Thursday, October 27, 2016

Turkey Red Tour

I recently attended Deb Roberts's Turkey Red Tour at the the International Quilt Study Center & Museum. I enjoyed myself and learned a lot, not only from the lecturers and tour leaders but from other attendees. Getting to discuss the color at length was informative.

We all "ooh-la-la"ed over this butterfly print
that Madame Jacqué showed us.

Our first lecturer was Jacqueline Jacqué, retired curator at the Musée de l'impression des étoffes à Mulhouse, which translates as Museum of Printed Fabrics in Mulhouse, France.

Reverse-appliqued feather border with a multi-colored Turkey red print.

Turkey red was quite popular with American quilters from
about 1840 to 1940.

Let me tell you what I learned (a good excuse to show a lot of details of the fabulous IQSCM collection at Quilt House in Lincoln, Nebraska.)

First I'll tell you what I already knew.

Turkey red on the left\madder red on the right

The dyestuff is madder root, which rather easily produces a brownish-red. Vivid reds were hard to obtain in cotton. A complex process for madder dyes was first developed in Middle East. Early European efforts focused on plain reds obtained by dyeing the cotton in the yarn, then weaving it into solids.

Thus, the background for Turkey red prints was always red. The sophisticated printer could discharge (bleach out) white and add yellow, blue, green and dark brownish-black figures.

This early-19th-century print shows a rather primitive discharge technique.
The yellow blob was bleached out and at the same time the
mordants for chrome yellow were added. The black
could be applied atop the Turkey red so required no discharging.
Those blacks could be Prussian blue or madder brown that read as black.

The simplest Turkey red prints were discharged white figures or overprinted blacks. Daniel Koechlin-Schouch of Mulhouse developed techniques to add yellow figures in the discharge process (Madame said that happened in 1821).

Thereafter printers developed increasingly complicated processes to add blue, green and black figures to the Turkey red background. Mills specialized in Turkey reds. Towns in England, Scotland, France and the German and Swiss states were home to Turkey red workshops and factories, but the process apparently was not done in the United States until after the Civil War.

Turkey red solids are hard to date---
We see them in American quilts from 1840-1940.
This detail is a pieced bloom in a border.

See a post on the early Turkey red prints at my Civil War blog.

Madame Jacqué reinforced some of our American ideas. American mills did not dye or print Turkey red until after 1869 and the invention of a synthetic alizarin---the coloring agent from madder.

A charm quilt from about 1900 has
several simple Turkey red prints like the polka dot,
 probably American produced,
(end of the 19th century and into the 20th).

She also said that she knew of no Turkey red industry still active anywhere in the world. Synthetic reds (not ALWAYS colorfast) have replaced the old and expensive process.

Koechlin figured out how to dye cotton Turkey red
in the cloth in 1809. I had always assumed they continued to dye it in the yarn
and then weave it.

Madame showed many slides of complicated, lush prints like the butterfly print, which you can buy as a scarf from the Museum shop. But we don't see these in American quilts. Was it a matter of taste?Did quilters in the U.S. prefer simpler calicoes? Or were these more luxurious prints that Alsace did as a specialty too expensive?

One of the more complex prints we saw was in
the sashing of this sampler.

Did we import few actual French prints from Mulhouse,
the French center of Turkey red production?

It may be that Americans imported their red prints from Scotland, which began extensive Turkey red printing about 1830. We do not see Turkey red in American quilts till about 1840 and then there is an explosion of interest. I'm beginning to think our reds were Scottish imports and not French, although the style is certainly French.

Reverse of a Uzbekistani bedcover

Madame also talked about Russian printing of Turkey red, which may be the source for fabric in the 20th-century Turkey red bedcoverings we saw from Asia, places like Uzbekistan and Turkistan. IQSCM has quite a collection of these textiles. 

Xenia Cord gave a lecture on What Is It if It's Not Turkey Red?, a discussion of the synthesizing of the coloring agent in madder, called alizarin, and the unreliable copies that plagued quiltmakers from about 1870 into the 20th century.

Xenia and the ELI quilt

Congo red, a direct dye, was developed in 1884 and we learned quite a bit about the complicated trade and innovation in the German chemical industry. 

Detail of the ELI quilt from Ohio's Miami Valley,
dated 1894. The pinkish album block at top right
may have been dyed with Congo red, once as bright
as the Turkey reds in the other blocks.

Once alizarin was developed all the other processes in creating the Turkey red color were also synthesized and speeded up. A process that might have take a month in Mulhouse in 1820 and involve chemicals derived from sheep dung and human urine could be accomplished in hours with test-tube copies. In discussion our consensus was that even though this was an industrial process it was still essentially the same chemistry and the later red prints are technically Turkey red.

Quilt dated 1865

We saw a 1917 Red Cross quilt which Joan,
the volunteer who does genealogical research on the many Turkey red signature quilts,
said had Iowa names. It did not take me long to find my boyfriend's relatives.
The Mrs Kathryn Bringolf in this block is his grandmother's grandmother.
Another attendee found her uncle's name.

Thanks to Deb Roberts, the staff at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, and the visiting lecturers Julie Silber, Madame Jacque and Xenia Cord for a wonderful tour.

We couldn't figure out what that pink and red
on the bottom was but now I'm guessing
it's a double pink---a strange double pink on a large scale.
It was definitely more pink than red.

Links to the museum in Mulhouse (pronounced Muh-looze with an accent on the last syllable----Don't you French readers laugh at us cause we thought it was Mull-House for years)



  1. and here I just take my fabric and colors for granted without any thought for what it took to get them... thanks for all the info.

  2. Thank you for all these great photos and information. I have a number of quilts which have turkey red prints or solids in them. But one red and white quilt shows all the solid reds though muted, still definitely with the exception of one block containing fabric that is totally faded to "brown" as in the Eli quilt you show. So perhaps this might be made using Congo red?? Had not heard of this name before. The other quilts have turkey red prints with black and in some cases, what used to be black has left a tiny hole.

  3. Sounds like Congo red. It looked similar off the bolt but faded badly. One problem with real Turkey red was that the black has iron in the mordant and it rusted away.

  4. Boy am I sorry I missed this one. Thank you for the highlights.

  5. I really love reading your blog. The amount of material that you share is truly amazing.
    How wonderful that you can go and study these quilts in real time and share so much with us. Now, I am going to really look at the old family quilt that I have and see if I have turkey red and some faded Congo red. It has colors much like taylorsouth, with black and whites, reds and blues.