Dye-versity and #PerkinPatterns – an update!

Guest blog by Dr Anita Quye, CChem MRSC, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Science and Head of History of Art, University of Glasgow.

One year ago this month we published a guest blog on Anita’s Dye-versity project and put out a call for archives and libraries to share images of a fabric pattern found in The Journal of the Chemical Society – Volume 23 – which features the article ‘On artificial alizarin’ by William Perkin. In this post Anita reflects on what we learned.

Finding colourful textile ‘patterns’ (small cuttings of dyed fabric or yarn) pasted into old printed books about dyeing is a delight. Finding them inside old chemistry journals is a surprise. Finding copies of the same chemistry journal with different designs of patterns is novel and intriguing.

During my ‘Dye-versity’ archival research of Victorian books about early synthetic dyes I noticed something unusual about the patterns in an important paper on artificial alizarin by the chemist William H. Perkin, published in the 1870 Journal of the Chemical Society. The University of Glasgow has two copies of the journal, and their pattern designs are different. No-one had reported or mentioned this before.

Two copies of the same paper ’On artificial alizarin’ by W.H. Perkin showing different textile ‘patterns’. In Journal of the Chemical Society, 1870, volume VIII: 132-145

Then I found the online digitised copy of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and saw that the pattern designs were different again. I was curious to find out how many variations there are, and added this to my guest blog on Dye-versity for the University of Glasgow Archive and Special Collections for International Archives Day on 8 June 2017. Through University of Glasgow ASC social media channels and contacts, and with particular assistance from Archive Assistant Katie MacDonald, we invited images of “Perkin Patterns” to be shared on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #PerkinPatterns whilst searching for other on-line digitised copies of the paper.

There was a good response to #PerkinPatterns from across the UK, the United State of America and Amsterdam, with nine images sent and five found on-line. The results were more fascinating than I expected.

Composite of all the #PerkinPatterns we received and digitised images found online.

The patterns fall into five distinct design groups: three with bright red grounds and yellow, black and green designs; and two with white ground and purple and red designs. It is very much a case of mix-and-match. Two anomalies are the National Library of Scotland’s copy which is missing a page for the patterns (omitted by the publisher, not removed later) while Newcastle University’s is completely different (more about that later).

Perkin’s patterns raise many questions for me. Perhaps the first is why are there patterns in an academic paper? The answer lies in the commercial value Perkin saw for his new method of making artificial alizarin, a synthetic version of the world’s most important natural red dye, madder.  Madder was much used by the printed calico industry in the 1870s, especially for Turkey red textiles. Perkin knew he could make a lot of money by manufacturing his alizarin more cheaply from anthracene and selling it to these dyers and printers. But first, he had to prove to his chemistry peers that he had alizarin from anthracene with a novel synthesis, and also show the textile industry that it gave as good a result as dyeing and printing with madder. Hence the paper and its patterns.


The concept of dye chemists communicating their new finds to industrial dyers and printers through patterns in books was established well before 1870, and Perkin would have been very familiar with it. Adding patterns to Perkin’s paper no doubt expended effort for the journal’s publisher, John Van Voorst of Paternoster Row in London. However, Van Voorst specialised in natural history books and was a pioneer of high-quality illustrated scientific publications, so maybe it was more straightforward than it seems, although including physical material in an academic chemistry paper is very unusual.

Either way, Perkin is sure to have commissioned or advised on specific patterns for his needs, and undoubtedly involved a commercial dyer to trial his new dye, as he had in 1856 for his famous mauveine dye with Pullars of Perth. The number of published copies of the 1870 journal is unknown but expected to be significant because The Chemical Society was a major publisher in the field of chemistry at that time.

This brings us to the second question. Why the different designs?

Perkin was very astute in his choice of the pattern fabrics with red grounds. These designs are typical for Turkey red, a major industry for Glasgow, Manchester and other places across Europe throughout the nineteenth century despite being a complex dyeing process. As Turkey red dyers were one of the biggest users of madder, Perkin was ‘speaking’ directly to them with these artificial alizarin patterns. Regarding those with the white ground ones, more research is needed to understand this design choice. The purple could be alizarin combined with another dye, or perhaps the design shows alizarin being used alongside a certain purple dye or on a presumably bleached ground fabric. Whatever the reason, Perkin is sure to have chosen a meaningful combination for the commercial textile producers. Why the infills in the purple designs are different shades of red is another mystery to be solved. Discolouration through ageing? Infill colours less important than the purple? Future studies will bring enlightenment.

Another burning question to ask is do the patterns match? From my crude cut-and-paste and re-scaling job, I believe so.

Two examples of matches for Perkin patterns in different copies of his 1870 artificial alizarin paper.

And finally, why are Newcastle University’s patterns so different? At first it seemed that the design and colour sequence was broken. Then, while looking at an enlarged image on Katie’s computer screen, I saw why. Literally. These patterns are in fact pasted over the original ones, the tiny edges of which can just be seen.

Three arrows point to hints of underlying patterns in Newcastle University’s
copy of Perkin’s 1870 artificial alizarin paper.

It was worth the effort of Perkin publishing his new method of synthesising artificial alizarin because he went on to fame and fortune as a London-based manufacturer despite being dealt a cruel blow by missing out on its patent by just one day to the German company, BASF. He formed the British Alizarine Company and made an agreement with BASF that he produce alizarin for the British market and they did so for the rest of the world. Although Perkin ceased his active role with BAC and dye manufacture in 1874, he remained an eminent and honoured chemist with continuing recognition by the Royal Society of Chemistry and American Chemical Society.

The story of #PerkinPatterns is by no means over. In fact, this seems just the start. We welcome more images to connect patterns together, uncover any other variations, and get a sense of how many copies of the 1870 Journal of the Chemical Society there were. If your library or archive has it too and gives permission to participate, please send an image of the patterns to @UofGlasgowASC and @AnitaQuye, or through uofglasgowasc on Instagram. You can help unravel this colourful story, be rewarded with seeing the beautiful patterns yourself, and surprise others with your find.

We’d love 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.

Bust of William H. Perkins in the Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, London. Photograph by Andy Mabbett, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



Thanks to the following archives, special collections and libraries who contributed to #PerkinPatterns #IAD2017, especially Katie MacDonald, Sam Gilchrist, Sarah Hepworth, Roma Thompson, Moira Rankin and Siobhan Convery in the University of Glasgow’s Archives and Special Collections. Also to Dr Julie Wertz, and to the Research Incentive Grant from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland (Trust Reference: 70328) to fund ‘Dye-versity’.


#PerkinPatterns 2017 contributors:

University of Strathclyde Archives and Special Collection

National Library of Scotland Reading Room

Newcastle University Library

Leeds University Library Galleries

Oxford University Bodleian Library

Cambridge University Library

Bijz Collecties University of Amsterdam

New York State Library

Harvard University

The Huntingdon Library (San Marino California)


On-line images sourced from:

Getty Images/NMSI London

University of Michigan

University of Illinois

Royal Society of Chemistry

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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