One of the least understood aspect of 18th century clothing is the colors available in fabric, threads, and other materials such as embroidery floss. A common myth is that they wore only blue and brown and nothing could be farther from the truth. A cursory look at fabric swatch books from the period will quickly dispel this myth, but also remember when viewing original garments, they were made with dyes that faded with time and laundering. Garments in which one can see the fabric inside a seam where it wasn’t exposed to light for over a hundred years are a better indication of the original color.
Early designs were painted or stamped onto fabric and we know that prior to the 19th century dyes were natural vegetable or in a few instances animal-based products, for example cochineal. Mordants allowed a wider range of colors from dyes.
Even homespun wool, linen, linsey-woolsey, etc. could be dyed in a wide variety of colors.
Some “in-the-know” textile aficionados like to claim there were no 18th century woven cotton checks or plaids, however, others, like myself, disagree. One such source is Florence Montgomery who lists these in her “Textiles in America 1650-1870”. I wouldn’t recommend making an abundance of such garments, however, I don’t think it is possible to declare they were never used either.
RED: saw a red petticoat hanging to dry. 1769. …used to shew her old red petticoat on the next hedge as often as she washed it. 1754. …judged from his red coat to be high in office. 1709. …deep, ruby glowing red—old curtain of the window. 1709. Mrs. V. herself…stood there in a gown of red and white. 1709. A regiment of soldiers clothed in red. 1709. …a red waistcoat appears at an opening below. 1789. He wore a red waistcoat. 1738. Scarlet petticoat. 1791.
Madder produced anything from pink to red, purple and black, etc. Brazil wood from the East Indies and other plants produced shades of red. Cochineal was an excellent red dye. It is scale insects raised on cacti and both the cacti and cochineal were farmed.
YELLOW: Marigold, turmeric, golden dock, nettle, fustic (Morus tinctoria, from America), purging buck-thorn, sumach [sic], barberry, plumb-tree, apple tree, lesser burdock, sweet willow, birch-tree, hedge-nettle, St. John’s wort, Queen Anne’s Lace, anatto, etc. dyed a lovely yellow. Saffron was used to dye yellow, however, today genuine saffron is very expensive.
BLUE: Duke of Dorset…blue striped coat and breeches with white silk waistcoat embroidered with silver spangles. Woad and indigo produce shades of blue as will logwood, Prussian blue, or ultramarine.
Recipes: Take a sufficient quantity of urine and four ounces of indigo, pound to powder and dissolve in the urine by gentle heat, close-covered. The longer it stands the darker the color will be.
Another: To a gallon of water put a pound of woad, infuse it in a scalding or almost boiling heat for 24 hours; then put into it wool, cotton, stuffs, flannel, or cloth of a white colour
VIOLET: Logwood from the West Indies imparted a lovely violet color as did a number of berries.
GREEN: Green came from ragwort (introduced into the U.S. from Eurasia), wild cicely, Iris germanica, etc. as well as from an over-dying process of blue on yellow.
Duke of Queensbury, a plain green striped silk coat, waistcoat and breeches. Green dress trimmed with gold. 1791.
Recipe: First make it a sad blue, then take aum two pounds; boil and enter your cloth; boil three hours, and wash it, then dip it into a good yellow dye.
Another: Take water a sufficient quantity, make it as hot as you can endure your hand in, in which put verdegrease two ounces in fine powder; enter twenty yards of stuff, and handle it well with your hands; let it lye in the liquor all night, stirring it some time, and then let it lie till it is deep enough.
I’ve heard people comment on the absence of greens during the 18th century, however, as will be seen below, greens were actually common. The difference with green is that it often required a two step process, especially for a dye that resisted fading quickly, first dying yellow then overdying in blue.
BLACK: Black was colored with water horehound, herb-christopher, barberries, Genipa Americana (an American tree, and oak. Black was sometimes a process of over-dying.
