Dyes & Dyeing

In early Ireland, dyeing was considered to be a somewhat magical process, and was strictly a women's craft, there being a taboo on dyeing fabric in the presence of men. The book of Lismore contains a passage in which St. Ciaran's mother tells him to go out of the house, since it is unlucky to have men in the house while dyeing cloth. He curses the cloth so that it dyes unevenly, then later recants. There were also rules about which days of the month or week were proper for dyeing -- the information not recorded in this source). (BrĂ­d Mahon, Traditional Dyestuffs in Ireland, p. 116). Dyers also had a reputation for being herbal healers, since many dyestuffs were also used in folk medicine. (Mahon, p. 122)

Many Highland dye recipes involve steeping the wool for as long as several days or even weeks in order to achieve the proper depth of color and degree of fastness. This is sometimes attributed to the harsher quality of Highland wool. (Kok, p. 224)

Linen is particularly hard to dye; however, indigin (as contained in woad, and, later, in imported indigo dye) and the purple from Murex snails do dye linen, as they adhere to the surface of the fiber rather than penetrating the fiber as most other dyes do.

The word for dyestuffs in the Book of Leinster is 'ruaman'; the root word is 'ruam' or red -- which reinforces the idea that the Celts loved bright colors and wore them as much as possible (Joyce, vol. 2, p. 357). More information on dyes and dyeing can be found at: Natural Dyes Mailing List.
-- A link to 14th c. German dye recipes -- shows what was being done elsewhere in medieval Europe
-- Color in Lowerclass Elizabethan Clothing -- shows what was being done elsewhere in the British Isles
-- To make a Beautiful Colour -- Period Dyes in the 16th Century

A Note on 'Saffron'

The term 'saffron', as used to describe Irish and Scottish leinte, is used to describe the color of the linen. The color is actually derived from weld, a plant that yields a light, clear yellow:

The truth is that the old English saffron does not mean crocus but any yellow colour, and generally distinguishes the weld, still retained in many parts of England and the very plant the Irish call BuĂ­dhe MĂłr, or Great Yellow. With this they dye their linen and fine woolen stuffs with different degrees of colour and fix the colour with urine. The yellow thus obtained is bright and lasting. (J. C. Walker, Materials used by the Ancient Irish, quoted in Brid Mahon, p. 118-119)

Other materials used to obtain a saffron-yellow include poplar bark and leaves, heather, Meadowsweet (Airgead Luachra; produces a pale yellow), sorrel, gorse blossoms, onion skins, a species of lichen (called Féasóg Ghabair or Dath na gCloch) and Mare's Tail (Cáiti Collagan). (Mahon, p. 119)

In a recent workshop on natural dyes, we got a yellow very similar to that yielded by weld using the leaves of the sweetgum tree, using alum as a mordant. The workshop was held in mid-May; I don't know if the results would be different using leaves gathered later in the year.


A mordant (from a French word meaning 'to bite') is a substance applied to fibers before dyeing which helps the dye adhere to the fibers. The type of mordant used will usually affect the end color of the fabric. Mordants used in Ireland and Scotland included:

  • Alum (potassium aluminum sulphate from stale urine, wood ash, oak galls; chips of oak or alder wood; burnt seaweed or kelp) -- 'brightens' the color. Stale urine is called fual, or graith in Scotland. Probably used from the earliest times.
  • Iron (or copperas - ferrous sulphate) - 'saddens' colors (makes them grayer). Iron could be obtained from certain bogs or iron ore.
  • Copper (or verdigris - copper sulphate)
  • Fir-club moss (Lycopodium selago), used in place of alum.
  • Oak-galls were sometimes used to dull the colour.
  • Elecampane (Inula helenium) was sometimes used as a mordant for dyeing with blaeberries. (Kok, p. 225)


Animal Dyes: Kermes (an insect related to Cochineal); Murex snail (Murex; Purpura lapillus -- known in Ireland in 7th c. CE, possibly earlier) (Mahon, pp.116-117)

Vegetable Dyes: The roots, leaves, flowers, or bark of plants; different parts of the plant sometimes yield different colors.

Lichens: usually require no mordant, as they are very 'fast' (permanent) dyes. They were usually gathered in July and August, dried in the sun, and used without mordants to dye wool in an iron dyepot. The lichens were fermented with fual (stale urine) for as long as three weeks over low heat. Ammonia can be used for modern dyeing instead. Dyeing time might be up to four hours, or even longer for deeper, more color-fast dyes.
-- Article on Orchil Dye

List of Native Irish and Scottish Dyes

Some of these dyestuffs are listed several times; this might indicate some confusion on the part of the person gathering the information; but some plants can be used to obtain different colors, using different dyeing techniques and mordants.

