Textiles of Islamic Spain
Copyright © 2000, 2001 L. Meyer (known in the SCA as Halima de la Lucha)
I originally wrote this as an entry in a West Kingdom (SCA) contest, "research papers on Moorish Spain" (Beltane, 2000).
Later that year, in June 2000, an extended version (more history of al-Andalus; added main Dyes section) was published in Issue 24 of the Medieval Textile Study Group newsletter. (See my homepage above for more info on the SCA or on MTSG.)
Although I did my best to make it as accurate as possible, please remember that everyone is subject to error, and that I still have a lot to learn about this subject. Also, this doesn't show Arabic diacritical marks.
In particular, if you plan to use this as a basis for garb, be aware that color could have great significance. I've written some quick-and-dirty notes on color, for now... I hope to expand this later.
Last updated: Jan. 2001. Made it more cohesive, retitled a couple sections.
Last updated: Sep. 2001. Uses Spanish diacritical marks now. Filled in use of sumach.
Slightly reformatted April 2001. No change in the info.
If you wish to reproduce or reprint this article, you may do so, subject to the following conditions:
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Table of Contents
Textiles, like food, were a vital industry in medieval times. "Textiles ranked among the most highly organized and productive medieval industries in al-Andalus and elsewhere, and they provided the staple export of many areas.(58) There are records of thousands of bales of silk, wool, flax, and cotton, shipped across the Mediterranean in the medieval period." 1
Perhaps more importantly for purposes of this paper, I personally find the topic fascinating and wanted to learn more about it. In particular, I wanted to survey Andalusi textiles as a whole, not just Andalusi silks. Many general art books and specialized textile books focus entirely on the silks -- which are indeed spectacular! -- but only part of the story.
In this paper, I have focused on the major fibers: linen, cotton, wool, and a brief nod to silk. I have not yet explored the less common fibers that were also used in Islamic Spain, e.g. hemp and esparto grass.
HISTORY OF AL-ANDALUS IN A NUTSHELL
Most of the southern part of the Iberian peninsula (which is Spain and Portugal today) was conquered in 711 as part of the general Islamic geographic explosion around that time. It was known as al-Andalus.
From the mid-eighth century to roughly 1000 AD, a centralized government, the Umayyads, ruled al-Andalus. They were in contact with the cities of the Islamic Near East, and tried to emulate them. The rulers encouraged the arts and luxury items, including textiles, as status symbols and items of trade.
Then al-Andalus fell apart into a large number of petty kingdoms, known as the Taifa states. The Taifa rulers continued to spend large sums on luxury and status, so the arts (including textiles) continued to flourish. However, the military weakness of the Taifa rulers led to many of them paying tribute to the northern Christian kingdoms for protection. In fact, if enough gold and silver were not available, luxurious silk textiles were sometimes sent north as part of this tribute.
Alarmed by the Christian conquest of Toledo in 1085, the Taifa states asked for help from two successive groups ruling North Africa, the Almoravids and the Almohads. In contrast to the rather hedonistic Andalusis, these North African groups were ascetic, reforming zealots, and had little time for art. They did re-unify al-Andalus, but as a province of North Africa.
In the first half of the thirteenth century, the Christians made huge advances, conquering all that remained of al-Andalus except the province of Granada, which paid tribute to Castile. Silk manufacture continued as a major activity in Granada; Almeria, a major textile city, was also included in the province. In 1492, of course, Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada, the last remaining bit of al-Andalus.
Reference: Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California Press, 1992.
Romanized Spain produced linen and wool textiles. I found almost nothing on textiles of Visigothic Spain, but in general the major effect of Visigothic rule over the Romanized population seems to have been an overall decline in prosperity, as in the "Dark Ages" elsewhere in Europe.
However, the Muslim conquest of Spain in 711 would lead to major developments and advances in many areas, including textiles.
For one thing, the Muslims provided a fairly stable central government for several centuries -- e.g. the Umayyad dynasty from the mid-700s till roughly 1000. This was a much stabler environment for agriculture, artisans and trade than the perpetual squabbles and warfare of the unruly Visigothic nobles. 2
For another, Spain became part of the Mediterranean network once more. For many centuries, the Mediterranean was essentially controlled by Islamic ships. Trade and travel between Islamic countries were frequent and easy.