Recipe: Alder-bark or tops, boiled in a copper pot, to which is added nut-galls, bruised, a pound of sumach, and 4 oz. of log-wood is a typical period recipe to dye cloth black. First dyeing in walnut hull dye and then over-dyeing in log-wood will also produce black.
Let’s look at examples from sources actually published during that time and see if it doesn’t open up a world of color and brightness.
“Sacques of plain silks, the most favourite colours are Aurora, apple-green, and deep blue”. 1774.
PINK: Pink striped silk waistcoat. 1791.
PURPLE: A purple English broadcloth coat…richly embroidered in gold. A purple figured velvet coat beautifully embroidered… Their dresses were an embroidery of purple velvet… 1792. Court attire.
COMBINATIONS: A lilac figured velvet coat, green silk damask waistcoat, black satin breeches, scarlet stockings.
RUNAWAY SLAVES, INDENTURED SERVANTS AND APPRENTICES. “Pennsylvania Gazette” 1795-96.
Green coat, green under vest, blue cloth coat, grey cloth under jacket, black velvet breeches, deep blue waistcoat, dark olive coat, pale blue stockings, two homespun linen shirts, striped jacket of linen-blue and white stripes, yellow linsey trousers, a chip hat with a broad striped green, blue, and yellow ribbon, blue stockings, olive corduroy vest, striped trowsers in cotton, grey woolen stockings, striped brown linsey trowsers, brown stockings, striped green cloth coattee, linsey vest and trowsers-striped red and blue, blue cloth trowsers, three shirts, one of which was check, the others white, forest cloth coat turned of a brown and yellow mixed colour, striped nankeen coat, grey coat, one spotted velvet jacket, stampt cotton waistcoat, red striped trowsers, dark olive trowsers, black and white striped cotton trowsers, blue jacket, black home-made linsey under jacket, red waistcoat, olive colored trowsers, striped homespun trowsers, “mixed-cloth coat”, a clouded-green coat, striped cotton jacket, checked woolen shirt, “mixt cloth coatee”, an excellent dark brown mixed superfine cloth coat, blue superfine cloth coat with yellow buttons, green twilled old silk waistcoat, lead coloured corduroy breeches, fancy striped cotton stockings, shoes tied with ribbons, old light brown sailor’s jacket, his outside garment a blue coatee the body a deep blue and the sleaves a pale blue twilled cloth, green linsey coat, yellow and white striped linen trowsers, coat of bottle-green, yellow stript nankeen coattee, brown homespun shirt, striped muslin jacket, striped cotton jacket, a red home made coating jacket, bottle-green corduroy trowsers, coats lined with blue and brown linsey, striped purple and yellow trowsers, mixed red and blue broad-cloth jacket,
ODD YEARS: Blue knit breeches / two striped and one white shirt, Virginia 1769.
1756: Red petticoat, striped jacket and gown.
“an Irish servant lad named Patrick Flanley about 19 years old…by trade a Leather Breeches Maker and Skinner; Had on when he went away a grey homespun cloth coat, almost new, lin’d with blue shalloon in the forepart and with brown cloth in the back, Mohair Buttons, a Leather Fawn skin vest…lined with scarlet shalloon, a worn oxenbrig [sic] shirt, a pair of purple sheepskin Breeches, and a pair of old round toe’d Pumps”. – New-York Mercury. 1754.
“…a brown stable Frock, a yellow livery Waistcoat, old leather Breeches, boots, and black velvet cap with a silver tassel…livery coat blue faced with yellow”. Covent Garden Journal (London), 25 Jan, 1752.
1773: Wilmington, VA. Green petticoat, took some striped blue and white cotton, calico with red flowers, dark colored calico.
1756: An orange-coloured linsey bedgown, striped red and brown linsey petticoat, petticoat of brown cloth bound about the tail with black, and the third of black linen.
Mid-18th century: A green velvet waistcoat with silver buttons, a red gown and petticoat.
1789 Albany. Green jacket and overalls.
Recommended sources: Colonial Williamsburg cottons, ReproductionFabrics.com, Brunley & Trowbridge.