Madder roots & marks of shame

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


Subscriber Bryan Jenks reached out to me back in February after my the Wool edition to chat about some gloves a friend of his had handmade for him. They did it all the old-fashioned way, from the sheep shearing to the natural dyes, and ever since then I've been paying more attention when I come across information about historic dyes...

Fun Facts

  • The Maya used cinnabar to dye the bones of their dead red before interring them.
  • "Direct" dyes are ones that fix to fibers without needing the help of a mordant like tannin or alum to act as a bond.
  • Although indigo is technically a "direct" dye, more properly it is a "vat" dye, which means it needs to be treated to be soluble.
  • The process of creating a natural dye essentially involves heat + a long soak of dyestuffs, then the water is strained and fibers are applied.
  • Madder roots are a popular, cheap source of red & orange dye because the plant requires little care once established. By contrast, hibiscus is not a popular dye because the results are variable. Dyemakers usually prefer consistency.

A Dye-Dipped Fiend

In the Athenian agora, Scythian guards would use a rope dipped in red dye and use it to "tag" idle citizens to mark them as having sufficient time for jury duty. It's a fairly important plot point in The Comedies of Aristophanes.

A Dye to Thieve For

Similar to how European rulers tried for centuries to gain control of silk production methods, European textile manufacturers sent spies to the Levant to steal the secret formula for Turkey Red, which uses madder roots and alum. It was pretty important for those red and white quilts that became distinctive early Americana.

Dye To Trade For

Tyre began manufacturing purple dye from shellfish in the 14th century BCE. It was highly prized because of how hard it was to make, was striking, difficult to manufacture — and resistant to fading. It took 10,000 shellfish to create 1 gram of dye, which is enough to dye the hem of a garment. A cheaper alternative was to overdye a madder red with blue woad.

Dye to Pray With

The oldest tattoos on record date back more than 5,000 years — it was common even before the Bronze Age to dye one's skin, despite the pain associated with the process. Scholars think Ötzi the Iceman's tattoos were intended to be medicinal in nature; Egyptian women used tattoos for protection during pregnancy and labor.

📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy the tattoos for healing & social signaling among the ancients edition of this newsletter.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

🩸 Do you have a favorite story about ancient dyes? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.


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