I See Your True Colours…

There is a certain note of heartbreak that attends the discovery of a stray red sock in a white wash. Things are just never the same again, are they? We’ve all borne that painful scar, as we’ve bid farewell to our favourite white shirt.

But how many of us take the time to ponder these imponderables? What is colour? What is this so-called ‘red’? An agent of cruel torture sent to torment us? How did it come to be?

Within the National Folklore Collection resides an unassuming rectangular wooden crate measuring 84cm by 61cm by 16cm, whose contents seek to answer some of these questions.

Donated by Helen Lillias Mitchell MRDS MRHA (1915 – 2000), founder of The Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and the Weaving Department of the National College of Art and Design, this crate contains the winning entry for the 1985 Royal Dublin Society Mitchell Prize for Research into Natural Dyes, as submitted by Evelyn Lyndsay (d. 1991).

Evelyn was herself a master craftswoman, winning the 1971 Coras Tráchtála Teoranta Scholarship to study tapestry weaving at the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland and its Swedish counterpart in Stockholm. She represented Ireland at the World Crafts Council in Istanbul in 1972 and later became the recipient of the Royal Dublin Society’s California Gold Medal in 1976 for her weaving work, which preceded her 1985 victory. She went on to have a distinguished career as a lecturer at the National College of Art and Design, and continued to create and exhibit her work nationally and internationally until her death.

Her textile works are now housed and displayed in churches, museums, libraries and universities across Ireland, as well as being held in respected public institutions in Italy and Belgium, and private collections in the United States. Evelyn’s research on natural dyes in 1985 which won her the Mitchell Award that year saw her discover a huge range of colours from such diverse organic sources as lichens, plants, flowers, leaves, berries, fruit, vegetables, herbs, and roots, amongst others.

Traditionally, the process of dyeing had three stages: washing, mordanting and dyeing. Evelyn’s three-dimensional woven forms and accompanying methodologies, now housed in the National Folklore Collection and seen in the images above, carefully document her dyeing processes, and her discoveries along the way. She systematically notes each natural item used, its Latin name, the particular part she utilized (skin, leaves etc), and the mordant used.

Her mordants (the substances, typically inorganic oxides, or metallic salts, that combine with the dye to render it permanent), include alum, iron, oxalic acid, and vinegar. We should note that less than salubrious traditional alum alternatives could be obtained from sheep manure, wood ash, oak galls, and human urine. Not to be recommended.

Evelyn also discusses the rich array of natural sources from which her dyes were first created – plant petals, leaves, skins, roots or berries. And as she writes

“... if you live in the city and do not even have a window box some very good dyes may be got from vegetables and kitchen cupboard produce.”

She then proceeds to describe the dyeing process, and how one might alter the shade and colour, noting that “iron will dull or sadden a colour”, whilst “tin will brighten a colour.” Her processes do however come with certain caveats, as when she remarks that “some plants and most mordants are poisonous so use a pot only for dyeing. Never use a cooking container.” Or when she advises that

“… as a general rule roots, bark and lichens give the fastest dyes. No colour will completely fade away, but will last longer if kept away from sunlight.”

With pain-staking care Evelyn documented 164 samples in total and these now appear as 11 large cardboard display stands with accompanying woollen cuttings showing the full spectrum of colour, all achieved through natural dyes. One may see a shade of yellow from bracken roots or a shade of green from a foxglove.

This traditional dyeing process has been known in Ireland for centuries, and relies not solely on plants, flowers and trees, but was known to extend to insects and shellfish at one time. Lichen was one of the oldest and most popular dyestuffs used in Ireland. Folklorist Bríd Mahon when writing of the dyeing process describes it as a plant organism composed of fungus and alga, usually green, grey or yellow in colour, which grows on rocks, tree trunks, roofs and walls. It was often the task of the younger members of the family to collect these substances for use in the home.

The National Folklore Collection archive abounds with material on this practice, as well as on an array of other traditional domestic crafts, such as spinning, weaving, and knitting. The material culture, the customs, beliefs and traditions that accompanied them, as well as a store of superbly atmospheric photographs capturing the practitioners in action are all available for consultation. So too does the Schools’ Collection at Duchas.ie come into its own with 108 specific references to the dyeing trade, a testament in itself to the vital function this practice played in the lives of our forebears as recently as the early 20th century.

But now, back to that rascal red? Apparently it can be obtained from wild madder plant roots. Clearly not as mad or wild as we were when we found that stray sock!

A knitter from Dunquin, Co. Kerry

Peig Sayer, Dunquin, Co. Kerry. Photographer Harriet Hjorth Wetterstrom, 1946.

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan, National Folklore Collection.



Shaw-Smith, D. (2003). Traditional crafts of Ireland. New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson.

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