I have always assumed that turkey red as a colour had some sort of link with the birds. Once again I’ve found that I was completely wrong – the name of the colour comes from the country Turkey which pioneered the complex processes for using the fleshy yellow root of the madder plant a brick red dye which didn’t disappear after the first wash. The root turns red when exposed to the sir (just like rusting) and this is where the lovely vibrant reds came from.
The madder plant is a member of the same family as the coffee plant and its root has been used for creating a red dye for thousands of years: there were traces of madder dye in some of the fabric in Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt and also in wool discovered in Viking burial grounds. It can give a huge range of red colours because the dye from the root is sensitive to both temperature and to the minerals in the water, Knowing this, it’s fun to know that there was a large madder industry in Scotland – using water from Loch Lomond.
Uses of red dye
Over time, madder red dye has been used by the druids for coming of age clothing, fed to horses and birds of prey to colour their hooves, teeth and claws, used in early national flags containing red. It has even been used on the outer leather coverings of cricket balls. That, of course, is in addition to the most important use from our point of view – quilt fabric.
It’s interesting that so many vintage quilts have a lot of red fabric in them. It certainly shows what a long lasting dye it was, well worth the complicated processes needed to make the dye. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the chemicals producing the dye could be identified. From that time the dye could be made synthetically.
Other red dyes like cochineal
There are other means of making natural red dye, but none of them produces as rich or as long lasting a red colour. The petals of the saflower can be boiled up to make yellow and red dyes and we must all have used cochineal colouring in our cooking. It has also been used to dye fabric.
Cochineal is interesting because it is almost the only natural dye that doesn’t come from a plant. I knew that cochineal colouring came from the cochineal beetle and I always felt slightly uneasy at the thought of all those cochineal beetles being destroyed so that I could have red icing on my children’s birthday cakes, but in fact it was a long ime before anyone was even sure that it was a beetle. It is so small that it was only after microscopes were first made that scientists could decide whether it was animal, vegetable or mineral. In fact cochineal comes from the female scale insect on prickly pear plants. You can see why madder red dye was more popular!