Monday, October 18, 2010

Faded Greens

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 appliqu├ęs in red and green became a thing of the past in the 1890s and by 1910 were a rarity.


  1. Wow!
    This very educational post brings me to this question.. What colors today represent the best and closest to antique red and green quilts? Would it be turkey red and poison green?

    Apart from the reproduction fabrics, I have seen a Grass Green and Chinese Red in Kona cottons which I thought were the two solids I would like to use in a Red & Green applique quilt.

  2. I love the orange background on Rocky road too.
    Is that Cheddar Yellow or Orange?

  3. Barbara:

    I was lucky enough to win the bid at our quilt guild auction on 50 hand embroidered blocks. There is one for each state and it includes the shape of the state (to be embroidered) the state bird, to be embroidered, and the state flower (TBE) as well as the year it entered the union and the number it was entering the union. Any idea of the year this was made or of its origins. The person who gave it to be auctioned bought it at a local auction. THe embroidery thread was in an envelope from a local bank postmarked 1982. Thank you for your help.

  4. Thank you so much for your blog posts, especially those addressing quilt and fabric history. Sharing your knowledge with your readers can't help but promote good antique quilt stewardship.

  5. Hooray!! A new newsletter coming soon!! Thanks!!


  6. My favourite colour is green, so I glad to be around now rather than a hundred years ago. But who knows just what our fabrics will look like in one hundred years time! Some of the fabrics I used twenty five years ago are not what they used to be!

    Judy B

  7. Thanks Barbara, I really appreciate you talking about greens
    as my favorite quilts are red/green applique quilts from the 1800's
    always interested in learning more.
    thanks for the pictures as they really show what I have been curious about. that blue leaf one is a perfect example

  8. Dear Barbara, I've only had the opportunity to hold one quilt featuring the pineapple block like that featured in your post, and I'm currently working with the pattern I took from it years ago. Do you have any more info on its names or origin? I haven't been able to find another like it until reading this post!

  9. Dear Barbara,

    I am trying to source a match for the blue green fabric produced from the single process synthetic dye, featured in the quilt in the above blog. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks, Fiona