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21 Apr 2023

Nature’s dyes

Written by Emma Inglis, Regional Curator (South & West)
A woven basket filled with bundles of different coloured yarn, each one with a label attached naming the plant the dye comes from.
Soft colours obtained from garden dyes
In the garden at Weaver’s Cottage there are many plants that can be used to create natural dyes. Their flowers, leaves or roots have been valued for centuries for their colourful properties.

Many of the cottages in Kilbarchan traditionally had long gardens, like the one at Weaver’s Cottage, where families grew fruit, vegetables and flowers. At one time they might also have grown plants that served a dual purpose: ones with flowers, leaves or roots containing pigments that could be used to create colourful natural dyes for linen, cotton, silk or wool.

The history of some of these plants is now described for visitors to Weaver’s Cottage in their new garden planting and interpretation.

Yellow occurs in numerous shades in the garden, from golden yellows to flamboyant oranges. Weld (Reseda luteola), also commonly known as dyer’s rocket or dyer’s weed, has been used since medieval times and yields a strong bright yellow dye. Other cottage garden flowers such as hollyhocks, centaurea, dahlias and crocus can produce softer shades of blue, orange and yellow. Onion skins can produce long-lasting dyes ranging from yellows and oranges to brown.

Many garden plants are valued for their beautiful red flowers but the most reliable plant for red dye is madder (Rubia tinctorum) which actually has yellow flowers. It is the long roots of the madder that are the source of its red pigment.

In the 19th century, Glasgow’s industrial scale dyeworks imported natural dyestuffs from across the world, including vast quantities of madder from Europe. Madder was an essential ingredient in the creation of Turkey Red, the distinctive bright red used to dye or print cotton textiles. Indigo was brought from South Asia to create the distinctive blue of Kilmarnock bonnets (among other things) and logwood was imported from the West Indies to create shades of violet, grey and black.

A folded red tartan bedcover, with one corner folded up and over to expose the plain red lining.
A tartan bedcover from the cottage, backed with Turkey Red coloured cotton

The garden at Weaver’s Cottage is now a haven for visitors. Next time you visit look out for the plants and plant labels that help tell the history of this beautiful place.

The garden interpretation at Weaver’s Cottage was made possible through a generous donation from the Incorporation of Bonnetmakers and Dyers of Glasgow.

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