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:
chintz. Green is made by overprinting yellow with blue -
sometimes not very accurately
green calicos from the last half of the 19th and very
early 20th centuries.
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
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
left, double process greens c.1850 show yellow color loss.
right, post-1875 synthetic green dye (piece outlined in black)
faded to tan.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
are shown about 75% of actual size.
any picture for a full-sized image.
a look at some typical fabrics from 1927 to about 1935 - the
years when quilters went crazy over the new sherbet pastels.
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!
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.
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
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: