Tapestries and Natural Dyes

by - Friday, February 12, 2010

Europe has a large and accessible collection of tapestries. One great advantage of almost all tapestries on exhibit in museum and church collections is that they were made before the advent of synthetic dyes. The most notable craft houses, the flemish tapestry makers which flourished between the 15th and 18th centuries, precede William Perkin's synthesis of mauve in 1856 by a good margin. Many tapestries have only been subjected to modern conservation (light and climate control) in recent times, having hung (sometimes for hundreds of years) enduring exposure to daylight and weather. As such they give an excellent example of the longevity of natural colour over time. Colours will change over time, however, it is important to note that the changes are far from what is often claimed by some critics of natural dyes, and some synthetic dye makers.

The idea of looking to ancient examples of dyes to check colours is not new. William Morris, for example, writing before synthetic dyes had the more subtle nature they have today has said of natural dyes:

"Like all dyes, they are not eternal; the sun in lighting them and beautifying them consumes them; yet gradually, and for the most part kindly, as (to use my example for the last time in this paper) you will see if you look at the Gothic tapestries in the drawing-room at Hampton Court. These colours in fading still remain beautiful, and never, even after long wear, pass into nothingness, through that stage of livid ugliness which distinguishes the commercial dyes as nuisances, even more than their short and by no means merry life."

Moreover fastness is subject to the dye knowledge of the craftsperson and this is a matter of skill, intuition, and learning. Morris again:

"The art of dyeing, I am bound to say, is a difficult one, needing for its practice a good craftsman, with plenty of experience. Matching a colour by means of it is an agreeable but somewhat anxious game to play."

These photos were taken by us recently in Gothic Wing of the Alcazar in Seville, Spain. The tapestries are massive, measuring about 15 feet by 20 feet in size. The works are from Brussels c. 1554 and celebrate Emperor Charles V's 1535 victory in Tunis over the Turks.

A note about colour balance.

These tapestries are hung in a room which is open to the air. Sunlight enters from large doorways and upper windows. The works are also illuminated by incandescent lights. The walls of the room are a saturated yellow. In terms of colour balance for looking at the pieces we have blue light from the sun, yellow light from the artificial illumination and another warm yellow light from the reflections of the walls. Colour will change with time of day, cloud cover and many other factors. All this shows up in the photos here. The last photo was taken with a wide angle lens and shows one of the entire works, the wall and the gallery railing.

An additional complication to colour balance is that these images are presently being viewed by you on your own computer screen. Your screen will have its on unique colour profile. How to avoid all this colour and light trickery? Well we must say that Seville is really quite a lovely place to visit ...

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  1. We received the following comment via our e-mail and asked permission to post it here.


    I'm a bit behind at looking at these postings, but speaking as a textile conservator who has worked on European tapestries, I wanted to make a few comments.

    Tapestry conservation is a specialty within the field of textile conservation. It's extremely complicated just dealing with the size of tapestries and conservation can take years. While I agree that natural dyes age in a way that we have come to appreciate more than that of the early synthetics, they do not all fade to the same degree, nor are they all just paler versions of the original colours. And the fading is an indicator of much more than just a change in colour.

    Besides the fading of dyes from ultraviolet light, cold, damp, smoke-filled dusty environments can cause damage to fibres, particularly silk. Add to that the damage of insects and rodents. These days, add environmental pollutants as well, particularly from cars even if we no longer have coal. These conditions combined with various dyes and mordants weaken and can destroy fibres over time. I hope that the Alcazar at least has UV filtering film on their windows. I think that if you saw the reverse of these textiles, the colour would be breathtaking and quite different from what you see here. You would almost certainly also see many repairs that have been done at various periods, some incorporating synthetically dyed yarns.

    Enjoying these posting very much.
    Thank you,
    Joan Marshall

  2. I was also delighted by the tapestries in Sevilla. I'm hoping to find an (affordably sized) version to hang on the walls of my new apartment next month.

    Here's a picture of the first tapestry I saw in the room--the coat of arms of Spain.


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