A Rudimentary History of Turkey Red

Turkey Red is a dye first used for dyeing cotton. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, the Rubia plant was used to process the plant to the dye. Turkey Red is a type of Madder Red. The dye is from Turkey even though the recipe origins are in China. There was a monopoly on the process for dyeing cotton a bright red madder that almost rivalled the most expensive pigments during the turn of the century.

Turkey Red is a type of Madder Red that is an orange-brown powdery pigment that has been a source of red for a long time. Turkey Red is a strong and very fast red dye for cotton obtained from the madder root. It was durable and did not fade in the water or light. It could be a bright rosy pink-red pigment as described by George Field in Chromatography in 1835. It was a red colourant made from the roots of Rubia tinctorum, Rubia peregrina and Rubia cordifolia. These are common madder plants that when combined with sugars xylose and glucose create a red dye. The Rubia flowers are small yellow five-petal flowers with evergreen leaves. They grow between June and August.

Rubia tinctorum – Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen. Source: WIkipedia – Public Domain.

The Ancient Egyptians used it on fabrics in Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1500 BC. In Pompeii, paint makers’ shops had fossilized wares with the dye on the pottery. Many items in history had Madder Red as a cheaper version of cochineal red or to make a celebratory red shade for ceremonies. Furthermore, in Antiquity in the lifetime of Pliny the Elder, it was used to treat yellow jaundice.

Turkey Red was a long and laboured process using the roots of Rubia plants, rancid castor oil, oxblood, oak gall, sumac, alum, soda, dung and a solution of tin. The colourant was made with the process of anamalising which is adding urine, milk, dung, blood or egg albumen. The roots were washed, dried and ground into a fine powder. Then the cloths were covered with vegetable oil, dressed and treated with tannic acid. Ancient China, India, Persia and Egypt used this dye process. By the 13th century, Turkey Red was introduced to Europe. The fabric was sold as plain red clothes, sometimes with elaborate colourful patterns.

HEX Code for Turkey Red #A91101

During the 1700s, many industries tried to discover the production secrets of Turkey Red in Scotland and France. In 1785, the dye was introduced to Scotland by George Mackintosh with help from Pierre Jacques Papillon, a chemist, to decode the production process; it introduced a new dye field in Scotland. The company they created with David Dale was called Dalmarnock Works. When Dalmarnock Works sold to Henry Monteith of Carstairs in 1805, he made cotton handkerchiefs in red with white dots known as Monteiths.

During the 19th century, Turkey red was a popular industry in the Vale of Leven in Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Some of the top fabric dyers in the 1800s were William Stirling and Sons, John Orr Ewing and Co., and Archibald Orr Ewing and Co. They employed at least 7,000 workers to make 5.5 million pieces of red fabric cloth yearly (equivalent to 20 million pounds of yarn) sold around the world.

The amalgamated company United Turkey Red Co Ltd was made of the three major companies in Dunbartonshire in 1898 before it was purchased by the Calico Printers Association in 1960. It was once seen as a monopoly on artificial alizarin dye companies that produced Turkey Red. The buyouts led to steeper prices for English and Scottish dyers. Some Scottish firms refused to meet the price demands from their counterparts which led to a financial depression within the industry, mass unemployment and harsh tariffs for British dyed yarns imported into India. By 1860, imports to Britain were worth over one million pounds annually but were often of poor quality.

Poster for The United Turkey Red Company Limited c. 1920, artist unknown, public domain.

The United Turkey Red Co Ltd. went through many rebranding and management changes but the name remained the same. They developed ways to make a cheaper and quicker turkey red dyeing process. Even though the company’s operations of the company survived the turn of the century and the Great Depression, the company went through a downturn when widespread use of Naphthol Red dyes which the company rejected to pick up in 1914 because they thought it was an inferior product. The company still remains in operation but in name only.

Naphthol Red is an azo-type organic colourant patented in 1911 and stopped being used around the 1930s. It was once known as Grela Reds and a substitute for Turkey red. It provided good tinting strength and lightfastness. It was used to colour plastics.

The French were accused of adulterating their madder with everything from brick dust to oats. The madder started to be fermented for dyeing in France in 1826. Madder root extraction with what some painters called rose madder to create artificial dyes. It produced a stable and long-lasting alizarin crimson red and purpurin which can be dissolved in boiling in a solution of aluminum sulphate. These are known as Madder Lake. A process first discovered by French chemist Pierre Jean Robiquet. The resulting colour may be anywhere from pink through purple to dark brown. He wrote about his findings in “Recherches sur la matière colorante de la garance” in 1827.

Banner Credit: Turkey Red cloth from artist unknown, c. 18th century, public domain.

Finlay, Victoria. The Brilliant History of Color in Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, 2014, pp. 74–77.

Clair, Kassia St. The Secret Lives of Colour, John Murray Publishers, London, UK, 2016, pp. 152–153.

West Dunbartonshire Council – Turkey Red

Pigments Throught The Ages -Madder lake (Alizarin)

Grace’s Guide To British Industrial History – United Turkey Red Co

National Museums Scotland – Colouring The Nation

I like writing movie lists of great films and obscure information about how colours influence modern society. I am a designer who designs for various mediums for clients daily. This is my design/movie blog that I do every once in a while.

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