Since the early Muslims had assimilated many of the urbanized, highly advanced centers of the Near East, such as Egypt, Damascus and Baghdad, the Mediterranean now linked Spain with major centers of civilization. 3
Although many of the original conquerors and settlers of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) were Berbers from North Africa, the elite were Arabs and other Near Easterners. They retained ties with relatives there, and tried to copy the capitals (Damascus and later Baghdad) in their own areas.
Thus, even rulers of outlying areas like al-Andalus provided patronage and incentives to attract the skilled practitioners of the sophisticated arts and crafts of the Near East to their own lands, to create luxury, and perhaps more important, prestige.
For instance, a Baghdad ceramicist was imported to train local North African potters in making polychrome luster-painted tiles for a mosque. From here, the skill spread, leading to the production of these elaborate tiles in Malaga, Spain, and eventually the Hispano-Moresque ware of the 15th-16th century. 4
Once the advanced skills were established, changing fashion trends could even be followed, simply by importing the latest style of fabric for local artisans to copy.
But even before the luxury skills, came more practical importations, such as irrigation. The Romans, of course, had done a good deal of this, e.g. building their usual aqueducts. But the Arabs improved and extended it, greatly increasing the area that could be cultivated. From their desert homeland, they brought a good deal of "Middle Eastern innovations such as the noria (waterwheel) and saqiya
(geared pot-chain) to raise water to greater heights and the qanat
(underground canal) to distribute it." 5
These improvements in irrigation allowed the introduction of new crops and expansion of existing ones. In addition, crops not grown by the Romans during the time they held Spain had now spread westward to Islamic lands, and could now be imported to Spain -- notably silkworms and cotton.
A number of agronomists in al-Andalus wrote scholarly works on plants, including textile-related plants. A chapter of Ibn al-`Awwam's Book of Agriculture
covers at some length the methods of cultivating cotton, then moves on to flax and hemp; the dyeplants saffron, henna, madder and woad; and the thistle used for teaseling (raising the nap on cloth). 6
I'd hoped to include dyes in the SCA paper, but there was a length limit. Here's a summary, taken from Constable unless otherwise noted. (Baker mentions Islamic dyes, but not much by specific region.)
Al-Andalus was famous for its production and export of qirmiz and saffron. Qirmiz (kermes) is an insect similar to the New World cochineal and to various other Old World insects; and like them, it produces brilliant reds. Saffron was very expensive, but could be used as a high-quality yellow dye, in perfumery or as a spice. Kermes, incidentally, was used with alum to color some of the famous cordovan leather (Constable, p.192).
Much brazilwood was imported from the east; it's a red dye, but I've read that it's somewhat fugitive (fades relatively quickly).
Lac was also imported from the east, although it's unclear how much was used as red dye, how much for shellac, and how much as medicine. I am indebted to Carolyn Priest-Dorman and Jennifer N. Munson for further information on lac, from a discussion on the SCA_NaturalDyes email list. They pointed out that a red dye analysis was done on 53 surviving European textiles, including 20 Spanish ones (both Christian and Andalusi) dating from 11th to late 15th centuries. "Surprisingly, lac dye, the import of which into European centres is well documented in medieval texts, has not been found at all." Their source was an article by Dominique Cardon et al. in Dyes in History and Archaeology 8 (1989), "Analysis of Medieval Red Dyes by HPLC, with Special Emphasis on the Insect Dyes," pp. 22-31. (Cardon et al. also footnote their finding of no lac usage to a book by Dominique Cardon, Les Vers du Rouge: Insectes Tinctoriaux (Homoptera: Coccoidea) Utilises dans l'Ancien Monde au Moyen-Age, Montpellier, 1987.)
Woad was grown in al-Andalus, and indigo was imported, for blues. (Apparently there was quite a lot of scholarly confusion for a while on whether indigo was grown in al-Andalus too, but Bolens concludes that only woad was actually grown there.)
Bolens also mentions that the Calendar of Cordoba, 1009, shows the royal textile workshops requisitioning qirmiz in May, sky-blue (woad) in August, and madder in September.
Sanchez says that dyeing plants mentioned by Andalusi agronomists included safflower, saffron, wild madder and sumach. Safflower can produce pink or yellow, depending how it's processed. Madder produces a range of reds. Sumach produces yellows to tans to browns; since it contains much tannin, it can produce grey to black with iron.
A poor quality of alum (for mordanting) is found in Iberia; it was known to Rome, and recorded by Pliny. There are no known records of this low-grade local alum being used in al-Andalus, but there are records of better alum being imported from elsewhere.