The lower classes were most likely to wear saffron and black. Trews and cloaks were also frequently dyed black. (Mahon, p. 121)

In Uibh Ráthach, Contae Chiarra they never let children wear white underclothes lest they be swept away by the puca and as a safeguard they picked sceochan na gcloch, to dye the garment a yellowish brown. (Mahon, p. 122)

George Buchanan, in his History of Scotland (1580), writes that the favorite colors of Highlanders were blue and purple. The blue was most likely obtained using woad (Isatis tinctoria), which contains the dye indigotin. In later periods, blue indigo dye was imported from India, where it is derived from the indigo plant. It is easier to get indigin out of the indigo plant than it is from woad, since indigo contains a higher level of indigin pigment than woad does, so it takes less plant material to get the desired dye. The procedure for getting the indigotin out of the plant material (used either for woad or for indigo) is a lengthy and finicky process involving the fermentation of the plant material and several other steps too complex to go into here (see the link to The Woad Page for further information). Indigo dye, either synthetic or natural, can be obtained from several sources, including Earthguild, along with instructions for making an indigo dye vat using modern powdered chemicals rather than the traditional stale urine, lime water or wood ash lye from which these chemicals were originally derived.

Dye Material: Mordant: Latin Name: Gaelic Name:
Blue: (glas, gorm)      
Bilberry, Whortleberry iron Vaccinium myrtillus Fraochán
Devil's Bit leaves prepared like woad Succisa praetensis, Scabiosa Succisa Ăšrach bhallach; Greim an diabhail
Elder (berries) alum Sambucus nigra Trom
Privet (berries, leaves) alum & salt Ligustrum vulgare Tor luathfás
Red Bearberry   Arctostaphylos uva-ursi Lus na stalĂłg
Sloe (Blackthorn)   Prunis spinosa Draighean
Woad (leaves, fermented) ammonia satis tinctoria GlaisĂ­n
Wild (or Mountain) Pansy (leaves, stem)     GoirmĂ­n slĂ©ibhe
Yellow Iris (roots) iron Iris pseudacorus Feileastram
Elecampane   Inula helenium  
Black: (dubh)      
Alder (bark with copperas)   Alnus glutinosa FearnĂłg
Blackberry (young shoots w/ salts of iron)   Rubus fruticosus Smearna dubha Driseog
bog mire (mud), boiled in iron pot; described as very color-fast dull black; to make glossy black, add oak twigs or chips alumina (from urine)   Dubh an Phortaigh; dubh-poill
Dock (roots)   Rumex obtusifolius CopĂłg
Elder (bark) copperas Sambucus nigra Trom
various lichens      
Oak (bark and acorns)   Quercus petraea and robur Dair
Yellow Iris (roots)   iris pseudacorus Feileastram
Meadowsweet - whole plant   Filipendula ulmaria Airgead luachra
Waterlily (roots)   Nymphea alba  
crotal (lichen)      
Alder   Alnus glutinosa FearnĂłg
Bilberry or Whortleberry   Vaccinium myrtillus Fraochán
Birch   Betula pubescens Beith
Bogbean   Menyanthes trifoliata Bearnán lachan, BĂłchrán
Briar/bramble roots      
Dulse (seaweed)      
Hops   humulus lupulus Lus an leanna
Larch (needles collected in autumn)      
Lichens iron (dyepot)   Crotal
Oak (bark)   Quercus petraea and robur Dair
Onion (skins)      
Sloe (Blackthorn)   Prunis spinosa Draighne·n Donn
Veronica - Speedwell   Veronica beccubunga Lus na banaltra, Seamar chrĂ©
White waterlily (roots)   Nymphaea alba Duilleog bháute
Bracken (crumpled buds of leaf fronds)   Pteridium aquilinum Raithneach
Bedstraw (yellow), overdyed with Woad      
Dock Sorrel   Rumex acestosa Samhadh bĂł
Elder   Sambucus nigra Trom
Flowering Rush   Juncus sp. Luachair Bogbhuinne
Foxglove   Digitalis purpurea MĂ©arcán na mban sĂ­
Heath, boiled (dark green)      
Horsetail   Equisetum telemateia Eireaball capaill
Nettles (dark green)   Urtica dioica NeantĂłg
Privet (berries and leaves) alum Ligustrum vulgare Tor luathfás
Weld, overdyed with woad ammonia    
Weld, mixed with sheep's feces (dark green)      
Yellow Flag     seileastram or feileastram
wild madder (root)   Rubia peregrina  
field madder (root)   Sherardia arvensis  
Ladies Bedstraw alum Galium verum rud; rĂş Mhuire, baladh cnise or bindean
