Episode 110: Dyed In the Wool

In this episode, we explore important role of the wool and cloth industries in Medieval England. Not only was England a major producer of sheep and wool, it also developed its own cloth industry in the 1300s. This was also a period in which clothing fashions were undergoing some major changes. We examine the ways in which clothing was changing, and we look at the cloth-making process. We also explore lots of words and phrases related to the traditional wool and cloth industries.


37 thoughts on “Episode 110: Dyed In the Wool

  1. I am told that Anglo-Saxon dyes tend to give wishy washy colours but by dyeing the wool over and over again you could get rich colours. These were then fixed with oak bark or oak gall. It appears that to make a good green they dyed with weld to get yellow and then dyed again with a woad/urine mix to turn it green. It appears that this worked better than mixing the dyes. However with all this they still could not get a really good red, blue or black. I gather that the sheep tended to be oatmeal coloured but did they not have any black sheep?

    • Handspinning and weaving are still practiced by a number of people around the world, and some of that group continues to do natural dyeing of wool using similar or the same dye recipes as centuries ago.

      To prepare wool (and other fibers) for dyeing, you generally simmer them in water with a mordant material. Mordants bond to the fiber and then bind dye molecules as well. This is critical in getting color-fastness, which will neither run when washed or fade with sun exposure. In addition to oak bark and galls, onion skins and rhubarb act as simple mordants.

      “Permanent” dyes are called *substantive*; there are many non-substantive dyes, colors or dye recipes that sun-fade or run in the wash. Most substantive dyes require mordants on wool.

      In addition to mordants, there are a variety of modifiers that change dye colors during or after dyeing. Many dye plants are sensitive to pH level and will give different colors depending on whether they are used in an acidic (ex: add vinegar or citric acid) or basic (add ammonia or aged urine) solution.

      Adding dissolved metals such as rusty iron water, copper dissolved in an acidic water and vinegar solution, or other forms of soluble metal solutions, can cause interesting color shifts. Water hardness can also affect color or saturation.

      Tannins are one type of mordant, and can be used before or after dye is applied. They will add a brown tone.

      Other mordants are in the category of metal salts. A common one for use in home dyeing is Aluminum Potassium Sulfate, aka potash. Heavier metal salts have also been used, but are more toxic.

      It’s true that repeated rounds of dyeing will strengthen colors. Other methods are to use a higher ratio of dyestuff (the natural dyeing material) to a volume of water; simmer it linger; or leave the wool in the dye bath for a night or day as it cools.

      Before indigo production from Japan and India became an international trade commodify, peoples of the British Isles used to woad plant to get a very effective blue.

      The best early purple dye came from a small seashell in the Mediterranean, Murex. It took huge numbers of the shells to yield a useful amount of dye, and thus became associated with power and wealth — and in some countries only royalty were allowed to wear purple.

      Britain has sheep descended from both the Roman style fat-tailed sheep (sheep of the Downs and other southern locations), and from the Noethern European short-tailed sheep. The primitive types of northern sheep often had a stiffer outer layer of hair and a soft downy undercoat. Shetland sheep, Icelandic sheep and other Scottish or island breeds retain ancient traits including non-white and/or multi-colored fleeces. White, lighter shades of brown (eg oatmeal) and shades of gray will giving interesting tonal or depth effects when dyed with the same dyebath.

    • It is my understanding that colors that required washes in different dyes like this were considered “impure” and therefore only suitable for unsavory people or those making a deliberate attempt to shock. I am unsure of where I came by this understanding and frankly too scatterbrained to confirm its accuracy.

  2. Kevin, I hope you’re over your cold by now. Still look forward to each new podcast. Learning lots about my native tongue and British/European history. God bless!

    Jill in Michigan

  3. The hedge warden being called a Hayward may be related to the fact that the French word for hedge is haie.

    • According to the OED, the word “nappy” as a diaper is a shortened form of the word “napkin.” If so, that would make it distinct from the American sense of the word “nappy” for excessively frizzy hair.

      • I am not sure how to write to you thru this podcast so i am just responding to an old text of someone else’s but I wanted you to know I hang on your every word and have played your episodes over and over. I wait hopefully for every new episode. Thank you so so much for sharing such vast knowledge in understandable language. Sincerely abigail

        • Hi Abigail. Thanks for the note. I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast! It’s a lot of fun to put together, and it’s good to know that listeners like you appreciate the work that goes into it.

