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Dyeing is part of alchemy, just that the subject of it varies. Besides, the Physika et Mystika (Or rather “On the making of Purple and Gold: Natural and Secret Questions”, as translated by Matteo Martelli) had a chapter on dyeing cloth, as well as on those on making silver and gold.

As a dyestuff it seems to have been fairly rare in medieval Europe, but more common in the post-medieval period, for very good reason. The reason being that in the medieval period, it came from India or Ceylon and similar places in the far east. Thus it had an expensive long trip through several sets of merchants, raising the price each time. But when the Portugese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral was blown off course in 1500, he landed in Brazil and had his crew sample the local

flora and fauna for useful products. These included the red wood of a hardwood, Caesalpinia echinata as it is described today, which could be shipped back across the Atlantic straight to Portugal.

The word brasil is said to come from the Portugese brasa for ember, because of the flaming red hue you can make with it. Unfortunately the Brazilian tree is now on the endangered list, but modern brazilwood comes from Ceasalpina Sappan, grown in managed plantations in south east Asia. In fact it seems that the plant gave the name to the country as a whole, certainly an unusual occurence.




Thus we have two different yet related plants on opposite sides of the world sharing the same general name and the man in the street or at least the dyer not being able to distinguish them, not that it mattered because he got the correct result anyway. I don’t however recall any brazil wood dye being detected in cloth from medieval or Tudor Britain, but I could be wrong about that.

So, on to the practical stuff.

I mordanted the silk and bit of woollen cloth with alum, in the same haphazard way as usual, with a roughly 10% by weight of alum to cloth solution and leaving it to age for a couple of days. As you can see in the photo below, one of the bits of cloth was yellow from weld, and another red from madder. I have read of madder being overdyed with brazil to get a nicer red. According to the book I was using, “Colours from Nature” by Jenny Dean, you can get a brown from brazilwood if you use a copper or iron modifier, which does make you think that they would have used wooden vats in order to get a nice red. Certainly brewers used wooden vats for all sorts of things, although I think metal ones would still be better for heating the water, which then raises the question of when you add the dyestuff which might react with the metal in the pan. Therefore I expect that you’d add it in the wooden vessel, but haven’t found anything that makes it clear whether or not that is what was done.

According to Dean, you need 50-100% by weight of dyestuff to cloth, and I got perfectly good results with dye leftover from maybe 70%. It helps that I was using the powder. I followed her general instructions to simmer it for 30 minutes or so, I reached about 55C, then cooled it, before adding the wet fibres, heating them slowly up to 55 to 60C, for half an hour or more. Then I switched it off, let it cool overnight and took the cloth out and rinsed it. The silk was a lovely bright red, shading a little towards pink.

silk dyed with brazilwood

Unfortunately I miscalculated the amount of cloth required, and had to dye two pieces of silk in order to be able to make the fancy cloak lining that I wanted to, and they came out slightly different shades of colour, although not enough for people to notice in normal use hanging on my shoulders.

The pieces of wool also changed colour, and it turned out that this is a very strong dye, with before:

dyed wool before brazilwood dye

Changing to after:

brazilwood overdyed wool

The piece of cloth on the right was white beforehand, and the red of the brazil completely overpowered the yellow of the weld.  The piece in the middle though shows a bright red ember like colour after being overdyed over the rather sad looking madder.

A complete success all round anyway.  It seems a little easier to use than madder, no need to worry about the temperature, although you do get a different shade of red than that of the madder.