Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Purples, Lilacs and Mauve

Purples in quilts can sometimes be problematic, spotting as in the block above.

We see shades of purple in some of the
earliest chintzes such as this block print
Five Pounds Reward

Last Thursday night was stolen …a small bale...containing the following parcels and
pieces of dry goods, viz. Seven and a quarter yards of double purple calico, 8 yards of
ditto, 13 yards of single purple ditto, 1 piece of double purple ditto…1766. Pennsylvania Journal
Double purple in a strip quilt, about 1830-50, English

Swatch with label from about 1880
Purple is one of the shades obtained with the ancient  madder techniques. Printers produced different colors by mordanting selected areas of the cloth with different metal salts. When dipped in a madder dye bath, the cloth takes on the shades of reds, browns and purples.

Other natural dyes created purple, but the two most common were madder and logwood. Dye historian James Liles noted many old recipes for purple from logwood, derived from a South American tree. Although similar to madder purples in shade and fastness, logwood purple was more expensive to produce, so probably not used as much.

These purple dresses dating to the1820s and 1830s from Tasha Tudor's collection may have been dyed with more expensive dyes as the purples have held up so well.

A shaded purple from an 1860s swatch book

Purples tend towards either the blue side or the red side of the color
wheel. Madder shades do not make a blue-violet. The color we see
in quilts is typically rather flat lilac or lavender. The vibrance
of the swatch above seems to fade.

Double Purples, late 19th-century

Purple cotton calicoes often featured two or three shades of purple,
a style long called "double purple," as in an advertisement from
1771 in a Philadelphia newspaper describing newly imported goods:
 "Blue, purple and red copperplate linens and calicoes; double and
single purple and other calicoes."

A sample of Perkin's mauve---not what I would call mauve

Brighter colors and bluer violets were more difficult to obtain in
 cotton. The first synthetic dye, formulated in 1856, was aniline
 purple made from coal tar. William Perkin called the color
mauve or mauveine from a French word for purple.
 Three years later London was in the grip of “Mauve
Measles” with everyone from the Princess of
Wales to the housemaids wearing mauve.

The purple in Mary Lincoln's china is solferino

Later experimentation produced new purples such as Magenta and
Solferino, named for battles in the Italian war of Independence.

Magenta Swatch (I assume it's the stripe)

Child's dress in a wool/cotton combination fabric about 1860
from Tasha Tudor's collection. Wool takes dye better than cotton.

A dye book from the 1840s with wool combination fabrics

The early synthetic dyes were practical only for expensive silks and
woolens. Cottons continued to be dyed with natural dyes through
the end of the century.

The search for better purple was motivated by the need for cheaper
 processes and brighter  colors, but madder purple’s reputation
as a fugitive dye must have also been reason to experiment.
Quilt collectors are familiar with the way purple calicoes spot brown.

The sashing is turning brown

Unused swatches and blocks are often undamaged, but finished quilts
 show purples fading to brown in small areas that seem to widen
with time (or more likely—more exposure to light).

A swatch from an 1880s dyebook is spotting inside the book

Quilt from about 1880-1910

Towards the end of the century, purple calico, once so fashionable, became a clich√© used to characterize a country bumpkin, as in this description from an 1885 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine of a “Purple calico dress, made probably in 1877 or 1878, and worn and faded as such a garment might be after six months' country usage.” Emily Lennox’s fictional character, “That Little Rustic,”  was described as attractive in 1883, “but, alas! she still wore an ill-fitting, old-fashioned gown of spotted purple calico.”

Purple, dyed with new synthetic dyes, became fashionable again in the 1930s. These dyes were more stable.

Most of the time.

Mills use completely different dyes today so don't worry about your purples spotting to brown today.


  1. Mills use completely different dyes today so don't worry about your purples spotting to brown today.

    Do you think a fabric designer would propose a fugitive purple print so that reproductions quilt will have a more authentic look?

  2. Now that is an idea I never thought of.

  3. I can just imagine using those shades in a mini quilt. I do have some pinks and purples that are similar, was planning on doing some doll quilts.


  4. I always buy repro purples when I see them. If you have time I have a piece of purple fabric on my blog that I just posted that I was trying to figure out how old it is? Thanks

  5. Purple is the color most missing in my repros collection. Now I want more. Love the 'mauve' shades too.

  6. Thank you sooooo much. I'm a little burned out after sitting at my computer all day. I love your work - really enjoyable reading. Just great.

  7. Purple is the Royal colour for England and if my memory serves me correctly obtaining this colour came from sea shells. I an sure they were oyster but the process wasn't instantaneous.

    After weeks the stewing shells smelt beyond awful similar to the tanneries the process couldn't be done in town. Plus it was inexact lift the lid too soon or too late - no rich Purple for the King or Queen.
    Purple with all its blue sides is my favourite colour with blue. Fortunately not imprisoned for wearing the Royal Purple now.

    Thanks for all the information with pictures.

  8. Wow that's proper mauve! Definitely not what we'd call 'mauve' today.

    Logwood may have been more expensive, but it has a reputation even these days as not particularly lightfast, though the purples and lavenders you can get are gorgeous.

    I hadn't realized they could get purples from madder. I wonder if I don't hear about it nowadays because the madder root one gets now tend to give colors more on the brown and orange side? (At least that's what I've heard as a dyer; something about they are smaller or harvested earlier?)

  9. I'm now going to follow u . New to your blog a d today's husband found a vintage quilt top at the dump today and they said he could have it to give to me. And toy amaent is is large and wonderful ! All hand stitched and has lots of that calico purple u talked about BUT it is all bright ! Not washed and has some stamped numbers on the back and hand written also and a beehive red stamp lightly on the back. It has purple . Double pink and bright green. It really is in great shape except some stains. I want to find out more and now I know not to wash it ? But I wish I could finish it just not sure if it should be finished . It is really lovely and is posted on my Facebook . But thank you for talking about the purples here . I want to learn more. Will have to read more on your blog. Thank u April