It is not unusual to hear said of textiles and embroideries, "I like

soft quiet colouring; such and such is too bright." This assertion is

both right and wrong; it shows an instinctive pleasure in harmony

combined with ignorance of technique. To begin with, colour cannot be

too bright in itself; if it appears so, it is the skill of the craftsman

that is at fault. It will be noted in a fine piece of work that far from

azing with colour in a way to disturb the eye, its general effect is

that of a subdued glow; and yet, on considering the different shades of

the colours used, they are found to be in themselves of the brightest

the dyer can produce. Thus I have seen in an old Persian rug light and

dark blue flowers and orange leaves outlined with turquoise blue on a

strong red ground, a combination that sounds daring, and yet nothing

could be more peaceful in tone than the beautiful and complicated groups

of colours here displayed. Harmony, then, produces this repose, which is

demanded instinctively, purity and crispness being further obtained by

the quality of the colours used.

Thus in blues, use the shades that are only obtained satisfactorily by

indigo dye, with such modifications as slightly "greening" with yellow

when a green-blue is wanted, and so forth. The pure blue of indigo,[1]

neither slaty nor too hot and red on the one hand, nor tending to a

coarse "peacock" green-blue on the other, is perfect in all its tones,

and of all colours the safest to use in masses. Its modifications to

purple on one side and green-blue on the other are also useful, though

to be employed with moderation. There are endless varieties of useful

reds, from pink, salmon, orange, and scarlet, to blood-red and deep

purple-red, obtained by different dyes and by different processes of

dyeing. Kermes, an insect dye, gives a very beautiful and permanent

colour, rather scarlet. Cochineal, also an insect dye, gives a red,

rather inferior, but useful for mixed shades, and much used on silk, of

which madder and kermes are apt to destroy the gloss, the former a good

deal, the latter slightly. Madder, a vegetable dye, "yields on wool a

deep-toned blood-red, somewhat bricky and tending to scarlet. On cotton

and linen all imaginable shades of red, according to the process."[2] Of

the shades into which red enters, avoid over-abundant use of warm orange

or scarlet, which are the more valuable (especially the latter) the more

sparingly used; there is a dusky orange and a faint clear bricky

scarlet, sometimes met with in old work, that do not need this

reservation, being quiet colours of impure yet beautiful tone. Clear,

full yellow, fine in itself, also loses its value if too plentifully

used, or lacking due relief by other colours. The pure colour is neither

reddish and hot in tone, nor greenish and sickly. It is very abundant,

for example, in Persian silk embroidery, also in Chinese, and again in

Spanish and Italian work of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The

best and most permanent yellow dye, especially valuable on silk, is

weld or "wild mignonette."

Next to blue, green seems the most natural colour to live with, and the

most restful to the eye and brain; yet it is curious to those not

familiar with the ins and outs of dyeing that it should be so difficult

to obtain through ordinary commercial channels a full, rich, permanent

green, neither muddy yellow nor coarse bluish. A dyer who employed

old-fashioned dye-stuffs and methods would, however, tell us that the

greens of commerce are obtained by messes, and not by dyes, the only

method for obtaining good shades being that of dyeing a blue of the

depth required in the indigo-vat, and afterwards "greening" it with

yellow, with whatever modifications are needed. Three sets of greens

will be found useful for needlework, full yellow-greens of two or three

shades, grayish-greens, and blue-greens. Of these, the shades tending to

grayish-green are the most manageable in large masses. There is also an

olive-green that is good, if not too dark and brown, when it becomes a

nondescript, and as such to be condemned.

Walnut (the roots or the husks or the nut) and catechu (the juice of a

plant) are the most reliable brown dye-stuffs, giving good rich colour.

The best black, by the bye, formerly used, consisted of the darkest

indigo shade the material would take, dipped afterwards in the walnut

root dye.

This hasty enumeration of dye-stuffs gives an idea of those principally

used until this century, but now very rarely, since the reign of

Aniline. Yet they give the only really pure and permanent colours known,

not losing their value by artificial light, and very little and

gradually fading through centuries of exposure to sunlight. It would be

pleasant if in purchasing silk or cloth one had not to pause and

consider "will it fade?" meaning not "will it fade in a hundred, or ten,

or three years?" but "will it fade and be an unsightly rag this time

next month?" I cannot see that Aniline has done more for us than this.

Colour can be treated in several different ways: by distinctly light

shades, whether few or many, on a dark ground, which treatment lends

itself to great variety and effect; or by dark on a light ground, not so

rich or satisfying in effect; or again, by colour placed on colour of

equal tone, as it were a mosaic or piecing together of colours united,

or "jointed," by outlining round the various members of the design.

Black on white, or white on white, a mere drawing of a design on the

material, scarcely comes under the head of Colour, though, as aforesaid,

some very beautiful work has been done in this way.

As regards method of colouring, it is not very possible to give much

indication of what to use and what to avoid, it being greatly a matter

of practice, and somewhat of instinct, how to unite colour into

beautiful and complex groups. A few hints for and against certain

combinations may perhaps be given: for instance, avoid placing a blue

immediately against a green of nearly the same tone; an outline of a

different colour disposes of this difficulty, but even so, blue and

green for equally leading colours should be avoided. Again, red and

yellow, if both of a vivid tone, will need a softening outline; also, I

think, red and green if at all strong; avoid cold green in contact with

misty blue-green, which in itself is rather a pretty colour: the warning

seems futile, but I have seen these colours used persistently together,

and do not like the resulting undecided gray tone. A cold strong green

renders service sometimes, notably for placing against a clear brilliant

yellow, which is apt to deaden certain softer greens. Brown, when used,

should be chosen carefully, warm in tint, but not hot; avoid the

mixture of brown and yellow, often seen in "Art Depots," but not in

nature, an unfortunate groping after the picturesque, as brown wants

cooling down, and to marry it to a flaming yellow is not the way to do

it. Black should be used very sparingly indeed, though by no means

banished from the palette. Blue and pink, blue and red, with a little

tender green for relief, are perfectly safe combinations for the

leading colours in a piece of work; again, yellow and green, or yellow,

pink, and green, make a delightfully fresh and joyous show. There is a

large coverlet to be seen at the South Kensington Museum (in the Persian

gallery) which is worked in these colours, all very much the same bright

tone, the centre being green and yellow and pink, and the several

borders the same, with the order and proportion altered to make a

variety. In recalling bright colouring like this, one is reminded of

Chaucer and his unfailing delight in gay colours, which he constantly

brings before us in describing garden, woodland, or beflowered gown.


"Everich tree well from his fellow grewe

With branches broad laden with leaves newe

That sprongen out against the sonne sheene

Some golden red and some a glad bright grene."

Or, again, the Squire's dress in the Prologue to The Canterbury


"Embrouded was he, as it were a mede

Alle ful of freshe floures, white and rede."



[1] For notes on the dyer's art and the nature of dye stuffs, see

William Morris's essay on "Dyeing as an Art," p. 196.

[2] William Morris, "Dyeing as an Art."