

Now, everyone to the shelves and get sharing your #perkinpatterns !

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

Tags: , ,

4 replies

  1. A very interesting article. The etching is marvellous, though i am not quite clear what is happening. It looks a if it would be a very scary place to work, particularly for women with long voluminous clothes and long hair. Of course the dust would affect their lungs, as there doubtless were no masks or air filtration systems.


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  2. Explore Your Archive 2017 – University of Glasgow Library
  3. Dye-versity and #PerkinPatterns – an update! – University of Glasgow Library

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