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  5. “Blue” and other terms for it strikes me as one of the more interesting words for a color. If I recall you said you were familiar with the work of Bret Berlin and Paul Kay, right? So under their theory a term for blue comes #5 after black, white, red, green, and yellow. So, let’s look at the word in the major western European languages. In English we know it’s “blue,” Dutch uses “blaw,” while German uses “blau.” Seems like there might be a common root there. The Romance languages get a little more complicated, since the main word for blue in French is “bleu,” Italian uses “blu” and Catalan uses “blau.” However, Spanish and Portuguese both use “azul” and you see variations on that in both French and Italian (i.e. azur like the famous Cote d’Azure or azurri like the nickname for the Italian soccer team who wear blue shirts). That’s actually based on an Arabic word for the blue stone Lapus Lazuli and it makes sense that it would get into those vocabularies as Arabic was once spoken widely in the Iberian peninsula as well as parts of France and Italy.

    So, it makes me wonder then: with all of these foreign influences on the romance languages for the word “blue” did vulgar latin just not have a term for that color or was it systematically displaced by Germanic and Arabic counterparts? Classical Latin seems to use cyaneus or caeruleus and you can see that influence on some other shades of blue (cyan or cerulean) but not in the major daughter languages.

    • Hi Jason,

      I actually addressed the history of the color blue in the most recent bonus episode at Patreon.com. The fact is that neither Greek nor Latin had a specific word for the color blue that was limited to that color. They tended to see blue as a shade of green or purple – depending on the shade or hue. And the word they used to describe shades of blue also included other nearby colors in the color spectrum. The Greeks used “kyaneos” to mean dark blue, dark green or violet. It ultimately gave use the word “cyan.” The Greeks also used “glaukos” which meant light blue, light green, yellow or gray. That word ultimately produced the word “glaucoma” which literally meant ‘gray-eyed.’

      The Romans used “caeruleus” to mean a dark blue or green color, and it gave us the word “cerulean.” They also used the word “lividus” for a pale blue or purple color. It ultimately gave us the word “livid.” They also used the early version of “purple” to refer to a broad spectrum of colors from red to blue.

      In Late Latin, there was a need to identify the specific color of blue. As you noted, Latin borrowed the Persian/Arabic root of Lapis Lazuli and a Germanic root word which produced “blavus.” Those two roots words produced the modern words for “blue” in the Modern Romance languages.

      • It’s interesting you mentioned the Greek ‘kyaneos’ (or cyan). In Russian the color is called ‘sinij’ coming from proto-slavic (deriving from the same Indo European root?).
        As a speaker of Russian I always find it fascinating to discover connections between English and Russian via a mutual ancestor language.

        • Hi Helena. Thanks for the comments. I don’t know if “sinij” is related to “kyaneos,” but it is certainly possible. (Unfortunately, I don’t have a Russian etymology dictionary.) I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast!

  6. Have not listened to the episode yet but i read that when iron age scandinavians used ”blue” they meant black. Hence the danish king Harald bluetooth was really black-tooth?

    • Yes, that is true. Old Norse had the word “blar” which was derived from the same Germanic root as “blue” and “black.” Within Old Norse, “blar” could mean both blue and black. That word passed into Swedish as “blå” which is used solely for the color blue today, but it could mean both blue and black as recently as the early 1900s.

  7. Thanks again for another great episode. I had one of those moments just now where I’m listening to your podcast and my mind suddenly snaps to attention because I think I know where you’re going with the next word, but this time I was wrong.

    When you were talking about the suffix kin as a way to designate something as smaller, and then you turn the discussion to man because the word that we were going to learn was mannequin, the word my mind jump to before I heard mannequin was monkey. You know, like a little man? Is there anything to that?

    • There may be a connection, but it is really just conjecture. The word “monkey” first appeared in English in the early 1500s, but its ultimate etymology is unknown. Several theories have been suggested, and the OED discusses each theory without embracing any of them. One of the theories comes close to your idea. Here is the relevant portion of the discussion from the OED:

      “The Middle Low German version of Reynard the Fox (1498) has (only once, l. 6161) ‘Moneke’ as the name of the son of Martin the Ape; early in the 14th century the same character is mentioned as ‘Monnekin’ (also in a textual variant ‘Monnequin’) by Jean de Condé (court poet of Hainaut) in Li Dis d’Entendement… . As the name does not occur in any other version of Reynard, the English word is very unlikely to be derived from the story, but the proper name could perhaps represent an otherwise unrecorded Middle Low German *moneke or Middle Dutch *monnekijn, a colloquial word for monkey, and this may have been brought to England by showmen from the continent. This could show a diminutive formation (see -kin suffix) < Middle French 'monne'. However, the basis for reconstructing this Middle Low German or Middle Dutch word is very slender."

