To dye for

Old paint recipes for new use

Cryptic scribbles on a yellowed piece of paper: by deciphering the text and following the instructions revealed, centuries-old dye recipes were revived for the exhibition ‘To Dye For’. Librarian Jantiene van Elk shares the results of her citizen science project, which she hopes will inspire many more makers to explore traditional dyeing techniques.

Mix 9 grams of alum, 7 grams of tartar, 6 grams of bluewood powder and 60 grams of madder root in a large saucepan of lukewarm water. Soak your wool in the mixture for three quarters of an hour, stirring occasionally, for a beautiful brick-red colour with no toxic residues. After you have finished with this natural dye bath, simply pour it down the drain.

This recipe comes from one of the 19th-century ‘dye recipe books’ in the museum library, which until recently were largely hidden away in their acid-free covers in a box. With the growing interest in sustainable raw materials, the time was right to get them out of storage and share them with a wider audience. Librarian Jantiene van Elk worked with transcribers from the Tilburg Regional Archive to translate the old Brabant scrawls into legible text, which can now be used by professional and amateur dyers alike.

Verfrecept voor Steenrood. Photo TextielMuseum

The dye recipe for brick red with madder from Jellingshaus’ manuscript of 1830.

Complex relationships
Van Elk used the transcripts as the starting point for a ‘citizen science’ project with a group of scientists and volunteers. The aim was not only to recreate the recipes but also to unravel the stories behind them. The group deliberately chose manuscripts from the 19th century – the library has recipe books from 1700 to 1970 – because Tilburg was at the time one of the most important industrial cities in the Netherlands. “Its reach was even bigger than I thought,” says Van Elk. “Previously, the industry was described mainly from the perspective of the workers and manufacturers in Tilburg. This research into historical dyes and dyeing techniques opens the door to the whole world and shows the complex relationships between people near and far and between humans and nature.”

Colonial colours
The research also reveals how textile dyers in Tilburg coloured the world with their wool, and it puts the entire dyeing process in a cultural-historical context. “Behind those difficult-to-decipher letters on paper and a handful of samples lies a much bigger story,” says Van Elk. It starts with the origin of dyes, which were all natural until about 1860. That is less sustainable and responsible than it sounds, because in the colonies, where most of the dyes came from, production of the sought-after ingredients had far-reaching human and environmental impacts. For example, cultivating cochineal lice, harvesting bluewood from tropical trees and growing indigo plants went hand in hand with forced labour and exploitation in Mexico, Latin America, Indonesia and Suriname. In the Canary Islands, women were paid a pittance to dangle over the cliff’s edge on rickety swings to pick lichens to make purple orseille.

Claudy Jongstra leest verfrecepten. Photo Willeke Machiels.

Claudy Jongstra reads paint recipes from the early 1800s from the Hillebrands company in Leek. These Groningen recipes are also part of the library collection. The dyers used, among other things, woad and woad.

Woad, weld and madder
But the manuscripts also include more human- and nature-friendly options: blue, yellow and red can be produced from local plants such as woad, weld and madder. Claudy Jongstra, who made her first woven work in the TextielLab specially for this exhibition, was inspired by a historical recipe book from the library to dye the work naturally. Van Elk hopes that more makers from the lab will discover the manuscripts. “We’ve unlocked a lot of information about colour. This project has brought the past and present closer together and highlighted how much there is still to learn from old traditions. I want to share the knowledge we’ve gained with as many people as possible. I’m currently doing that via Teams, but all the information will soon be available in the online catalogue.”

‘To Dye For’ exhibition on display until 2 October 2022

Five of the manuscripts along with the stories and samples from the citizen scientists will be on display until 2 October in the exhibition ‘To Dye For’. The exhibition also features work made by various designers in the TextielLab that explores both the beauty and dilemmas of dyed textiles.