Planning Adventures in Dyeing…

Egyptian Patterns

Egyptian Patterns

When I was working on my Master’s Degree, I came across this reference to dyeing in Egypt, as described by Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History”:

In Egypt, too, they employ a very remarkable process for the colouring of tissues. After pressing the material, which is white at first, they saturate it, not with colours, but with mordants that are calculated to absorb colour. This done, the tissues, still unchanged in appearance, are plunged into a cauldron of boiling dye, and are removed the next moment fully coloured.
It is a singular fact, too, that although the dye in the pan is of one uniform colour, the material when taken out of it is of various colours, according to the nature of the mordants that have been respectively applied to it: these colours, too, will never wash out.
Thus the dye-pan, which under ordinary circumstances, no doubt, would have made but one colour of several, if coloured tissues had been put into it, is here made to yield several colours from a single dye. At the same moment that it dyes the tissues, it boils in the colour; and it is the fact, that material which has been thus submitted to the action of fire becomes stouter and more serviceable for wear, than it would have been if it had not been subjected to the process.

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 35, Chap.42

Now, Pliny the Elder was writing long after Akhenaten’s time, indeed after Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, but plant dyes were already known in 18th Dynasty Egypt, so I am going to assume that mordanting was also known.

I simply have to try this!

I’m not going to try to use Egyptian plant dyes – I think it will be quite challenging enough as it is – but I need to do some research to discover what colours can be obtained by different mordants from a single dyestuff, then work out how to apply the mordant in patterns in such a way as to ensure that it works.

And then do it. It would make a fabulous video, wouldn’t it, dipping a white cloth into a vat and getting multicoloured cloth out again!


  1. Lady Fi says:

    Good luck!

  2. Glenis says:

    Now THAT’s adventurous! Great fun though – and if you get it right then your next attempt can be a banner-header for the Dreams of Amarna….
    (runs away very fast…)

  3. I remember you mentioning this a while ago, and I’ll be fascinated to see what happens. I’ve only ever used foodstuff grade mordants, so I’ve no experience of the chemical ones, but presumably, the main problem with marking/painting patterns is how to stop the mordants spreading into each other on the dampened cloth – and how to clearly define each mordanted area, so you don’t cover the same ground twice? This is going to be very interesting!

  4. Penny says:

    Sounds quite messy — but lots of fun!! It will be so much fun to see the results you get.

  5. Sue Jones says:

    Interesting idea. Good luck with it. I’m sure there are tables for natural dyes under different mordants. As for Jules Woolford’s comment about keeping the colours separate, perhaps it would work with wax resist, as for batik. You could outline the sections if you want to keep them clearly defined? Then paint the mordants into the spaces (which would help you to see where they go). Finally do the dye dip, and (with luck) you have undyed areas as well as the various colours from the different mordants.

    Pliny’s description is very clear. Interested in everything.

  6. Carolyn says:

    This sounds like great fun. Sometimes I have used an ordinary old glue stick instead of wax to keep part of the background fabric from taking up the dye. Have fun with all the experimenting you are going to do.

  7. Andy Lloyd Williams says:

    Can’t wait to see the results! When I was teaching in a Nursery we used a flour and water resist, piped on: dyed or painted the required area and when dry the dried water and flour resist just peeled off! Great fun.

  8. Anny says:

    I’ll be fascinated to see what you come up with!

  9. Anita says:

    Good luck ! Looking forward to see the results…

  10. cathy daniel says:

    Sounds really interesting. Hope you do get some good results. I always end up dying my hands too, but there’s an obvious reason for that! xCathy

  11. karen says:

    can’t wait to see how your cloth turns out…..

  12. Jillayne says:

    I think it sounds amazing – I would love to see that! I’ve been playing about with dyeing a bit this summer and fall – first with eco-printing on fabric and paper (mixed results), and lately with thread in jars. I did four skeins first time round and had good success – just testing for light-fastness now, but have another ten jars on the windowsill in the bathroom where the sun is best. I can’t stand waiting but know that I must – and stitching with my own beautiful dyed threads will be my reward for extreme patience in trying times!
    I’ll be watching for you to try this…

  13. Susan says:

    Oh, yes, I’d love to see that video! I hope you make one. =) We always think we have the most modern technology, but somethings have been known for centuries, or even millennia. Or a method from then works as well or better than something we’ve done with all our technology. I would have loved being an anthropologist who works on recreating the methods used in times past for textiles. I chose a different path, but that was a very appealing one, too.

  14. Sandy says:

    I can help you with a resource on this one: The Dyer’s Garden, by Rita Buchanan . . . I don’t know how available it might be in the UK; it’s published by Interweave Press (they do knitting and weaving magazines) in the U.S.
    I can also tell you about beet juice: If you WANT it to stay put, it needs a mordant, on any kind of material.

  15. Janice says:

    Looking forward to seeing your results, Rachel. I’m also interested in finding out all about mordants. Like Jules, what I’m really interested in is knowing a full range of food grade mordants and then experimenting to see how each changes the cloth. Applying them first would be very interesting!

  16. […] and all the other lovely ladies on the course something to think about as well, because I had my quotation from Pliny in my notebook to explain what an embroiderer was doing at a workshop, run by a knitter and attended […]