One wouldn’t think that a color could elicit world wide espionage and deceit, but in the 1700’s that is exactly what happened with a dye that produced a colorfast, bright red fabric. Up until the time when “Turkey Red” became available on a global scale, red fabrics would have a brownish hue and with sun exposure and regular washing, it would fade quite quickly. But due to a unique dying process that was said to have started in the Levant region of the Middle East, the world soon experienced something that would change the history of the textile industry forever.
The term “Turkey Red” refers the process of dying that was used to produce a fade resistant color. The name “Turkey Red” was used to convey to the consumer that the red dye that had been used to color the fabric, was the world renowned, fade resistant, vibrant red that they could depend on.
It was not the people of the Middle East who perfected this dye or created a world wide demand for it though, but rather it was the skilled dyers of Holland and France who did this. Although the Dutch and the French went to great lengths to keep their recipe a secret, the persistent actions of spies from around the world finally unveiled the secret recipe and sometime in the 1780’s Britain began to manufacture, what we know as, the Turkey Red dye.
I have not had the privilege of seeing this particular dye process first hand, but I have read that it was quite a complex procedure involving the root of the Common Madder plant (Rubia tinctorum), rancid olive oil, sheeps dung, bullocks blood, parts of the sumac and oak botanicals, soda, alum and a solution of tin. The end result was an amazing array of colorfast reds that ranged from rose color to pumpkin orange to deep burgundy. Of course in quilting history, when we refer to Turkey Red, people automatically think of the bright red fabric that is neither orangey red or bluish red, but rather a true bright red.
Today we have a wide variety of reds to choose from especially when it comes to quilting fabrics. Take a look at this collection of reds from Moda Fabrics, Bella Solids collection:
There are 20 different shades of solid red fabrics available just from this one fabric line!
Turkey red was not just for 100% cotton fabrics though; linens, duck, wool, seersucker, silk, pongee, chiffon, velvet, satin and all the rest of the fibers of the day could also be dyed using the Turkey red process. I believe that, for the most part, fabric that was dyed red was initially used in the home and perhaps for mens garments, but gradually it became fashionable for respectable women to wear it also. Cloaks, shawls, hats and even evening attire looked absolutely stunning in the popular Turkey reds of the times. The wide variety of textures that the various fabrics provided, gave different looks to different pieces of the attire, for use during different times of the day and for different occasions.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, the dyers of the Levant region of the Middle East, quite literally changed the course of textile history and possibly even the historical events that took place in the world between the years of 1700 and 1900. How cool is that?
This article could not have been written without the wonderful information that I obtained from the various sources: