Color and Dyes in Early Rus
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.
Apple - red-brown dyes per Pushkareva.
Birch - yellow from leaves (bark sheets?) per Pushkareva.
Blackthorn - yellow per Pushkareva97.
Blueberry - blue per Pushkareva.
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.]
Cornflower - blue per Pushkareva.
Drok - yellow per Pushkareva89.
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.
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
Nettles - used for green colors according to Stepanova.
Oak - bark gives golden-brown per Pushkareva. Oak gall was used per Kolchin. Wood and bark provides ehlagovaya acid (see above) according to Nahlik.
Ocher - perhaps the "clay" mordant mentioned by Nahlik?
Onion peel - golden-brown per Pushkareva.
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.
Pomegranate - fruit is a source of ehlagovaya acid (see above) according to Nahlik.
Poplar - buds are source of khrisin per Nahlik. See khrisin.
Spruce - needles used for green colors according to Stepanova article (see indigo notes).
St. John's Wort - red-brown dyes per Pushkareva.
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.
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