Color and Dyes in Early Rus

by Sofya la Rus, Mka Lisa Kies
Updated 4 February 2006

Colored fabrics were called krashenin and included homespun linen dyed blue, green and red, and set aside for boyar clothing. (Kireyeva) and (Stamerov) Despite all this, the raw color of unbleached linen predominated in peasant clothes with bleached white linen appearing in separate costume elements. (Stamerov)

Ancient frescoes indicate that the clothing of noble women was many-colored and used striking combinations of fresh, rich tones. Novgorod birchbark letters mention "portishche zeleni" and "portishche golubine" (i.e. green and sky blue clothing), "zolotnik zelenogo sholku" ("old measure of weight" of green silk). And other examples are found quite a lot. (Pushkareva89) One princess owned dresses in white, gold, yellow, crimson, green, red. (Pushkareva97)

In the 9th-13th centuries, linen fabric was mainly of a white color. Wools were the natural wool color or dyed with bright colors - mostly red, green, yellow and black colors. (Rabinovich)

The favorite color of clothing in the 13th-17th cent. was red, in the second place – black, further – yellow, green, blue and white (Artsikhovkij, B.G., p. 281-282). The latter predominated numerically (linens, shirts [sorochki], etc.). (Rabinovich)

In 1628 V. Ya Vorontsov complained that on the road from the city of Shuya he was robbed by peasants – village elder Ondryushka Efremov, “chelovek” (probably, a house serf) Oleshka Semenov and peasant Potapko Dement’ev. On the village elder was “kaftan of wool homespun, kaftan of sheepskin, warm, cap azure broadcloth nastrafil’no [cheaply made?], mittens sheepskin”, on the peasant – “kaftan wool homespun, kaftan sheepskin, hat cherry broadcloth lundysh [?] on fox”. It is interesting to compare color: light blue odnoryadka, red kaftan and cherry hat of the house serf, the “naked”, in all probability, caftan of the village elder and the peasant in their hats – azure and cherry. (Rabinovich)

Favored colors included various shades of red (crimson, magenta), blue (dark blue, sky blue) and sometimes green. The Russian language records dozens of terms for describing cloth colors. The most popular color was, of course, red. (Kireyeva) and (Pushkareva97) and (Stamerov) This is demonstrated in archeological finds, among which more than half are fabric of reddish-brown tones, however one finds also black, and bluish, and green, and light-brown. (Pushkareva89)

The abundance of red tints in the costumes of ancient Russian women is explained by the fact that red was the color of protection in superstition and the fact that there were numerous natural dyes for red-brown colors. (Pushkareva89)

Fabrics were dyed mainly with vegetable dyes, but also with animal dyes. Blue dye was made from son-travy (pasque flower?), cornflower, and blueberry/huckleberry [Vaccinium spp and Gaulussacia spp, all called черник in Russian]. Yellow came from blackthorn (?) or droka [a steppe plant in the bean family, see below], and leaves (or bark sheets?) of birch. Golden-brown was provided by onion peels, oak and pear bark. Red brown dyes came from buckwheat, St. John's wort, wild apple tree bark, alder and buckthorn. (Pushkareva97 and 89)

Several fabrics were woven of wool of natural brown, black or other colors, others were dyed with such organic dyes as chervets [insect-based dyes in the cochineal family] and “chernil’nyye oreshki” [oak gall]. Also used in dyeing were mineral substances – ocher, red iron-ore [zheleznyak] and others. (Kolchin)

Adam Nahlik analyzed 14 fabrics from the Novgorod excavations for evidence of dyes. He notes that the action of soil acids has tended to make many of the archeological fabrics look rather brown, disguising their original hues. His dye list includes: ehlagovaya acid, emodin, chrysin, indigo, lak-dej, madder and kermes. See discussion below. (Nahlik)

Novgorod fabric mordants per Nahlik: chromium salts, tin, iron, iron chloride (?), clay (ocher?), tonin (tanin?), acid (?).

Modern mordants listed by Brown: alum, chrome, tin, iron, copper/blue vitriol, tannin. Other treating agents - cream of tartar, Glauber's salt.

Information below from Pushkareva, Kolchin, Nahlik and Stepanova is specific to medieval Rus. Kramer, Castino, and Brown are modern Western dyers.

Alder - Member of the birch family. Red-brown dyes per Pushkareva. Juice is source of emodin per Nahlik. See emodin.

Alder has good tannin properties and gives black and a variety of other dark colors. (Kramer).

