Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-1 (May 2010)Chrystel R. Brandenburgh: Early medieval textile remains from settlements in the Netherlands. An evaluation of textile production
3 Textile production

3.3 Dyeing

Many dyes were used in early historic times. A red colour was obtained by dyeing wool with dyestuff extracted from different species of dyer’s madder. Archaeological evidence for the cultivation of Rubia tinctorum L. in the Netherlands is not available until the seventeenth century. There is historical evidence that dyer’s madder did occur in the terpen area in the northern part of the Netherlands in the Early Middle Ages (Van Haaster 2001). Wild madder (Rubia peregrina L.) is known in the southern part of Great Britain and in the Mediterranean. Dyer’s woodruff and bedstraw were also used to produce red colours as far back as the fifth century AD (Cardon 2003, 120-128). Red could also be obtained from the insect kermes creating a very strong and colourfast dye. This precious dye was produced in the Mediterranean and valued greatly in north-western Europe as a symbol for kings (Cardon 2003, 618). Lastly shades of crimson could be obtained using a dye extracted from the insect of the Porphyrophora species. Evidence of this dye has been found in a sixth century context in Germany.

Blue was obtained from woad (Isatis tinctoria L.). Woad has been known in the Netherlands since the Iron Age (Cappers 1994). Yellow dyes were extracted from weld (Reseda luteola L.), which was widespread in western Europe (Cardon 2003, 170). Remains of this plant have been found in Roman forts in the Netherlands (Pals 1997, 35). Another source for yellow dye is the plant Dyer’s broom which has been identified in ninth century finds form York (Cardon 2003], 177). Purple was obtained from lichens of the genera Ochrolechia and Umbilicaria. This dye has been identified in ninth and tenth century finds form York, Dublin, London and Scandinavia (Cardon 2003, 501). Purple could also be extracted from marine molluscs but this was a very expensive way of dyeing. In the Late Roman period purple was associated with imperial majesty and in later periods it remained the colour for kings and synonymous with wealth. The prestige of the colour purple increased with its scarcity. The dyestuff was not locally available and had to be traded form the Mediterranean or Brittany (Cardon 2003, 574). Different hues of brown would have been obtained using natural dyestuffs from bark and nuts that were readily available in any wooded area.

Only the wealthy could afford to wear certain colours because they were expensive to produce. To wear them was thus a social signal to the wearer’s contemporaries, that they could afford this level of luxury (Hedeager Krag 1993). Analysing textiles for dyestuffs may therefore result in an indication of the wealth of the original wearer. There are, however, a few hurdles to overcome in relation to dye analysis. Natural dyestuffs deteriorate over time and will very often have disappeared entirely during the period the textile was buried. Consequently a negative result in dye analyses does not necessarily mean that a fabric was not originally dyed. Many dyes that were locally available, like the brown colours from nuts and bark, would also be hard to detect. It is generally very hard to discern the chemicals from these dyes from those naturally present in the soil because of their similarity to material found in the natural environment. It is therefore difficult to know exactly how colourful Early Medieval clothes were.


Table 7. Results of dye analyses. mod. = moderate; stch = stitching.

Recently, seven textiles were selected for dye analysis (table 7). Dye could be identified in the hat from Oostrum (fig. 3), the body of which was made from a white fleece and had decorative stitching in fawn wool. The same madder type dye was present in both the textile and the sewing thread but it was much more concentrated in the stitching, making it likely that the ground fabric was light red, salmon or peach and the needlework a deep dull red. Chemically, the dye was dominated by purpurin but there was a trace of alizarin, which suggests that the dye came from the roots of Rubia tinctorum L. (Walton Rogers unpublished).

There appeared to be a tannin-based brown or black colorant in the headdress or hat from the site of Berg Sion (Dokkum)(fig. 5).[8] This is fairly exceptional since the headdress was made out of naturally brown wool, which in most cases would not have been dyed. Tannins are widely distributed in nature, especially in material from trees, and it is not always possible to recognise tannins deliberately applied as dye. In the case of the Berg Sion headdress, however, the colorant was detected in the main fabric of the hat but not in the needlework, which suggests that the tannins were present in a dye applied to give a solid black to the already naturally dark fleece colour of the headdress. The dye could have come from barks, nuts or oak galls.

No dye was detected in the Leens Schleiergewebe-tabby. This does not mean that the textile was not dyed. Other textiles of this type have proved to be dyed black, blue or purple (Walton Rogers 2007, 69).


Fig. 5 Hat or headdress found in Dokkum (object nr. a1913/11.223D). The hat was made out of naturally brown wool which was dyed deep brown. The wool used for the decorative stitching was not dyed (collection National Museum of Antiquities Leiden).

Previous research on Anglo-Saxon textiles has pointed out that naturally white wools were often dyed. Analyses of naturally brown or black samples nearly always had a negative result, meaning that in most cases these textiles were not dyed at all.

The textiles from the Netherlands and Germany (Walton Rogers 1995) are very similar in this respect. Dyestuffs have been detected in only a few textiles. Those fabrics that had certainly been dyed come from hats that had been sewn with great care (see 4.2 Needlework) and must have been valued for their appearance. The rest of the textiles were probably either originally (mottled) brown or black.