In the thirteenth century, when the Christians controlled most of Iberia, alum did become known as an export from Iberia. Also, kermes and saffron continued to be exported from Iberia -- although they were now being exported mainly to Christian European countries, where before they had been exported primarily to Islamic Mediterranean lands.
The improved irrigation techniques allowed a great increase in the existing cultivation of flax for linen in the Iberian peninsula. 7
Baker, surveying Islamic textiles in general, says that "The cultivation of flax and trade in linen ... have long been associated with Egypt. ... Other important centres were Tunis and Carthage in North Africa, Andalusia and Syria ..." 8
An indication of the perceived value of linen can be seen in this: "When Granada was threatened with attack in 1125, a chronicler explained ... the invaders were attracted by the region's 'advantages and fertility for wheat, barley and flax, and by its many silkworms, vines, olives and fruits...' " 9
Bolens notes "flax had already been introduced during Roman times, into Galicia, Lusitania and the marshy regions of the south, towards Ampurias, Tarragona and Jativa, and the tradition was continued under the Hispano-Arabs... [from the 11th century onwards] it no longer seems to be found in the best-placed sites at the foot of the sierras, contemporary documents rather referring to the Southern coastal regions, around Malaga, in the Plain of Granada and in the wonderful Andarax valley, catering for Almeria(37), where coloured linen sails were manufactured. ... Linen was woven and dyed both for the home market and for export." 10
(Alas, Bolens does not say what dye was used on the linen! Other than that slight amounts of sheep manure in the water retting the flax stems would make the finished product reddish-brown.)
Bolens remarks that hemp was also grown for fiber, in similar conditions to flax but requiring less water. It was used for coarser fabrics, ropes and paper. 11
Constable, who studied trade patterns of Muslim Spain in depth, found an interesting pattern in Geniza records (mostly 11th and 12th centuries -- see Glossary for details) and in geographers' writings. Apparently flax was carried from Egypt to al-Andalus, woven into linen cloth, then exported back to the Near East.
"Although silk had a higher value, linen and flax were traded in greater volume. Geniza merchants often handled both silk and flax, carrying the former eastward from al-Andalus and Sicily and the latter westward from Egypt. Their letters indicate that hundreds -- even thousands -- of bales of Egyptian flax were shipped westward every year, with each bale weighing roughly six hundred pounds.(59) Once in al-Andalus, Egyptian flax was transformed into woven linen, and ... returned as exports, according to Ibn Hawqal, 'to Egypt, Mecca, Yemen, and elsewhere' in the tenth century.(60)" 12
Almost all surviving Andalusi textiles shown in books are silks, (which is quite natural -- they're gorgeous!) but one, the so-called Veil of Hisham, naming the Cordoban ruler Hisham II (r. 976-1009 and 1010-13), was tapestry-woven in silk and gold on linen. 13
Since writing the original paper, I've discovered a contradiction between two reputable sources. If anyone discovers further info on this, I'd appreciate a note!
Patricia Baker (Islamic Textiles, British Museum Press, 1995; p. 62) says of her "Veil of Hisham" photo: "Detail of linen plain weave with tapestry-woven decoration in six silk colours and gold thread..."
However, today I see that Florence Lewis May (Silk Textiles of Spain, Hispanic Society of America, 1957; p. 14) says the same textile is "woven entirely of raw silk according to a recent analysis, and ornamented with a tapestry-woven band in gold and silk threads". The "recent analysis" is footnoted to Carmen Bernis Madrazo, Tapiceria hispano-musulmana, in Archivo espanol de arte, July-Sep 1954, v. 27, p.198-199 (the whole article is pp. 189-211).
The photos make it clear that they are referring to the very same textile. Baker is much more recent -- but May and Bernis Madrazo are far more specialists on Spanish textiles.
Cotton was one of the new crops introduced into the Iberian peninsula by the Muslims. The improved Islamic irrigation techniques had a lot to do with this, but Watson suggests that development of a new species of cotton may possibly have increased the growing range of cotton in this time frame, as well. 14
In any case, "cotton cultivation was widespread in the tenth-century Islamic world, from the eastern provinces to North Africa and Iberia, including Egypt and Syria." 15
Watson says "Many places in the western part of Dar al-Islam [Islamic world] -- Egypt, the Maghrib, Spain, and Sicily -- also came to grow cotton and make cotton goods."; "cottons from Djerba, Tunis, and other parts of Ifriqiya [North Africa] were exported to Spain and Italy." Specifically, "In Spain, cotton cultivation is first mentioned in sources of the ninth and tenth centuries, and the manner of growing it is later described by the agronomists Abu al-Khair, Ibn Bassal, and Ibn al-`Awwam.(59) Although the early sources speak of its cultivation only in the south, notably in the Algarve and in the hinterland of Seville and Elvira, later sources state that it was also grown at Guadix and, more surprisingly, in Valencia and Majorca. Andalusian cottons were exported to other parts of Spain and to the cities of the North African coast.(60)" 16
I doubt that large quantities of cotton were exported from al-Andalus to other countries. Some Muslim geographers claim that it was: "Razi reported that the region of Seville produced 'a large quantity of cotton, which is exported to all regions and across the sea.' ... Ibn Ghalib went further, saying that by the late twelfth century Sevillian cotton was 'exported to all parts of the world.' " However, Constable was unable to find much reference to such exports, in the Geniza records or in Latin notarial contracts. Although the records for Andalusi trade are fragmentary, Constable did piece together quite a lot of evidence on many other imports and exports. 17
She says "Arabic geographers noted the success of cotton cultivation and referred to international trade in the product, but their reports must be weighed against the lack of references to Andalusi cotton traffic in other sources. Razi reported [see above]... Later geographers routinely echoed Razi's words ... Nevertheless, Andalusi cotton does not appear prominently in the Geniza, nor in Latin notarial contracts, nor are there many surviving examples of Andalusi cotton textiles. Although the consensus of geographers suggests that al-Andalus must have produced and exported some cotton, the lack of corroborating evidence points out both the difficulty of assessing the importance of cotton traffic and the potential for distortion in any one source." 18
In a twelfth-century quote (see WOOL below), the rich wear cotton, the poor wear wool.
Wool was a minor product of al-Andalus, and was also imported from other countries.
Bolens says "wool was the object of frequent legal wrangling on account of the many small flocks of sheep in the general economy" of al-Andalus 19
, but she also quotes al-Idrisi (1100-1166) that " 'rich people ... wear cotton clothes and short cloaks', while wool is worn by the poorest people." 20
(I wonder -- perhaps the rich stayed in the warm lowlands, and only the poor had to work in the mountain cold? Or perhaps the rich shifted to cotton clothing in summertime, but the poor had to wear wool year-round?)
Baker says that wool was "associated in the Islamic world with simplicity, honesty and piety. It was thus proper clothing for saintly theologians, just rulers and champions of the faith..." 21
But she also discusses that wearing silk was the subject of theological debate 22
-- and most certainly, the Andalusi elite wore silk garments, at least in the earlier centuries before the more zealous Almohads ruled.
Constable mentions a northern Christian tax on flocks traded with Moorish lands, though it's not clear which way the flocks are being traded. 23
In the eleventh century, a Geniza merchant "sent a cargo of wool valued at thirty dinars from Alexandria to Almeria" (that is, from Egypt to al-Andalus). 24
Andalusis imported "raw wool from the Maghrib" (North Africa). 25
"Muslim Spain also imported raw wool, since unlike Roman Spain or later Christian Spain, the Andalusi economy never concentrated on wool production. Zuhri remarked that al-Andalus obtained wools from Tlemcen, and Geniza letters referred to shipments of wool from Egypt to al-Andalus." 26
Merino sheep became a Spanish export after Islamic times, but since they are so famous, and since I've heard many conflicting rumors as to their origin, I'll include this anyway:
"Sheep had been raised in the peninsula since ancient times. The wool produced in and exported from Roman Baetica had a widespread reputation, but the long smooth staple of Roman and Andalusi wools differed from the short crimped merino wool that later became the standard Castilian export. Merino sheep may have been brought to the peninsula during the thirteenth century, but the word merino does not actually appear in Spanish texts until the early fifteenth century. The name probably derives from the Banu- Mari-n, a Maghribi dynasty succeeding the Almohads in the late twelfth century.
"However, it is not clear whether the sheep were brought to al-Andalus in the Muslim period, whether they were imported by later Christian rulers, or whether (as Lopez believed) they were introduced from North Africa to the peninsula in the fourteenth century by Genoese intermediaries who were hoping to establish a reliable Iberian source of wool to supply Italian looms." 27
"In al-Andalus, silk fabrics, as well as raw silk, made up the major portion of exported textiles, distantly followed by woven linens, cottons, woolens, and a peculiar fibre known as sea wool. Andalusi carpets and rugs were also widely traded." 28
Unfortunately, there is a length limit on this paper -- and going into any detail at all on silk would exceed it!
Very briefly, then: Andalusi silk textiles were luxury goods, often involving gold brocade, and were well known and respected in their time. Those that were exported went primarily to other Islamic lands, but some went north to Christian Europe. Most of the Andalusi silk textiles which we have today, survived in Christian contexts -- as ecclesiastical vestments, in royal burials, as reliquary linings, and so on. Whether they came north originally by purchase, as diplomatic gift, as tribute during the Taifa years, or as loot is often difficult to determine.
After the final Christian conquest of Granada, and expulsion of the remaining Muslims, this phase of the Iberian silk industry essentially disappeared, though silk thread was still exported. Later, Spanish weavers copied Italian silks, but that was a separate enterprise.
al-Andalus -- the term most often used today for the part of the Iberian peninsula ruled by the Muslims (some use Andalusia, but this is confusing since that is also the name of a region in modern Spain).
Andalusi -- the term scholars today seem to prefer as the adjective form of al-Andalus, and for inhabitants of al-Andalus (as opposed to Andalusian, a resident of modern Andalusia). When I use it to refer to an inhabitant of al-Andalus, I do not mean to imply Muslim, Christian or Jewish, merely nationality/residence.
Geniza -- "This cache of materials, including thousands of medieval letters and other papers, were preserved in a sealed room of a synagogue in Old Cairo where they were discovered in the late nineteenth century. ... many Geniza letters pertain to the affairs of Jewish merchants trading to and from Egypt during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Over two hundred of them contain references to Andalusis, Andalusi goods, and travel to Andalusi ports." (Constable, Preface, page xx)
Baker, Patricia L. Islamic Textiles, British Museum Press, 1995.
Bolens, Lucie. "The Use of Plants for Dyeing and Clothing: Cotton and Woad in al-Andalus: A Thriving Agricultural Sector (5th/11th - 7th/13th Centuries)", The Legacy of Muslim Spain. (ed. S.K. Jayyusi), Leiden, 1992, pp. 1000-1015.
Constable, Olivia Remie. Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain: The Commercial Realignment of the Iberian Peninsula, 900-1500, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, ed. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Leiden, 1992.
Jenkins, Marilyn. "Al-Andalus: Crucible of the Mediterranean," The Art of Medieval Spain, A.D. 500-1200, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993.
Reilly, Bernard F. "Medieval Spain, A.D. 500-1200," The Art of Medieval Spain, A.D. 500-1200, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993.
Sanchez, Expiracion Garcia. "Agriculture in Muslim Spain", The Legacy of Muslim Spain. (ed. S.K. Jayyusi), Leiden, 1992, pp. 987-999.
Watson, Andrew. "The Rise and Spread of Old World Cotton," Studies in Textile History In Memory of Harold B. Burnham, (ed. Veronika Gervers), Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, 1977, pp. 355-368.
Watt, W. Montgomery. The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe. Edinburgh University Press, 1972 (paperback edition 1982).
BOOKS ON SILKS
Bunt, Cyril G.E. Hispano-Moresque Fabrics. England, 1966. (part of The Worlds Heritage of Woven Fabrics series. mostly black-and-white photos. Islamic style: 10th - 15th centuries)
Bunt, Cyril G.E. Spanish Fabrics. England, 1965. (part of The Worlds Heritage of Woven Fabrics series. mostly black-and-white photos. European style: 12th - 18th centuries)
Gómez-Moreno, Manuel. El Panteon Real de las Huelgas de Burgos. Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Instituto Diego Velázquez, Madrid, 1946. (royal tombs, 12th and 13th centuries. many black-and-white photos.)
Herrero Carretero, Concha. Museu de Telas Medievales: Monasteria de Santa Maria la Real de Huelgas. Madrid: Patrimonio Nacional, 1988. (same royal tombs as in Gómez-Moreno. color photos)
May, Florence Lewis. Silk Textiles of Spain: Eighth to Fifteenth Century. Hispanic Society of America, 1957.
1 Constable, p. 159
2 Reilly, p. 6
3 Watt, p. 10-13
4 Jenkins, p. 75
5 Reilly, p. 6
6 Bolens, p. 1003 for the chapter contents; Sanchez, p. 991 for the fact that al-`Awwam is Hispano-Muslim, probably from Seville.
7 Reilly, p. 6
8 Baker, p. 24
9 Constable, p. 141
10 Bolens, p. 1007-8
11 Bolens, p. 1008
12 Constable, p. 159-160. Ibn Hawqal was an early geographer
13 Baker, p. 61
14 Watson, p. 359-362
15 Baker, p. 76
16 Watson, p. 362; the three agronomists are eleventh-twelfth centuries, Sanchez p. 990.
17 Constable, p. 142
18 Constable, p. 142-3
19 Bolens, p. 1004
20 Bolens, p. 1007
21 Baker, p. 21
22 Baker, p. 16
23 Constable, p. 45
24 Constable, p. 129
25 Constable, p. 159
26 Constable, p. 160
27 Constable, p. 228. She cites (74) Klein, Mesta
, p. 4; M. Lombard, Les textiles dans le monde musulman du VIIe au XIIe siecle
. [Paris, 1978], p. 26; R.S. Lopez, "The Origin of the Merino Sheep," Joshua Starr Memorial Volume
. [New York, 1953], p. 163
28 Constable, p. 159
Last updated: Jan. 2001. Initial version.
If you wish to reproduce or reprint this article, you may do so, subject to the following conditions:
1. The author's name, original publication credit, copyright notice, this permission notice, and the URL (web address) must be included.
2. It must be quoted in full, with no changes, deletions, or additions. Or, email me
for approval of the section you wish to excerpt.
3. It must be for non-commercial (not-for-profit) purposes.
Quick-and-Dirty Notes on Colors and Dyes
Copyright © 2001 L. Meyer (known in the SCA as Halima de la Lucha)
If you plan to make garb for Islamic Spain, be aware that color could have great significance. Contending political factions in Islamic countries could adopt particular colors; some colors would be avoided by, or used by, particular religious groups; and so on.
I need to do much more research on this, but who knows when I'll find time for that -- so till then, here's a little info relevant to making appropriate garb for Islamic Spain. Use at your own risk :-) Or if you research it yourself, please let me know what you find out! (My email
The meaning associated with a color could change substantially from country to country and century to century, and I haven't found color customs specific to al-Andalus yet. (If you find any good references, please let me know!) Meanwhile, here's a little general info from a fairly brief glance at Patricia Baker, Islamic Textiles, British Museum Press, 1995.
She says white is considered in Islamic law as most fitting for Muslim men, the color for Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and burial.
Green in time came to be identified with the descendants of the Prophet and then as the color of Islam;
18th-century Europeans wearing green in Istanbul soon regretted it.
Baker also says that black was worn as a sign of mourning, especially in Shi'ite areas, but also as protection against the evil eye.
According to Sunni religious tradition, yellow was worn by non-Muslims in the Prophet's lifetime, and so along with blue, red and black it was occasionally stipulated for outdoor dress of non-Muslims. The Umayyad Caliphate was Sunni, but she doesn't say whether the Almoravids and Almohads were. (And since this is merely Quick and Dirty Notes, I haven't checked other books...).
Linen and cotton (cellulose or plant fibers) are more difficult to dye than wool and silk (protein or animal fibers), using natural dyes. Knowledge of proper mordanting has a lot to do with its success -- e.g., using some form of tannin first helps enormously in mordanting plant fibers. (Mordants are required with most, but not all, natural dyes, to help them bind to the fiber, and form a lasting color there.) Various tannins (tannic acids) are found in a wide range of plants, e.g. the blackberries in my back yard, numerous tree barks and leaves, tea, and so on.
In any case, woad, like indigo, can be used quite successfully on plant fibers, since it is a vat dye which does not require a mordant.
Madder has been found on linen at Viking-age digs; see Textile Resources for the Re-enactor, by Thora Sharptooth, for the reference. (There's a link to her website on my homepage.)
I've read *somewhere* reputable that saffron works on vegetable fibers. It may be a substantive dye, meaning that it too does not need mordanting, but I really need to do more homework on that! Also, beware of extravagant claims about saffron prices today; yes, it's $11.00 per gram in a grocery store, but I bought it in bulk at $34.00 per ounce (roughly 30 grams) at a reputable bulk spice supplier -- expensive, yes, but far from impossible.
Dyes can be combined, also, so red from madder and blue from woad would produce purple; yellow and blue would produce green; yellow and red would give orange.
In conclusion, please remember -- this is quick-and-dirty. I will improve it over time...
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