  8. The US military uses the command “Dress Right, Dress” to make sure the trooops are aligned when falling in to formation. Basically you put your right arm out and touch the shoulder of the person next to you, assuming the squad leaders are on the right of the formation, and everyone moves down until they are at the same distance from the next person. They also use dress front for alignement to the rear or much more rarely dress left. The full arm extension is used when carrying a rifle so you don’t hit the people around you with it. There is also a command to dress right using your elbow , with your hand on your hip for more compact or close quarters alignment

  9. Fascinated by the discussion of the colour blue. I wonder why it is that an Australian man with red hair is likely to be given the nick name “Blue”. During WWII we had the cartoon characters Bluey and Curly. They were diggers and spent time with the AIF in New Guinea.It was before the printing of cartoon comic strips in colour

    • Great question. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. I am not sure why red-headed men were given the nickname “Blue.” I had never heard that.

      • Or Bluey. I’ve encountered this in Australian fiction – pretty sure it’s in the Phryne Fisher books, for one (set in 1920s Australia, written by an Australian whose family has been there for generations). I think it’s mostly a joke, goes along with calling a huge man Little John.

  10. At the end of this podcast on making cloth, you said that “war with France ‘loomed’ on the horizon”. Was England preparing to ‘pull the wool’ over French eyes?

  11. Hi Kevin,
    I’ve been thoroughly enjoying your podcast for sometime now and have had the opportunity to include some of your insight in my lessons for English as a second language. I find that explanations in the form of story telling makes for a greater impression and retention of the information delivered in class.

    I was just listening to this podcast and noticed you mentioning that the word ‘map’ is derived from a Latin word.
    I would be interested in your opinion on the Hebrew word ‘mapa’ (meaning cloth) as it appears in writing circa 1st-3rd century CE. I understand that it appears in Jewish religious texts from this time (namely the Mishnah) which are written in Hebrew and occasionally borrow words from Aramaic. Could this word be related to a word in Aramaic or Hebrew?
    A colleague had an interesting theory that the Hebrews of this period would have been reluctant to use anything derived of Roman culture as a result of the destruction of the second holy temple.

    • I can’t find the book, but I recall reading that Latin mappa came from a Semitic source, probably the Phoenicians; this borrowing makes sense since there was a lot of contact between the two.

      In this way, Latin mappa is cognate to the Hebrew mapa/מפה.

    • The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the Romans borrowed the word ‘mappa’ from the Punic language of the Phoenicians, which of course was a Semitic language. The Romans might have picked it up via traders from Carthage. So it does appear that the word has a Semitic origin, though probably not Hebrew.

  12. I work in construction and use “dropcloths” often. These are always rough undyed canvas-like fabric, put down under a work area. I had always assumed “drop” referred either to the fact that they were dropped on the floor or ground prior to use, or that they catch drops of paint or somesuch that might fall from a wall or workspace. I had actually wondered previously why these dropcloths were always undyed, since we so often colour things during modern manufacturing unnecessarily. But now I know, a third meaning for the “drop” half of that word. Thanks!

    • I have to admit that I never made the connection between the Middle English loanword ‘drap’ meaning a canvas-like material and a ‘drop cloth.’ I tried to determine if the word ‘drop’ in ‘drop cloth’ is derived from this French loanword or from the native English word ‘drop’ (as in a drop of paint). So far, I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer, but it may simply be a coincidence that a ‘drop cloth’ is a type of ‘drap’ cloth. It’s a wonderful linguistic nugget either way.

  13. Love your podcasts, keep up the great work. Your passion for this field really shines through. Although I’ve never created a podcast, it is apparent that you spend a lot of time putting these together, and for that I am very thankful. I would also like to encourage my fellow listeners to support your efforts financially.

    Ironically I came across the following, while watching Harry Potter with my wife and son. Similar to the formation of napkin, the word “ninny” supposedly originated from a modification of the word innocent, going from “an innocent” to “a ninnocent” to “ninny”. Plausible? I don’t know how many words there are in the English language with similar formations, but I thought I’d share this one.

    • Yes, that is the preferred etymology of “ninny” given by the Oxford English Dictionary. There are quite a few words that experienced that same process in English. I didn’t realize that “ninny” was another one of those. Thanks for letting me know.

  14. Hi Kevin
    I love your podcast. Regarding tenterhooks, that is how it’s pronounced in The UK with a t in the middle. I’ve never heard anyone say tenderhooks.

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