Dr Susan Kay-Williams – July 2018

The speaker for our July meeting was Dr Susan Kay-Williams who is the Chief Executive of the Royal School of Needlework based at Hampton Court Palace.  Her talk was entitled Imperial Purple to Denim Blue – the colourful history of textiles.

Dr Kay-William started her talk by showing us an image of 1669 which showed the various stages of the dyeing process – the vat, a brick vessel where hanks of wool on a pole could be submerged and a plunge pool, all very similar to what we use in hand dyeing today.  She said that mordants which assist in the fixing process of dyeing had been found in fragments of textiles found in the Indus valley dating back thousands of years.

​She then went on to show us an image of a Coptic warrior from the 5/6th century in Egypt and explained the three things that stopped the progress of knowledge were war, plague and water.  By the 19thC people would take mordants and dyes to different countries and the different components of the water would determine the results of the dyeing sometimes changing the colour completely.  

To view an image of the Coptic warrior which is in the Art Institute of Chicago click on this link:   https://www.artic.edu/artworks/99602/fragment-hanging

​Dr Kay-Williams then went on to talk about individual colours starting with purple and explained that it was originally found from the gland in the mollusc from within a shell. There are two purples, red and blue purple and Alexander the Great took bolts of cloth as spoils of war.  In Rome it was only the Emperor and a few senators who were allowed to wear purple and we were shown a mosaic image of his wife Theodora Ravenna in a purple cloak.  

To see the mosaic of Theodora click on this link:  

The next colour to discuss was red with copper and allum being the mordants and the root of madder, the dye.  It was made commercially in the Netherlands and we were shown an image of the various stages of colour from the intense colour of the first bath to the exhausted pale shade showing the dye had been used up.  Henry VIII’s favourite colour was red which is shown in many portraits.  Venice was famous for making red from the insect Kermise which was found in the month of June on trees in Southern Spain, Armenia and Poland.  It was the most expensive dye colour for  the most expensive fabric and the Pope decreed that cardinals should not use purple but red.  It was not until 50 years later they discovered cochineal beetle.  Per grain of dye cochineal was much better.
Links showing portraits wearing red.

The portrait of the Young Flemish man in 1540 shows all garments in red and a shirt of blackwork – Hampton Court.

Henry VIII in a fine red suit heavily encrusted with jewels

The  portrait of Cosimo de Medici by Jacopo Pontormo in 1520 Florence.

The next colour on Dr Kay Williams’ list was blue which she explained was the most popular colour in the world.  Up to 8thC Mary had been shown in dar colours but it was then decreed that God should be celebrated in colour and in 11th C the Wilton Diptych shows lapis lazuli.  In Europe the dye for blue was wode but in India it was indigo.  Jenny Balfour Paul has written an in depth history of Indigo.

Click on this link to see the blue Wilton Diptych: 

The European dye for yellow was weld whereas further afield saffron, gathered from the stigma of the saffron crocus, was used.  Dr Kay-Williams explained that the Chinese had found a very powerful yellow colour which did not fade and therefore ancient examples of textiles have kept their vibrant colours. Scholars have tried to find out what they used without success.

The colour green could be seen in the famous Arnolfini portrait by Jan Van Eyck 1434 and this was thought to pay homage to the master dyers of Bruges because it showed deep browns and a deep green for the dress.

Click on this link to see the Arnolfini portrait: 

The poor man’s black usually came from black sheep where as rich black was achieved by overdyeing as can be seen in Rembrandt’s painting.

The final colour which Dr Kay-Williams talked about was white and she said this was difficult to achieve because the material had to be bleached and re-bleached.  The image she showed was of Queen Elizabeth I in a white gown.

Click on this link to see Queen Elizabeth:

To conclude her talk and bringing us up to date Dr Kay-Williams talked briefly about the “new blue” of the military uniforms and the most popular fabric nowadays, denim. 

​Her final image was of the portrait of Madame Moitessier by Ingres.  She has become the living advert for the silk industry of Lyons to be seen in the National Gallery.

Click here to see the image of Madame Moitessier:
Report by Ros

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