Apple - red-brown dyes per Pushkareva.

Bark with alum gives yellow. (Kramer)
Bark with chrome gives yellow-tan. (Kramer)
Twigs without mordant give yellow. (Castino)
Twigs with chrome - orange. (Castino)
Twigs with alum - apricot. (Castino)

Birch - yellow from leaves (bark sheets?) per Pushkareva.

Birchbark without mordant - light brown. (Brown)
Birchbarks give light brown to black. Usable species include Betula lutea, B. papyrifera, B. lenta. (Kramer)
Inner bark of white birch, B. papyrifera, best collected from decaying downed wood, gives tan. (Castino)

Blackthorn - yellow per Pushkareva97.

According to Ozhigov dictionary, a thorny shrub of the rose family that bears a tart blue-black fruit (sloe). This seems likely to be a mistranslation, since the two sources for yellow dye given in Pushkareva89 are "droka and list'ev berezy", but in Pushkareva97 (the English translation) they are blackthorn and birchbark. See droka.

Blueberry - blue per Pushkareva.

Russian term is chernik, черник, and apparently covers both Vaccinium (blueberry) and Gaylussacia (huckleberry) spp. Interestingly, the English terms for these plants include: blueberry, bilberry, deerberry, huckleberry, hurtleberry, whortleberry (V. myrtillus). This seems a bit excessive, especially compared to the Russian.
For blue/purple/grays per Brown.
Frozen berries with alum - pale blue. (Castino)

Buckthorn - red-brown dyes per Pushkareva.

Buckwheat - red-brown dyes per Pushkareva.

Chervets (coccides, cochineal-like) - used per Kolchin. See lak-dej, below.

Chestnut - noble chestnut is a source of ehlagovaya acid per Nahlik.

Chrysin (a flavone) - obtained from poplar buds (Populus italica, P. nigra, P. pyramidalis) per Nahlik. [Text mistakenly gives Latin names as "Topulus" spp.]

Its use on "openwork" fabrics, local to Rus, indicates the dye's use in Rus by the early Middle Ages. (Nahlik)
With "clay" mordant gives wool yellow color per Nahlik.

Cornflower - blue per Pushkareva.

Cornflower = bachelors button Centaurea cyanus and the petals provide the blue color per Kramer.

Drok - yellow per Pushkareva89.

According to Ozhigov dictionary, a shrubby steppe plant of the bean family with yellow flowers. See blackthorn.
According to Dal' dictionary, Genista tinctoria, i.e. dyers greenweed.

Ehlagovaya [элаговая] acid - widely distributed in the plant world and obtained from oak wood and bark, pomegranate fruit, "noble" chestnut, and the stones formed in stomachs of animals that eat bark of plants containing "golitanin" голитанин or "ehlagotin" элаготин according to Nahlik. He notes that ehlagovaya acid is easily extracted from oak bark with hot water or dilute alcohol. It is called a "mordant dye" which apparently means that it doesn't require a separate mordant.

Appears in use in early Middle Ages, frequently found on "knitted" items and other coarse fabrics of obviously local manufacture. However, it is not just for poorer quality materials, since it was also used to dye a "special" fabric with a square/block pattern, although this piece may have been imported. (Nahlik)
With chrome mordant gives a yellow-olive green color. (Nahlik)
With iron mordant give black coloring. (Nahlik)
With iron chloride (?) mordant gives black-blue shade. (Nahlik)
Seems to be a form of tannin. The black coloring attained when combined with iron mordants would be correct for tannin. And it turns about that there are many tannins, besides tannic acid. These include elegiac acid (ehlagovaya?) which is the bloom/sediment of hydrolyzable tannins called pyrogallols, gallotanins (gallic acid); and ellagitannins (ellagic acid), etc.

Emodin (an anthroquinone, a group of chemicals that also includes madder, etc.) - in juice of alder (Alnus glutinosa) gives light to dark brown color depending on the amount of oxygen in the juice collected in hollows of branches, and the mordant. (Nahlik)

With iron mordant gives dark brown color. (Nahlik)
See alder, above.

