By Robin L. Berry
Published Online (2005)
Introduction: This paper discusses the use of walnut to dye fabric. As far back as Roman times black cloth was produced by dyeing of fabric or skeins in dye baths of tannic acid and iron salts; including using black walnuts. It is mentioned in Pliny and there is evidence of it in the dyeworks at Pompeii. Walnut was also known as a dye during the Viking Age.
From the 13th C. to 16th C. much of what we know about dyeing comes from the accounts of the Guilds and the laws concerning what they were permitted to do. Many plants contain tannic acid in their bark, leaves, stems, or fruit. Some are mentioned in the Plictho de larte de Tentori che insegna tenger pani telle banbasi et sede si per larthe magiore come per la comune written by Giovanventura Rosetti and printed in 1540. This book was written to popularize dyeing in the 16th C and contains numerous recipes.
Unfortunately while there is much information on the process, there are few details of the exact order or amounts to be used in historic texts. Thus, there is room for a wide variety of interpretations of these “recipes”.
Dyeing black from a combination of tannic acid and iron salts was common in Roman times. Various plant materials were used including all portions of nut trees. The walnut (Juglans Nux Regia) was brought by the Roman to the European continent and England. The iron mordant was made from dissolving iron in vinegar. The fabric, if it was wool, was then dyed by the infectores and offectores. Each step in wool production was handled by a separate company.
As dyeing moves into the Middle Ages the Guilds take over the various steps of processing various fabrics. In Germany there is even a specific group for dyeing black called the Schwartzfarber. This group is less prestigious than one that dyed colors. In 15th C York the dyers set out ordinances; as other dyeing guilds had done in prior centuries. There is a specific reference that dyeing may be done at any time. Thus, the dyeing may occur with the raw fiber, after the fiber is spun, or after weaving. The cover illustration of this paper from Rosetti’s Plictho shows skeins being dyed. Jost Amman’s Book of Trades, originally published in 1568, has an illustration of the dyeing of fabric.