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Jan 14

The Ancient Art of Natural Dye Purple

Thousands of tiny snails were sacrificed to make the royal purple of ancient times. Owning a cloth handwoven and colored with this natural dye was a symbol of high status—the power and wealth of royalty and the church.

Purpura-dyed cotton yarn.

Purpura-dyed cotton yarn.

The Power of Purple
Huge mounds of shells still exist today in the area around Tyre, an ancient seaport of Phoenicia. The inhabitants were skilled craftsman and merchants and they dedicated themselves to the art of dyeing purple. The Kingdom of the Blood Red Men created cloth so rare that some called the little snail the holy purple mollusk. Myths, tales, and mystery surround the spiny murex dye. Tyrian purple cloth, so expensive due to the labor-intensive dye process, was reserved for royalty – kings, emperors and the upper classes of society. Purple and royal blue, made from another related snail, were colors out of reach for commoners.


Finding the Purple Dye

Intensive research by today’s biologists, chemists, archeologists and ethnographers, reveals that the practice of shellfish dyeing extended far beyond the Mediterranean area and was indeed a global phenomenon. And the spiny murex was just one species used for dyeing. Evidence exists to prove that dyeing with various species of shellfish was practiced on the Atlantic Coast of England, ancient Asia, particularly Japan, Central and South America and beyond. It is still pursued today on a limited scale in Oaxaca and Costa Rica using techniques that do not destroy the tiny mollusk.Only thirteen Mixtec dyers are still extracting purple dye from Purpura sea snail along the Oaxacan Coast. View a short video here of the dye being extracted in a sustainable method. 

About fifteen species of purple producing mollusks exist, all belonging to the family Muricidae, a large and varied group commonly known as murex snails or rock snails. The colorants are closely related chemically to indigo. Only a tiny amount of colorant exists in each creature, adding to the rarity and increasing the power and prestige of the high status, purple cloth that was colored with this dye. Today we cannot destroy the threatened mollusks to color our cloth, so the story of purple must follow another thread.

For the Love of Purple
The love of purple continues to color our lives. I am rather attached to this rich, wondrous color, in all of its tints, tones and shades; purple has always comforted me like an old sweater. Psychologists who study the effects of color on people say purple can be uplifting and encourage creativity; it can calm the mind and offer a sense of spirituality. It contains mystic and royal qualities, is well liked by creative and eccentric types and is the favorite color of adolescent girls! Somewhere in there must be the reason many of us love purple.

I became even more intrigued with purple when the poem, When I Am Old I Shall Wear Purple, became popular back in the 80s. My admiration for purple increased because I began to see it as a renegade color, outlandish and provocative, but also a color for the old and wise. It went beyond decoration and clothing; it was a mantle for those who didn’t care if they fit into proper society. Our purple thread runs from royalty to renegade, from extraordinary to everyday. Is there a place for purple in your life? Imagine the fun you can have creating purple in your natural dyepot? Combine indigo with a variety of red dyes or give alkanet root a try. Let’s salute the tiny creatures that wrapped royalty in a most exotic color and continue to inspire us today.

Shop Purple

Resources
Cardon, Dominique, 2007, Natural Dyes, Archetype Press, London.

Sandberg, Gosta, 1996, The Red Dyes: Cochineal, Madder and Murex Purple: A World Tour of Textile Techniques, Lark Books, Asheville, NC.

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