Indigo - Nahlik found one fabric from his 14 samples with indigo dye, combined with an unknown yellow dye. He goes on to discuss the origin of indigo from Indigofera curil (same as I. tintoria?), and that it was brought into Europe in the 12th century, imported via Genoa (Krupp mentiones Genoese tax records first noting indigo in 1140) and Venice, and widespread in Germany and Flanders by the 14-15th century. However, since the indigo-dyed fabric he analyzed actually dates from the 13th cent. he concludes that the date of the arrival of indigo into northern Europe can be pushed back to that time. He makes no mention of woad, Isatis tinctoria, nor do most other sources on Medieval Rus garb that I've seen. (Except a brief on-line article by Yulia Stepanova on "Style in Ancient Rus" in the Russian-language magazine Rodina, Feb. 2006.) The Russian word for woad is вайда.

Christina Krupp points out, in From Woad to Blue, that while it is possible to chemically detect the presence of indigotin, the main colorant of the dye "indigo", current tests cannot determine whether it came from woad or the indigo plant. The ratio of indigotin to indirubin (another coloring compound in indigo) can provide clues, but most archeological samples are too degraded or too small to make such an analysis. However, it is sometimes possible to detect a green tint supposedly characteristic to woad dyes due to the presence flavin compounds from the original plant. This is very interesting in light of the green color of the textile that Nahlik analyzed, due to an "unknown yellow dye". Krupp also says that scholars seem to prefer to attribute early medieval northern European indigo-dyed textiles to woad, rather than true indigo, in cases when no physical evidence either way exists, presumably for historical reasons.
An article about the ancient textiles found in the Altai Mountains associated with the Pazyryk culture of 2,500 years ago discusses the use of indigo dyes in their fabric analysis, and concludes that the source was most likely woad, despite the lack of indirubin in the samples, since woad grew in the Caucasus, South Europe, and the Near East, while indigo only grew in India and Bengal.(Polos'mak)

Iron - red iron-ore used per Kolchin. [as a mordant?]

Kermes - a red dye from the "gnat" Coccus illicis (or Kermes ilicus) living on oaks (Q. coccifera) and known from ancient times. Brought to Europe from Persia by the Arabs in the Middle Ages. Such dye was known also to the Ukrainian and Germans, obtained from a plant louse that lived on the plant Selavantus perennis. The coloring compound is kermesic acid. (Nahlik)

An article about the ancient textiles found in the Altai Mountains associated with the Pazyryk culture of 2,500 years ago discusses similar dyes in their fabric analysis, including Kermes vermilio, a source of kermesic acid. See lak-dej, below. (Polos'mak)
Further on-line research indicates that the dye known to the Ukrainians and Germans is probably Polish cochineal, from Margarades polonicus or Porphyrophora polonica or Coccus polonicus, that feeds on Scleranthus perennis.
Oldest recorded dye obtained from insects that feed on a certain kind of oak. Called "scarlet" in the Bible. (Brown)
With "tonin" from ehlagovaya acid (tannin?) gives a red color. (Nahlik)
With acidic mordant gives an orange color. (Nahlik)
With tin - purple. (Nahlik)
With clay - maroon. (Nahlik)

Lak-dej (a transliteration of "lac dye"?) - dye related to cochineal according to Nahlik. The pigment is laccaic acid and is obtained by a complex chemical operation. He says that there is some debate on the exact source of this dye. Some say its from the scale insect Coccus laccae which drinks from the plant Ficus indicus of Indian, Persian or Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) origin. Others derive it from the plants Laurencee, Perseacee, and Gascaria madogascariensis Targ Tozz. (Nahlik)

On-line research indicates that the lac insect is also called Laccifera lacca or Kerria lacca, and that it feeds on over 160 types of host trees in its native habitat, but especially Ficus spp, F. religiosa in particular.
An article about the ancient textiles found in the Altai Mountains associated with the Pazyryk culture of 2,500 years ago discusses similar dyes in their fabric analysis. They discuss a coccide called Porphyrophora, a source of carminic acid for dying, and also Kermes vermilio, a source of kermesic acid, both of which inhabit the eastern Mediterranean. (Polos'mak)
Whatever it's source, "lak-dej" appears in Novgorod fabrics dating to the 13th century. (Nahlik).
True cochineal, Dactylopis coccus, gives carminic acid and was found by the Spaniards in Mexico in the early 1500s. (Brown and Kramer)
With clay mordant gives wool a scarlet color
With tin gives a purple color
Pure lakkainovaya acid gives wool a copper-red
Cochineal plus alum - red. (Castino)
Cochineal plus chrome - pink to purple. (Castino)
Cochineal plus tin - scarlet. (Castino)
Cochineal plus iron - maroon. (Castino)

Madder - dye from madder plant, Rubia tinctorum and used since ancient times. The presence of its name in Slavic mythology demonstrates the longevity the Slav's knowledge of it. Documented in Europe by the time of Charlemagne, with wide cultivation in France and Germany in the 13th cent. The dye comes from dried out and ground root, and the primary coloring compound is alizarin. It is a "mordant dye", which seems to mean that it doesn't need a mordant. (Nahlik)

The most common red, rose-red color, 35 species, chemicals are alizarin and purpurin per Brown.
Used with clay-lime mordant. (Nahlik)
Without mordant - orange/red. (Castino)
With iron salts - red-violet. (Nahlik)
With alum - red. (Brown)
With chrome - rust. (Brown)
With alum or chrome - reddish orange. (Castino)
With tin - orange. (Castino)

Nettles - used for green colors according to Stepanova.

Give yellow-green per Brown.

Oak - bark gives golden-brown per Pushkareva. Oak gall was used per Kolchin. Wood and bark provides ehlagovaya acid (see above) according to Nahlik.

The black oak, Q. velutina, provides quercitron which gives a famous bright yellow dye according to Kramer and Brown.

Ocher - perhaps the "clay" mordant mentioned by Nahlik?

Onion peel - golden-brown per Pushkareva.

With alum - burnt orange. (Brown)
With chrome - brass. (Brown)
Red onion gives brown. (Kramer)
Yellow onion gives yellow shades. (Kramer)
Outer skins with alum - yellow. (Castino)
Outer skins with chorme - orange/golden-brown. (Castino)

Pasque flower (son-travy) - blue per Pushkareva. Anemone patens is the American prairie flower known as the pasque flower. I'm not sure it is the same plant.

Pear - bark gives golden-brown per Pushkareva.

Leaves give yellow/orange/gold colors per Brown.
Twigs alone give yellow. (Castino)
Twigs with chrome give orange-apricot. (Castino)

Pomegranate - fruit is a source of ehlagovaya acid (see above) according to Nahlik.

Poplar - buds are source of khrisin per Nahlik. See khrisin.

Leaves give yellow/orange/gold colors per Brown.

Spruce - needles used for green colors according to Stepanova article (see indigo notes).

St. John's Wort - red-brown dyes per Pushkareva.

With alum - yellow. (Castino)
with chrome - deep yellow. (Castino)

Tannin, танин - while not specifically named in any of the Russian sources I've consulted, except perhaps the "tonin" mordant listed by Nahlik, many of the plants they do mention are excellent sources of tannin or tannic acid, and tannin is a crucial substance in most cultures fordyeing, as a colorant and a mordant, and in leather tanning. In fact, "tanning" is called дубление, presumably derived from tannic acid, called дубильная кислота in my dictionary, both terms deriving from the Russian word for oak, дуб. See ehlagovaya acid for more information on tannins.

Other medieval dyes conspicuous by their absence from my Russian references: lichens, murex, saffron, safflower, weld, woad.

Textile References: Brown, Rachel. The Weaving, Spinning and Dyeing Book. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 1978.

Castino, Ruth. Spinning & Dyeing the Natural Way. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. New York. 1974.

Khvoschchinskaia, Natalia. "New Finds of Medieval Textiles in the North of Novgorod Land". NESAT IV, edited by Lise Bender Jorgensen and Elisabeth Munskgaard. 1992.

Kolchin, B.A. Wooden Artifacts of Medieval Novgorod...

Kramer, Jack. Natural Dyes: Plants and Processes. Charles Scribner's Sons. New York. 1972.

Krupp, Christina (ska Marieke van de Dal). "From Woad to Blue". The Compleat Anachronist #129. Autumn 2005.

Nahlik, Adam. "Ткани Новгорода" [Fabrics of Novgorod from Volume IV of Works of the Novgorod Archeological Excavation] "Труды Новгородской Археологической Экспедитии." A.B. Artsikhovskij and B.A. Kolchin. (editors) No. 123 of Материалы и Исследования по Археологии СССР. USSR Academy of Science. Moscow. 1963.

"Natural colourants and dyestuffs." NON-WOOD FOREST PRODUCTS 4. FAO - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. //

Polos'mak, N.V., V.V. Malakhov, and A.V. Tkachev. Древнейший Текстиль из "Замерзших" Могил Гроного Алтая [Ancient Textiles from "Zamerzshikh" grave of Altai Mountains]. //

Stepanova, Yulia. "Мода в Древней Руси" [Style in Ancient Rus]. On-line Родина [Rodina], Feb. 2006.

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