ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: Colouring fabrics and other materials - bleaching, dyeing
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Colouring fabrics and other materials

Fragments from the Gebelein cloth, 3600 BCE     People have coloured their artefacts since earliest times. Mostly the intention was just decorative, but sometimes the artisan's purpose seems to have been deeper.

Fragments of the Gebelein cloth, 3600 BCE
Source: After E. Scamuzzi, Museo Egizio di Torino, 1964, pl. I-V

    Colours were applied by brushing paint on the cloth, by colouring the yarns before weaving, sometimes creating coloured patterns, or dyeing the finished fabric.
    Predynastic matting has been found, the edges of which had been dyed red. The main clothing material to be embellished by colouring was linen, though leather was also at times treated thus [3].
The cobbler mingles with vats. His odor is penetrating. His hands are red with madder, like one who is smeared with blood. He looks behind him for the kite, like one whose flesh is exposed.
Papyrus Lansing
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 2, p.170
    Little consideration was given to working conditions in ancient Egypt. The lot of the dyer was not easier than that of any other labourer. Space was cramped, safety measures unknown and often the air reeked from the plants boiling in their vats. Woad, for instance, produced an especially strong and unpleasant smell.
Linen, 18th dynasty

Linen, 18th dynasty
Source: The Petrie Museum website

    Linen was of huge economic importance. It was mostly used and worn in its natural colour, off-white with a yellow or pearl-grey tinge.
    But people who could afford it liked to wear coloured garments showing off their wealth. During the late Bronze Age this appears to have been more widespread in Canaan and Syria than in Egypt. The extent to which cloth was dyed there can only be speculated upon. The Papyrus Harris lists the gifts donated by Ramses III to some temples. It generally summarizes clothes, listing for instance 1019 items of Royal linen, mek linen, double fine southern linen, fine southern linen, southern linen, colored linen: various garments. But some donations are more specific. One amounted to 2929 pieces of clothing, 736 - about a quarter - of which were coloured. Another, an offering for the festival called Usermare-Meriamon-L-P-H-Making-Festive-Thebes-For-Amon included:
Southern linen: garments (dw) [2]       155
Southern linen: garments
(rdw) [2]        31
Colored linen: garments
(yfd) [2]           31
Colored linen: tunics                               44
J. H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part Four, § 239
    Gods too liked showing themselves in beautiful attire. One divine epithet was He-who-is-clothed-in-blue-linen.[6]


    Fine linen, worn by the rich, was seemingly bleached. First the wet cloth was rubbed with natron, then it was spread on a stone slab, beaten with a wooden club, and rinsed. Letting it dry in the hot Mediterranean sun had a bleaching effect.
    The Romans used sulphuric fumes for bleaching linen since the second half of the first millennium. It has been suggested that the ancient Egyptians began employing sulphur for this purpose during the Middle Kingdom.
    Theophrastus in his History of Plants Book IX. chapter 31, attributed bleaching qualities to Struthium, while Pliny suggested that Heraclium was being used:
There is another kind of wild poppy (a spurge rather, Euphorbia esula of Linnaeus), known as "heraclion" by some persons, and as "aphron" by others. The leaves of it, when seen from a distance, have all the appearance of sparrows; the root lies on the surface of the ground, and the seed has exactly the colour of foam. This plant is used for the purpose of bleaching linen cloths in summer.
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 20, Chap.79
    White was the colour of purity and holiness. On religious occasions white clothes and sandals were worn. White, as opposed to the natural off-white, and freshly laundered clothes were the attire anybody wore who could afford it, which even fewer could in times of chaos, as Ipuwer lamented:
there's dirt everywhere,
None have white garments in this time
The Admonitions of Ipuwer
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol.1, p.151
    Pliny reports the use of nitrum, the nature of which is uncertain, in the process of dying cloth. Its purpose seems to have been bleaching
...when in an impure state, it (i.e. nitrum) is very useful for some purposes, colouring purple cloth, for instance, and, indeed, all kinds of dyeing.
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 31, Chap.46
    One of the reasons for preferring undyed cloth was that early attempts at dyeing resulted in fabrics which were not colourfast. Linen fibres have little affinity for dyes: they are hard and not easily penetrated by them. One of the earliest examples of red linen was found at Hierakonpolis and dated to the middle of the fourth millennium. It had been stained by rubbing finely ground red iron oxide into the cloth where it lodged between the fibres, but did not penetrate them. Washing would have removed a large portion of the dye, leaving the cloth unseemly speckled.
    Bleaching may have gone some way in preparing cloth for colouring, but the breakthrough came only with the introduction of mordants.


Roman period dyer's shop

Plan of a Roman period dyer's workshop found at Athribis
Source: W. M. Flinders Petrie, Athribis, 1908

    The dyer's workshop at Athribis had its own water supply - a well dug inside one of the rooms - a cistern which had been lined with lead according to Petrie, and a workbench in the room with the well, the wall above which was tiled with stone [1], and benches along the other walls on which vats were placed. The inside of most of the vats was stained dark blue, probably from indigo which is a vat dye.

Fettered Syrian
Multicoloured Faience; 20th dynasty, Medinet Habu
Source: Catalogue of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo

    During the New Kingdom the Egyptians came into closer contact with the residents of Canaan and Syria, who were adept at dyeing cloth and appear to have passed on that knowledge to their conquerors. We have no Egyptian account of the process of dyeing. Only after the collapse of independent Egypt did a Roman, Pliny the Elder, describe it in his Natural History:
    In Egypt, too, they employ a very remarkable process for the colouring of tissues. After pressing the material, which is white at first, they saturate it, not with colours, but with mordants that are calculated to absorb colour. This done, the tissues, still unchanged in appearance, are plunged into a cauldron of boiling dye, and are removed the next moment fully coloured.
    It is a singular fact, too, that although the dye in the pan is of one uniform colour, the material when taken out of it is of various colours, according to the nature of the mordants that have been respectively applied to it: these colours, too, will never wash out.
    Thus the dye-pan, which under ordinary circumstances, no doubt, would have made but one colour of several, if coloured tissues had been put into it, is here made to yield several colours from a single dye. At the same moment that it dyes the tissues, it boils in the colour; and it is the fact, that material which has been thus submitted to the action of fire becomes stouter and more serviceable for wear, than it would have been if it had not been subjected to the process
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 35, Chap.42


    Astringents have apparently been used since the 21st dynasty. Alum, jbn.w.,[8] a double sulphate of aluminium and potassium, is known to have been mined in Egypt in ancient times and was probably the mordant of choice. It was also employed in tanning leather.

The dyes

Attempts, too, have even been made to dye linen, and to make it assume the frivolous colours of our cloths. This was first done in the fleet of Alexander the Great, while sailing upon the river Indus; for, upon one occasion, during a battle that was being fought, his generals and captains distinguished their vessels by the various tints of their sails, and astounded the people on the shores by giving their many colours to the breeze, as it impelled them on. It was with sails of purple, too, that Cleopatra accompanied M. Antonius to the battle of Actium, and it was by their aid that she took to flight: such being the distinguishing mark of the royal ship.
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 19, Chap.5
    Basic colours available to the ancient Egyptians were red, yellow, and blue. An ostracon from about the 30th year of Ramses II contains a list of pigments kept in a certain storehouse:
Year 30 [+x? /////////////]
Blue lapis [x] deben. Green (frit), 30 deben; (red) realgar, 6 deben; (yellow) orpiment, 15 deben; red ochre, 2 jugs; Nubian red ochre, 2 flagons; green malachite frit, 200 deben.
Yarn, length (or ball), 22 deben; old rags, 700, making [//////////////////].
What is in the storehouse, [///////////////////////////////////////////////////]
O. Cairo CGC 25594
Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ramesside Inscriptions: Ramesses II, his contemporaries, Wiley-Blackwell, 2001, p.359
    Other but the basic hues were achieved by using two or more dyes. Purple for instance was sometimes achieved by interweaving different red and blue threads, or by dying the cloth with woad and then dipping it into madder.

