Dyeing can be done at any stage of wool production and would originally have been carried out using natural dyes; these could come from many sources, including insects, minerals, plants and shellfish. For example a popular, bright red was produced from the plant madder. (This, however, was used for dyeing cotton rather than wool.)
Another source of bright red dye was the dried and crushed bodies of the cochineal beetle. This insect was originally discovered by the native Americans, but is now obtained from the Canary Islands. From the mid-19th century onwards synthetic dyes were developed, making a much wider range of colours readily available.
Wool takes dye very well – sometimes just dipping it can be enough to colour it. For wool as well as for other fabrics, additives called mordants can be used to improve the extent to which the dye is absorbed. Examples of mordants with a long history of usage are alum, copper, iron and tin. Using a mordant is similar to using bleach when dyeing hair, to make the hair shaft receptive to the dye.
Different names are given to the dyeing process depending on the stage at which it is done.
Stock Dyeing – when the fleece is dyed after it has been scoured and before being carded.
Package Dyeing – when the yarn is dyed after it has been spun.
Top Dyeing – when the yarn is dyed after combing and the production of the 'top'.
Piece Dyeing – when finished pieces of fabric are dyed.
Dyes were carefully prepared and the secrets of how to create certain colours were jealously guarded. Dyers would often record the ingredients of the colours in their own handbook, like the ones you see at the top of this page. These pictures are taken from a book written between 1789 and 1844 that contains recipes for dyeing woollen pieces.
In the 1851 Census for Huddersfield there is an entry for a 13-year-old boy called Albert Johnson, a dyer’s labourer. The dyes that would have been prepared by Albert Johnson would probably have involved using chemicals from the newly developing chemicals industry, which were in fact quite toxic.
Additives - something added to something else to change or improve it
Canary Islands - group of islands off the coast of Spain
Census - official record of where people live taken every ten years
Labourer - someone who does hard physical work
Synthetic - something that is man-made, not natural
Toxic - poisonous substance
Yarn -twisted strand of wool or cotton, used in weaving
Download the Worksheets showing how to make felt, and how to make a cardboard loom.