Category Archives: Natural dyes

the conserved Bacton Altar cloth.

Queen Elizabeth I dress (The Bacton Altar Cloth)

By Ashley Walker
Copyright 24th February 2020

Inner courtyard of Hampton Court Palace with Henry 8th Great hall on left.

We saw the social media posts about this 400 year+ old textile and noted the brightness of the green embroidery silks. Unusual we thought. The longest lasting green dyes are combinations of a yellow dye with indigo. Indigo we know can last for many centuries but what was the yellow dye? Most yellow and green natural dyes do not last long and old textiles end up in various shades of blue (from indigo), red (from madder or an insect dye) and brown from all the other dyes which have faded.

blue and red the only colours to survive on old tapestries

This is one of the many rich tapestries from Hampton Court Palace. Typical of tapestries of this age, only the blue and red dyes have survived.

We arranged with a friend to go and see the dress at Hampton Court Palace. Where colour is concerned you really need to see it with your own eyes. There were some disappointments on our way there, notably the cost of getting into the Palace – ouch! Then there was the ‘No photography’ policy and the general lack of information available on the textile’s construction. No souvenir leaflet or postcard to take away or purchase either. According to one red-coated guide, the owners of the textile (the local diocese of the Church of England) had insisted that no financial gain was allowed through merchandise. As it turned out the palace guides were not enforcing the No Photography policy in any way, so I was able to get some good pictures.

Unfortunately the reverse side of the fabric, which has the brightest colour, was not on show but the faded side was still quite colourful and the greens still discernible.

For a general history of the textile, look at the links at the bottom of this post. The articles are highly recommended. We were impressed by the skill and artistry of the original embroiderer. This master craftsperson had embroidered the entire design straight onto the cloth of silver. The plant based motifs may have been inspired by illustrations from a Herbal (a contemporary plant guide) but could also have come from other textiles of the period. Many of the plant motifs are entirely recognizable and have been worked with a fine outline and fill of very closely spaced “seed stitch”. At some point additional, embroideries were added to the dress but these are of much lesser quality and were, according to historians, done by Court noblewomen. This secondary work consists of various animals, many of which are insects. Caterpillars are particularly common. These animals, and the odd tree, were placed in the white areas between the plant motifs, seemingly at random. This lead to a rather chaotic appearance, which to my eye, spoiled the entire design. I would not be surprised if this “fault” had resulted in the fabric’s survival. Just picture the scene – Elizabeth is shown the reworked dress and notes its chaotic design. She smiles and says “thankyou ladies that’s just lovely”. Then as soon as they are gone she thinks “Oh, what can I do with it now, I can’t give it to anyone in court as it’s just too opulent, I know, I’ll send it away up north as a remembrance gift for my lady companion Blanche Parry. That way it will never be worn again”. That’s the beauty of history, you can fit any story you like to the facts.

Detail of the Bacton Altar Cloth showing floral and animal motifs. The greens and yellows on this faded side of the textile retain some of their colour, probably the result of being kept out of direct sunlight in a church for 300+years.

without the animal embroideries the design is much nicer

I have photoshopped this to show the textile as it might have appeared without the extra animal embroideries.

Portrait of Elizabeth 1st wearing a similar dress

This highly symbolic portrait of Elizabeth shows her wearing a dress of similar design to the lost dress.

Borago officinalis

So, what about the dyes used in the dress? After searching the internet, the only dyes mentioned are cochineal from Mexico and indigo from the far east. This means the blue probably comes from from Indigofera. The silk cloth (Cloth of silver) itself was probably sourced in Italy, so it is likely that the dyed embroidery thread was also sourced from abroad, which opens up the dye possibilities enormously. I would not be surprised to learn that the master embroiderer was also European, rather than English.

I have enquired with the conservators at Hampton Court about the dyes used, but as yet I have not had a reply. However, I have been in contact with Natalie Walker (no relation) who has done some research on this textile and tells me the chief conservator at Hampton Court will be publishing a paper on the subject soon. If I find out any more I will update this blog with the results.

The visit to Hampton Court Palace was a timely reminder of what can happen when extreme wealth and power is held in the hands of a tiny group of people. Queen Elizabeth II is still the official owner of the Palace.

Note: All the photos in this post were taken by the author.

See very good posts by Natalie Walker, Hampton Court and the Crown Chronicles on the Bacton Altar Cloth here:

A Mark of Craftsmanship?

https://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/whats-on/the-lost-dress-of-elizabeth-i/#gs.xdatlg

The Bacton Altar Cloth – Elizabeth I’s only surviving dress – now at Hampton Court Palace

Yellow pea like flowers of Genista blossom

Growing Dyers Greenweed (Genista tinctoria)

By Ashley Walker
Copyright 17th February 2020

Dyers broom, Dyer’s whin and Woadwaxen

Dyers Greenweed is a member of the Fabaceae or legume family. It is a typical shrubby broom native to the UK, growing in open pasture and heathland. It is a source of an excellent light fast lemon yellow dye similar to Weld. As its name suggests it was used with indigo (from Woad) to dye textiles various shades of green.