Mineral dyes

    Until the introduction of plant dyes in the 18th dynasty mineral pigments like iron oxide were used for staining. Few examples of early dyed fabric have been found. The range of hues appears to have been limited: ochre, ztj [11], red (red ochre, TmH.y [13], and realgar, Aw.t-jb [12]) brown and yellow (iron buff). Examples, which could not be preserved for analysis, have been found in the pyramids of the sixth dynasty pharaohs Pepi II and Merenre.
... the god's friends,
Who lean on their staffs,
Guardians of Upper Egypt,
Clad in red linen ...
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 1, p.45
Alkanna tinctoria


Alkanna tinctoria has been found to have grown in the sandy Libyan desert. Alkanet, a red dye if dissolved in oil or alcohol and imparting a brownish tinge to water, is prepared from the plant's root.

Alkanna tinctoria


    Some Mediterranean marine algae growing on rocks provided a purple dye. (Nowadays archil is extracted from lichen rather than seaweed).


Madder     The alizarin was extracted from the roots of Rubia tinctorium and Rubia peregrina which grew wild in the Mediterranean region. A red mordant dye precipitates when the dried root is crushed and boiled in hot water.
There are two other plants also, which are but little known to any but the herd of the sordid and avaricious, and this because of the large profits that are derived from them. The first of these is madder, the employment of which is necessary in dyeing wool and leather. The madder of Italy is the most esteemed, and that more particularly which is grown in the suburbs of the City; nearly all our provinces, too, produce it in great abundance. It grows spontaneously, but is capable of reproduction by sowing, much after the same manner as the fitch. The stem, however, is prickly, and articulated, with five leaves arranged round each joint: the seed is red. Its medicinal properties we shall have occasion to mention in the appropriate place
Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book 19, Chap.17
    A red dye, jpA, [7], was extracted from a plant, probably from madder. Safflower


    A direct yellow to red dye extracted from the orange flowers of the thistle like Carthamus tinctorius. Safflower may have been more frequently used as finds seem to indicate as it is not light fast and the colour may have faded. Its Egyptian name may have been kT, translit kT.[9]

Safflower, Carthamus tinctorius

A yellow dye, the auripigment, qnj.t [10], may have been extracted from the safflower.


Woad     Woad, from which a blue dye stuff was extracted, is known to have been cultivated in the Fayum in Roman times. Whether it was woad or Indigofera tinctoria which was used before that time is uncertain.
    In Egyptian a medicinal plant from which a blue or purple dye was extracted was referred to as jrt.w [4]. The translation of the term is uncertain. In the Admonitions of Ipuwer the sage deplores the destruction of useful plants and products in the general chaos, among them the jrt.w, here translated as "blue plant dye":
Destroyed are chufa, charcoal, blue plant dye, mAaw-wood, nwt-wood, brushwood, the work of craftsmen, ca[rob (?), g]um (?), the due deliveries of the palace.
Admonitions of Ipuwer [5]


[1] They similarly tiled the walls of bathrooms with slabs of limestone (cf. House and Garden)
[2] On the pronunciation of ancient Egyptian
[3] Getting hold of raw materials did not just involve barter but, at times at least, also some show of respect, as is described in the following Old Kingdom letter:
/// servant there (i.e. the letter writer) to the Sole Companion [ ]s, son of the Sole Companion Khu.
/// servant there. The mayor and Sole Companion /// sent (to the) mayor and superintendent of Upper Egypt Shema to fetch ochre for the workers without ///(?) times. I made him prostrate himself before this mayor (i.e. before myself) in order to beg for the pigment. /// times. ////// to fetch the leather and the pigments. /// the servant there gave the leather.
Letter from the Elephantine archive, pStrassburg Be&f, 6th dynasty
Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
[4] transliteration jrt.w, Wb 1, 116.8-9
[5] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, R. Enmarch (ed.), Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 2. Reden und Dialoge => Der Dialog von Ipuwer mit dem Allherrn (die "Admonitions") => pLeiden I 344 Recto => Der Dialog von Ipuwer mit dem Allherrn = Admonitions
[6] Hornung, Erik, Texte zum Amduat, Teil III, Geneva1994, p.659
[7] translit. jpAWb 1, 68.13-14
[8] translit. jbn.w, Wb 1, 63.8. jbn.w probably referred to all sorts of vitriolic salts.
[9] Wb 5, 148.5-8
[10] Wb 5, 52.10-16
[11] translit. ztj, Wb 3, 488.3-6
[12] translit. Aw.t-jb, Wb 1, 5.1
[13] translit TmH,y, Wb 5, 369.4

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