Before the development of synthetic dyes around 1875, green could be produced on cotton fabric only by first dyeing it yellow, then dyeing it again with indigo or Prussian blue (or vice versa) - hence the name "double process".  This produced a vivid green quilters often refer to as "poison green", possibly from its resemblance to the arsenic-based (and often toxic) Scheele's Green used in wallpaper during much of the 19th century. 

But the term "double process" understates how labor-intensive the situation really was.  Fabrics whose design contained just a little green - for example, the chintzes popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries - were a particular headache. Where a dyer wanted green leaves, he first printed them in one color, then "penciled" or overpainted them in the other color - either by hand, which was accurate but costly, or by overprinting, which was cheaper but not always very precise.  

In 1808 Samuel Widmer, a dyer at Jouy (where toile de Jouy originally came from) developed a simpler, more accurate method.  According to Riffel, Rouart and Walter in Toile de Jouy, Widmer  produced green by printing the fabric with a mixture of china blue (the insoluble form of indigo) and tin oxide (a mordant, or fixative); then the fabric was dyed yellow.  The yellow adhered only to the areas treated with the tin oxide mordant, and a green image was the result. The printing quality was so good, for years people thought Widmer had invented a single-process green.  

Even producing mostly-green cottons was a task left to the professionals. In his 1846 A practical treatise on dyeing and calico-printing, Edward Parnell provides three commercial methods: 

An 1830s chintz. Green is made by overprinting yellow with blue - sometimes not very accurately

"Poison" green calicos from the last half of the 19th and very early 20th centuries.

  •  After being dyed with indigo, the goods (usually yarn) were treated with a solution of litharge (lead oxide), slaked lime, and sugar of lead (lead acetate, which is lead oxide treated with acetic acid); then with a solution of chrome (chromium), and finally with a solution of lead.

  • The goods (usually fabric) were first treated with wood vinegar (pyroligneous acid, a mixture of acetic acid and methanol), then dyed with quercitron (a yellow dye from made from oak bark), then with a solution of indigo whose acidity has been neutralized with chalk or potash. 
  • The goods (usually yarn) are first dyed with indigo, then treated with pyrolignite of alumina (aluminum treated with pyroligneous acid) and finally dyed with fustic (from either the mulberry, yellowwood, or smoke tree).


Above, left, double process greens c.1850 show yellow color loss.

Below right, post-1875 synthetic green dye (piece outlined in black)  

has faded to tan.

The pictures at left shows what "poison" green looked like when it was new. But sometimes the yellow faded over time, leaving part or all of the fabric with a blueish cast.

Frederick Runge's 1834 experiments in isolating kyanol (later called aniline) from coal tar revealed that cotton treated with aniline after printing with chromate of lead resulted in a brilliant green. However, aniline green does not appear to have passed the experimental stage until 1860, when Calvert, Clift and Lowe used a mixture of aniline, potash, and nitric acid to print cotton cloth with a deep green they called emeraldine.  It was light-fast, but had to be washed in acidulated water;  an alkalai solution (such as that produced with homemade soap) turned the cloth's green to violet-blue.  Treatment with aldehyd was required to prevent this instability, rendering emeraldine too expensive for use on cotton. 

Later synthetic dyes produced green in only one step.  One of these may be the one described in The Household Cyclopedia (1881), in which sulphate of indigo (indigo treated with sulfuric acid) is mixed with an unnamed yellow dye to produce "Saxon or English green," probably the murky dark green found in 19th century quilts.

Unfortunately, many of the single-process synthetic dyes which followed were not colorfast (particularly when exposed to light), and after awhile faded to beige.  An applique quilt with beige leaves is a good indication the quilt was made after 1875.  But when assigning a date to a quilt, it's important to keep in mind that double- process greens were produced for years after the synthetics were introduced, and that quilters often kept fabric in their "stashes" for decades.


Swatchbook:  1890-1915

With the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad and the elimination of import taxes in 1870, silk became affordable for more people, and cotton calico - a luxury only half a century earlier - was relegated to everyday and utility wear.  Manufacturers gradually abandoned the complex madder dye process of earlier decades in favor of new synthetic dyes. They simplified prints to use only one or two colors, and limited colors to red, yellow, indigo and "cadet" blue (a lighter shade), pink (a synthetic imitation of madder pink), a shade of burgundy (also synthetic) known as "claret," and with the introduction of Vidal black dye in 1892, black, which hitherto had been limited to an accent color. 

Black calico became especially popular, particularly when it had a patterned background that created a grayish shade.  These so-called "Shaker," "Quaker" or "mourning prints" might have been suitable for both purposes, but they were widely used for housedresses and children's clothes because they hid the dirt and their patterns obscured fading - always an important consideration when washing was done by hand. "Neons" - vivid multicolors on a black background - were also offered, but their colors were rarely wash-fast.

As the selection of calicos narrowed, so did the variety and complexity of quilts and the quilting that embellished them.  With an increasing emphasis on keeping homes "sanitary," difficult-to-clean quilts were regarded as old-fashioned, and aside from the new "modern" two-color quilts (typically in indigo or red and white), quilts were often abandoned in favor of (or at least covered by) snow-white woven bedspreads.  Swatches are shown about 75% of actual size.




Swatchbook:  Early Depression 

Click on any picture for a full-sized image.

Here's a look at some typical fabrics from 1927 to about 1935 - the years when quilters went crazy over the new sherbet pastels. 

Even though these swatches came from many different sources, you'll notice that all the shades of a particular hue coordinate perfectly (even the reds, which any quilter will tell you are usually a nightmare to match). This is the happy result of manufacturers having only a limited number of dye colors to work with...and means that when you're working with Depression-era fabrics, it's hard to make a "wrong" fabric combination! 


At left are samples from a Spring 1934 salesman's brochure from the J.J. Newberry company. Below are pages from the 1933 Montgomery Ward catalog, including one featuring quilt batting and one of ready-made clothes showing how these fabrics would've been used. 


Two items of particular note:  as also indicated by the 1926 Eatons catalog page at far right, indigo and "Shaker gray" a/k/a mourning prints were still being offered, so it's not wise to automatically assign a 19th century date to such fabrics. And since scrap bundles for quilters were also advertised, a scrappy quilt is not necessarily a record of the maker's family wardrobe.  For more catalog pages, click here.


Swatchbook:  Late Depression 

By the late 1930s, the fashion palette had moved to deeper hues - first clear primaries, later more somber tones of royal blue, wine, and muted greens as shown in 1939 Montgomery Ward catalog page below:

Thanks to Brenda Cullison for providing these photos of a friendship quilt containing an embroidered date of April 1939 - it's a regular catalog of prints from the late Depression! 




Typical early 1950s cotton prints

Compare the designs and colors of those 1930s prints with these from the 1952 Sears catalog (click to enlarge)Note the frequency of prints that use four or more colors, the use of black and gray (particularly in "sketchy" motifs), the preference for sharper designs, and regular, geometric arrangement:


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