Cudbear lichen (Mahon, p. 117) ammonia   Corcair; Sraith na gCloch
Red: (ruadh)      
Alder red   ruam (the dye); fearn, fearno/g (the plant)
Blackthorn bright red; w/alum produces orange Prunus spinosa  
Kermes (insects; related to cochineal)      
Lichens and mosses     Sraith na gCloch
Field madder (roots)   Sherardia arvensis Baladh cnis Chon Chulainn, Dearg faille
Sorrel (root)   Rumex acetosa  
Meadowsweet (roots)   Filipendula ulmaria  
Tormentil (roots)   Potentilla erecta NĂ©altartach, BeinidĂ­n
Wild madder (roots)   Rubia peregrina Madar
Purple: (corcur)      
Bilberry or Whortleberry alum Vaccinium myrtillus Fraochán
Cloudberry   Rubus europaeus  
Crotal Lichen (corcur dye) fermentation w/ stale urine (fuar) Ochrolechia tartarea; O. parella; Pertusaria dealbata; Aspicilia calcarea; Parmelia omphalodes; P. saxatilis; and others corcra; crotal ban, crotal geal, white crotal, or scurf
Crowberry   Empetrum nigrum  
Dandelion (roots dye magenta) alum Taraxacum officinale Caisearbhán Caol dearg
Danesweed (Dwarf Elder)   Sambucus ebulus Lus na nDanar; PĂ©ith bhog
Deadly nightshade   Atropa belladonna MiotĂłg bhuĂ­; Lus mĂłr coilleadh
Elder (berries) alum Sambucus nigra Trom
Murex (whelks -- shellfish)   Murex or Purpura lapillus shellfish This is the 'royal purple' or crimson used in Europe. Because it's very expensive to produce, fabrics dyed with murex are very costly and are worn mostly by chiefs.
Orchil or Cudbear lichen alum   Sraith na gCloch
Purple Loosestrife   Lythrum salicaria Eireaball caitĂŚn; CrĂ©achtach
sea slugs      
Spindle   Euonymus europaeus  
St. John's Wort (flower heads) none Hypericum perforatum  
Sundew   Drosera rotundifolia DrĂşichtĂ­n mĂłna, RĂłs an tsolais
Yellow: (buidhe) most of these use an alum mordant.    
Agrimony   Agrimonia eupatoria AirgeadĂ©an, MĂ©irĂ­n na máighe
Ash (fresh inner bark)   Fraxinus excelsior Fuinseog
Birch   Betula pubescens; B. alba Beith
Bog asphodel   Narthecium ossifragum Bliocáin
Bog myrtle (or sweet gale)   Myrica gale RaidĂłg, Railleog
Bracken (roots, young tops)   Pteridium aquilinum Raithneach
Bramble   Rubus fruticosus Driseog
Broom   Cytisus scoparius Giolach
Buckthorn (berries and bark)   Rhamnus catharticus Ramh Draighin, Maide brĂ©an
Common dock (roots)   Rumex obtusifolius CopĂłg
Crab apple (fresh inner bark)   Malus sylvestris Ăšll fiain
Dogwood   Cornus sanguinea Crann cornĂ©il, Crann muchĂłra
Gorse (bark, flowers, young shoots)   Ulex europaeus Aiteann
Heather alum Erica tetralix; E. vulgaris; Calluna vulgaris Fraoch
Kidney vetch   Anthyllis vulneraria Meoir Mhuire, Cosán uain
Lichens (various) (brownish yellow)     FĂ©asĂłg Ghabhair; others
Marigold   Caltha palustris  
Marestail   Hippuris vulgaris Snáithe báite, Cáiti collagan
Marsh marigold   Caltha palustris Lus buĂ­ Bealtaine
Marsh ragwort   Senecio aquaticus Buachalán buĂŚ
Marsh-woundwort   Stachys palustris Duilleog na saor
Meadow Rue   Talictrum flavum Riascbhláth Ăłrdha
Meadowsweet (light yellow)     Airgead Luachra
Nettle alum Urtica dioica NeantĂłg
Onion skins      
Pennywort   Umbilicus rupestris Carnán caisil, Lus na pingine
Poplar bark, wood and leaves (saffron color) ammonia (material soaks several days in ammonia) [Mahon, p. 118]    
Privet (leaves)   Ligustrum vulgare Tor luathfás
Red shank   Polygonum persicaria Gluineach dhearg
Saffron (probably introduced early 1400s)(Mahon, p. 118)   Crocus sativus CrĂłch an fhĂłmhair
Sorrel Sahmadh     Dath na gCloch
St. John's Wort alum Hypericum sp. Luibh Eoin Bhaiste
Sundew   Drosera rotundifolia DrĂşichtĂ­n mĂłna
Teasel   Dipsacus fullonum Lus an fhĂşcadĂłra
Tormentil (roots)   Potentilla erecta NĂ©altartach, BeinidĂ­n
Water pepper   Polygonum hydropiper GlĂşineach
Weld (strong yellow) aka Dyer's Weed   Reseda luteola BuĂ­dhe mĂłr, Ruachan buĂ­
Yellow Fumitory   Corydalis lutea Dearg thalĂşn
Yellow Wort   Blackstonia perfoliata DrĂ©imire buĂ­

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The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

Clothing of the Ancient Celts - Copyright 1997, M. E. Riley