Double Irish Chain, about 1900
The quilter must have used Turkey red
in the bottom blocks and a new test-tube red cotton,
probably the unreliable Congo red, in the top.
Over the past few weeks I've showed antique quilts with faded reds, contrasting Turkey red, which doesn't fade, to the late-19th-century synthetic reds, which often fade to a salmon pink or tan.
A reader asked about green's tendency to fade too. Although cottons dyed with the natural process called Turkey red were reliable, cottons dyed green with natural dyes were very prone to change color.
In this 19th-century quilt the green sashing strips and border dyed with natural dyes were probably once true green, but have faded in typical fashion to lime green. The pineapple and foliage have faded in different fashion. Were they once red or green?
Detail of a quilt dated 1858 showing greens
dyed with natural dyes fading in a variety of ways
The usual method of obtaining the greens we see in antique quilts was to overdye blue and yellow.
Although nature is so green, vegetable and mineral dyes do not give us a practical green dye.
The most common method was to overdye two mineral dyes, Prussian blue and chrome yellow. The major problem was that chrome yellow is more colorfast than Prussian blue and thus the greens often fade towards yellow, leaving a yellow-green.
Notice how much greener the leaf at bottom right is
on the back where the applique has come unstitched
People like to call that shade "poison green" today but a better name might be "overdyed green" or "overdyed green fading to yellow-green". For more about the poison greens of the 19th century click here:
When the dyer used an unreliable yellow with Prussian blue the yellow might completely fade away leaving random blue leaves and vines as in the quilt above.
Dyers were always looking for single-step greens and in the 1870s developed a synthetic dye that produced a dark, rich green, a teal or blue-green shade as in the quilt above.
But these early aniline greens were remarkably fugitive, bleeding away in water and fading away in light to a khaki or dun color. The star quilt was probably folded with the edges exposed to more light.
If exposed to any kind of light the greens will continue to fade, a real shame since this quilt was so beautiful when the greens were new.
Imagine this Rocky Road to Kansas design when the khaki sashing was a deep blue-green.
Here is a digital sketch of what it once looked like.
And a digital recoloring on the right of a late 19th-century cockscomb where the green has faded.
Quilters working between 1875 and 1925 had access to few greens they could count on to remain green. Their distrust is reflected in their quilts. Fancy appliqués in red and green became a thing of the past in the 1890s and by 1910 were a rarity.
This information is drawn from my 2010 digital newsletter The Quilt Detective, which focuses on color and dyes. (See subscription information on the left.) I'll be doing a 2011 newsletter on quilt style and I'll post information on it soon.