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The natural constituents of historical textile dyes

Abstract

The sources and structures of dyes used to colour Western historical textiles are described in this tutorial review. Most blue and purple colours were derived from indigo—obtained either from woad or from the indigo plant—though some other sources (e.g. shellfish and lichens) were used. Reds were often anthraquinone derivatives obtained from plants or insects. Yellows were almost always flavonoid derivatives obtained from a variety of plant species. Most other colours were produced by over-dyeing—e.g. greens were obtained by over-dyeing a blue with a yellow dye. Direct analysis of dyes isolated from artefacts allows comparison with the historical record.

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