What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipts for the Million 1857?
279. Dyeing.- Occasionally, when colored articles of silk, wool, or cotton have been cleaned, their color requires to be made deeper; at other times, it may be desirable to change the color altogether, when that already in the stuff must be discharged, and the article dyed anew.
Blue is prepared from indigo; but, as this dye is not easily made, it will be better to purchase a bottle of “Blue Dye.”
Claire and the Bucket
Episode 5 on Outlander really got me going. Not because I have loved the books since forever but because how the producer is daring to show authentic history. When I heard women singing and pounding of hands on a table, my heart got a thrill. It might be new to Claire, but as a weaver and historian I had heard fulling songs sung at Williamsburg a long time ago. When the bucket of urine was poured on the cloth, I got a laugh as I recalled my own experience dyeing.
Indigo Grows in Manoa Valley
In 1972, I was student in the textile program at the University of Hawaii. Exploring old ways of using natural dyes. I approached a botanist at the college and learned that in the 1830s-1840s, indigo was introduced into the Hawaiian Islands as a cash crop. It failed, but indigo grew wild in some places. It turned out there was a patch up in a field near the Safeway in Manoa Valley. Armed with a book with illustrations and description, I went searching for some.
Indigo, if you don’t know, was an important source of blue, Before coal dyes in the mid-19th century and the dyes that come from petroleum (that’s what we wear), blue was a rare color to obtain. Indigo was introduced into Europe sometime in the 14th century (as I recall) and became a rage. It was more color fast than the local woad, but it had an unusual property. It needs air for the color to form. But I digress.
Primo Beer, Urine and Indigo
In Manoa Valley, I did find my indigo and brought a bag of it home. From the beginning, I planned to dye with it old school. One of the challenges of natural dyeing is getting the color to set. In the past, there were many recipes to this, many of them with urine. It’s the urea in it makes dyes set. For that I had a plan. I removed most of the woody parts and with no instructions on hand, I put the plants and leaves into a large glass vat. I added water to cover and URINE thanks to my boyfriend (later husband) who had been plied with lots of Primo beer and I think a bit of Rainier from Seattle. I covered the plants and let them ret.
Once a day I checked on the vat. Ideally, a mud or sentiment was supposed to settle to the bottom. I just watched and put the cover back on. Yes, it did stink, but indigo stinks too. On Day Ten, I started taking the rotted matter out of the vat. The surface of the water had a strange metallic look, like the blue on a fly’s back with flicks of gold. I put a skein of white wool into it and let it sit in the indigo solution. I could see that nothing changed. It was still white. But when I lifted it up into the air on a stick, it turned a pale blue. Truly, a miracle that a molecule in the plant makes this possible. Dip in and lift up and the blue will deepen. Five dips will give you a medium blue. Fourteen dips, the dark blue of jeans. After my wool was dyed the color I wanted it was hung up to dry. Later I washed it gently with a little bit of Ivory. Whatever smell was in it was gone.
Maybe it’s something Claire would find out too.