Horticulture

Like some other native dye plants, Greenweed has declined with the rise of modern agriculture so you are less likely to be able to forage for it. It mostly grows in the West and South of England and appears to prefer slightly acidic loamy clay soils though it will grow in alkaline soils if treated well. It can grow to a height of 1 to 2m and forms a bush, usually growing from a single base stem. There are dwarf varieties and a dwarf subspecies Genista littoralis. It is extremely hardy (surviving temperatures as low as -35ºC) so it should be possible to grow it in the far North. It loses its leaves in the winter and this maybe the reason it’s able to stand the sub-zero temperatures. It does not like being waterlogged but struggles in dry soils too when it needs to be watered occasionally during hot summers.

Dyers Greenweed bush growing in the author’s back garden.

Propagation

The seedpods of Greenweed turn black in late summer and on hot days burst apart scattering the  small pea shaped brown seed.

to show the seeds and seed pods of the plant

Seeds and pods of Dyers Greenweed

These may germinate in the Autumn or stay in the soil and germinate in the following spring. When I first tried to grow the plant from seed I followed the instructions to plant in the Autumn. Although some of the seeds germinated I found that the seedlings died during the winter. so I changed my strategy to planting in Spring which works very well and allows the seedlings to grow large enough during the first year to get through winter without problem.

Start seeds off indoors in modules or seed trays from March to April and plant out in June in a sunny position.

to show what a young seedling looks like

This very young Dyers Greenweed has self seeded but is in danger of being eaten by slugs.

The plants will grow large, so give them plenty of space and plant about a metre apart. They can be grown as a hedge in which case plant closer (say 20 to 25cm). The seedlings are very prone to slug and snail attack, so sowing the seed outdoors is very risky without protection. Cuttings can also be taken. Cut the woody 1 to 2 year old stems in Spring or Summer and just stick them into the soil. Only about 10 to 50% will take so plant more than you need. They will need watering regularly during the summer as they take a month or two to root.

Pests and diseases

shows red ladybird eating aphid pests

Ladybird to the rescue

Aphid on young shoot of Dyers Greenweed

Apart from slug and snail attack when young, the next big problem is aphids, which attack the young shoots in early Summer just when you want to be picking them for dye. The damage can be extensive and I sometimes have to resort to spraying them off with a jet of water from the hosepipe. Ladybird and hoverfly larvae usually get the aphid under control by mid to late Summer and the plants will recover enough to flower. There appears to be quite a bit of natural variation amongst plants with some consistently being attacked and others being generally free of the bugs. So if you find you have a resistant plant don’t hesitate to take cuttings from it.

Deer and other large herbivores also like to eat Greenweed.

Maintenance

The young shoots are best for dyeing. As the plant gets older it produces fewer shoots so the bush needs to be pruned or cut back at least once a year to encourage this new growth. In earlier times when the plant was grown as a source of dye it was typically harvested in the second year when the whole plant was cut down. During the early Spring/Summer take the first harvest of young shoots then cut back in August to get a second growth and harvest. Growing this plant as a low hedge is ideal.

Dyers Greenweed will regrow quickley after being cut back and produce lots of new shoots.

As a member of the legume family, Greenweed is capable of fixing nitrogen in its root nodules. As a result the plant does not need much, if any fertilizer and can grow on quite poor soils. Don’t plant Greenweed in your most fertile bed, so choose instead any bit of scrappy ground that gets full sun. Greenweed will not grow in heavy shade. Against a South facing wall or fence would be ideal. To help keep weeds down after planting you can add some thick mulch around the stems. Water if the soil becomes very dry.

Cultivars

Greenweed is grown as a decorative garden plant for its bright display of yellow blossom in mid to late Summer. If you grow several plants from seed they will probably have slightly different flowering times but if you buy a commercial cultivar each plant will flower at the same time. Commercial cultivars may also be less able to cope with strong pruning and are usually a lot smaller than the wild plant. Three cultivars of note are:

  • Royal Gold – 0.5 to 1m
  • Humifusa – dwarf variety
  • Flore Pleno – dwarf variety

Dyeing

The leaves and young shoots are treated much like Weld except if the stems are woody strip the leaves first. Boiling water is poured on the cut shoots and left for an hour or so to extract the dye. Fermenting the young shoots can also have excellent results. A small amount of alkali (lime water or a drop of ammonia) will bring out the yellow. Dye your textiles in the resulting extract at around 70ºC. This dye is excellent for silk. If dyeing green with indigo a slightly better result will be obtained if you dye indigo first and then over-dye with  Greenweed. The young shoots can be dried for storage and later use.

Silk and Cotton dyed with Dyers Greenweed