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.
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!