I visited the Colne Valley Museum again recently. It is well worth a visit, if you are ever in the Huddersfield area. In the photograph I am stood with one of their weaving frames, proudly modelling a woollen jumper spun in the spinning wheel section. They also have a working spinning jenny, clog making, a kitchen where bread and scones are made and then sold in the café. All are demonstrated by friendly and informative volunteer staff – just one of whom is Steven Hirst, the provider of the photo of this fine-looking gentleman.
The first thing I noticed when I wore this jumper was how warm and cosy it was. In my humble opinion, natural fibres like this are best for keeping out the weather. To keep out the most severe weather, you need a comfortable cotton, linen or silk underlayer with woollen balaclava, jumper, gloves, trousers and socks, similar to the material wonderfully modelled in the photo. Oiled cotton, waterproof outer garments and a good pair of sturdy leather are the final additions to a weather-resisting outfit.
The main advantage of modern materials is their weight but the advantage of natural fibres is becoming more important as of late. Man-made fibres are made from polymers found in gas and oil whereas natural fibres are derived from animal, vegetable and non-carbon-based mineral resources. Therefore, natural fibres have less of a detrimental effect on our carbon footprint.
Colne Valley Museum
Colne Valley Museum has many other permanent exhibits. One room is set aside for temporary themes, such as children’s toys that were on display the day of my recent visit.
They also have a garden at the side dedicated to some of the many plants that were used in dyeing.
Dyes derived from plants
The following are examples of just some of the plants used before chemical dyes were introduced:
Black Hollyhock, Alcia Rose ‘nigra’. The flowers can be used to produce blue or green dyes.
Borage, Borago Officinalis. Known as the sunflower, the roots and flowers were used to produce blue and purple. Honey from the borage plant is said to have given Roman legionaries extra power before battle. The borage honey I get from George, the Holmfirth honey man, doesn’t seem to have the same effect on me. Perhaps I’m just past it.
Red Cabbage, Brassica Olaracia. I’m sure it will come as no surprise that this was used to produce a light purple dye.
Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis. Flowers used to produce gold or orange colours.
Purple Sun Carrot, Daucus Carota. Orange is the colour we now associate with the carrots but until the 17th century, domestic carrots were purple and were used to produce a light purple dye.
Tansy, Tanacetum Vulgare. The tansy plant is the main food source of the tansy beetle which is only found in the River Ouse, near York and the East Anglia Fens. The leaves and flowers of the tansy plant were used to produce a vibrant yellow.
Perforate St. John’s Wort, Hypericum Perforatum. St. John’s Wort was one of many plants that were once said to ward off evil spirits. It was also used to produce red, yellow, maroon and green dyes. Obviously it was a very versatile plant.
Woad, Isasis Tinctoria. Native to central Asia, it is also found wild in Southern England. Woad dye is extracted from the leaves and requires fermentation to produce the distinctive blue colour. It was used by the ancient Brits as war paint during their battles against the Romans. How William Wallace got hold of some in Scotland for the same use in his battles with the Plantagenets as depicted in the film Braveheart is anyone’s guess. Could it possibly be yet another example of Hollywood re-writing history?
Yellow Flag Iris, Iris Pseudacarus. Not as the name would suggest but the roots of this plant were used to produce a black dye. It is thought that this flower inspired the Fleur de Lis – the symbol of the scout movement.
Yarrow, Achillea Millefallum. Another versatile plant, not only did it produce a yellow dye, it was also an aid to bring good luck and be instrumental in finding one’s true love.
Dyes and class distinction
Animal fabrics came in the colour that they were in their natural state which was anything from a dingy white to dark brown. Soon, with humans being humans, the need to distinguish gender and class became important. This was another way that the riff-raff who could not afford brightly coloured clothing could be instantly recognised.
Dyes from powdered rocks such as hematite (red), limonite (yellow) and lazurite (blue), and animal dyes from sea snails and cochineal purple/red were also used, mainly in the Mediterranean, but the Brits have always been fond of their vegetables.
Pros and cons of plant-based dyes
Plant extracts have been used for thousands of years to ward off evil spirits. They were also used to create healing potions and give good luck. Unfortunately, the dyes from natural resources are not permanent. The colour will fade when exposed to light, water and general wear and tear. Even mordants (dye fixers), such as onion skins and metal chemicals (ammonium sulphate or aluminium lactate) among others, could only slow the process.
The first synthetic dye
It was the concerted efforts of August Wilhelm von Hofmann, a director of the Royal College of chemistry in London, and his student William Henry Perkins, who, while searching for a cure for malaria in 1856, accidentally discovered the first synthetic dye. It was mauve in colour and is appropriately called Perkins’ mauve. Hoffman also got into the act and by 1864 had patented the process for producing Hoffman’s violet. I’m sure I would recognise that there was a difference between mauve and violet but I’ll be damned if I could tell which was which.
L B Holliday
At about the same time that Perkins and Hoffman were producing the same but different colour, a chemical company in Huddersfield, who went by the name of Read Holliday and Sons, were using coal tar, which was a by-product from the nearby Huddersfield gas works which produced ammonia as a cleaning agent in textiles.
The company acquired several patents. Later, under the ownership of his son Lionel Holliday, who took his mother’s maiden name as his own middle name, the company became L B Holliday with the ‘B’ standing for Brook.
L B Holliday were able to expand the chemical formulas to produce many more colours and by the turn of the century became one of the leading dye manufacturers in the world.
The negative side of ammonia
Before the invention of health and safety, I remember seeing workers on their way home from L B Holliday’s completely covered in the dye colour of that particular day’s production – several travelling on the same bus as the general public. The company was probably still producing ammonia, so what the atmosphere and working conditions must have been like does not bear thinking about.
Ammonia was/is used as smelling salts and was used to revive a swooning lady, a semi or fully-concussed rugby player and was probably strong enough to revive the recently departed. We used it in the carding department for killing static electricity and when we threw a cup full on the floor near the offending part of the machine, we had to vacate the area quickly. How workers were able to breathe while producing ammonia is beyond me.
Over recent years we have been encouraged to ridicule our health and safety laws but this is just one tiny example of what working conditions were like in the past.