Wednesday, October 23, 2013

No Word for Purple


We all seem to love purple in our family. Someone always quips, "the color of royalty." A saying that spans generations. I remember my grandmother, who was from Bantry, telling me how purple was made in Rome with Mediterranean murex sea snail shells, but in Ireland—there were no murex shells, so the color purple wasn't the same. Closer to a drab brownish maroon.

She said that the sea snails had a little purple sack that was used, she also said that the tiny purple tips of certain seashells were ground up. I can't remember if she was talking about the Romans or the Irish. When I was in Baja, I found zebra murex, and they do have a tiny purple spot embedded at the tip of the shell. Whatever the method, it took a lot of seashells to make a small amount of purple dye.

Roman imperial purple (purpura) was called corcur in Irish. Plosive P was avoided, it shifted to hard C (k) in ancient Irish. My grandmother also mentioned that lichens were used to make a purple. In the Highlands, a claret color, or "corcur"–was traditionally made from a rock lichen that was steeped three months in urine, and fixed with alum.

Spiny dye murex, Bolinis brandarus —Wiki

Imperial purple was also known as Tyrian red, or Phoenician purple. Not much is known about the method for making murex dye. A "blackish clotted blood" color was most prized—perhaps by overdying the cloth—double-dipping it in two different species of murex dye vats. As early as 1570 BC, the ancient Phoenicians had the murex trade under wraps. Phoenician purple was a more vibrant color that intensified with age. And:
4th-century-BC historian Theopompus reported, "Purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver at Colophon" in Asia Minor.[1] Wiki
My grandmother was born before aniline tar-coal dyes were invented, before there was nylon! The aniline age of coal changed the way we think of color.

What we think of as purple today was not the warm-hued purple of the ancients‚ which was closer to dried blood. Most reds and rose madder magentas were fugitive colors—they quickly faded with age. So a color that was stable, was highly sought after.

Saffron was also used to overdye cloth red, but it was an unstable color that faded to yellow. "In medieval Ireland and Scotland, well-to-do monks wore a long linen undershirt known as a léine, which was traditionally dyed with saffron." —Wiki

How on earth did the ancients discover how to make purple? The story goes that when Heracles was walking his dog along the coast of the Levant, the dog was snacking on sea snails and Heracles noticed that the dog's mouth was stained purple from chewing on sea snails. Luckily for Heracles, the pooch wasn't snacking on poop.

It seems the Minoans also knew a thing or two about purple dye as well. During the 20th–18th cs. BC, murex dye was found in Minoan clay pots in Crete, Asia Minor, and at Coppa Nevigata in southern Italy.

Byzantine Justinian I, in Tyrian purple 6th c.—Wiki

There's been much made of the eww factor associated with the ancient method of making purple. Thousands of shellfish were thrown in vats and either left to ferment or were boiled for days (skimming the critters out) to reduce, and extract the color. Much ado has been made of the seafood stinkum stew with urine added as a fixative. I think one would hardly notice the crisp ammonia smell of urine with all that rotted shellfish.

Though the making of purple was a closely guarded secret, Pliny the Elder described the production of Tyrian purple in Natural History: (NB I've shortened the rather wordy Wiki translation considerably).
The most favourable season for taking these fish [shellfish] is after the rising of the Dog-star, before spring….  the vein is extracted, to which salt (is added)… to every hundred pounds of juice.… leave them to steep for three days, and no more, for the fresher they are, the greater virtue there is in the liquor. It is then set to boil in vessels of tin [or lead], and every hundred amphoræ boiled down to five hundred pounds of dye, with moderate heat; …the liquor is skimmed. About the tenth day,… a fleece…is plunged into it … until the colour is found to satisfy… the liquor is kept on the boil. The tint that inclines to red is inferior to that which is of a blackish hue. The wool is left to soak for five hours, and then, after carding it, it is thrown in again, until it has fully imbibed the colour. —Wiki
Note that the only added color mordant (fixative) seems to be salt. During the long boiling process, mineral salts from the tin cauldrons would've leached out—tin is also a mordant. TIn, alum, copper, chromium, iron are all used as mordants on protein-based fabrics (wool, silk, parchment, leather). Other fixatives include urine (inorganic salts), tannic acid, iodine, potassium, and metallic salts. TIn is harsh as a mordant, it makes cloth brittle, so it's often used in conjunction with other mordants.

Fixatives set dyes on cellulose-based materials (cotton, flax, hemp) include: alkaline (base) fixatives; sodium, baking soda, cream of tartar, lye, and washing soda; and acidic fixatives: urine, tannin, vinegar, and lemon juice. Most modern accounts describe the use of urine to fix, or set the color but it was probably a mordant. A mordant chemically binds color to fabric (or pickles).

I know that plant woad dye is made with urine. My neighbor George, a rare rug restorer, received a present from a friend. Richard Beebee gave him some indigo flowers steeping in a jar of urine, we didn't ask whose (it's supposed to be camel piss). So George put his special rug-mending yarn in the jar and left it in the sun to ripen months to make indigo blue yarn. Ripen it did. Only thing is, when he took the yarn out, it didn't turn blue upon exposure to air and sunlight—as there were no indigo flowers in it. Alas, poor George was the victim of a perverse practical joke.)

Wool and silk can absorb both acid and base fixatives. Here's the thing, I doubt urine, or uric acid, was used as a fixative on silk as uric acid rots the silk quickly. Silk was far too precious to dye purple, then have it shred by next season. The ancients would've had to use another fixative. Flax, cotton, wool can handle uric acid, or potash as a fixative. But not silk. Wool, silk and parchment are protein-based—like our skin and hair, and so, require different fixatives. Alas, the recipe is lost.

Purple Byzantine silk from Charlemagne's tomb.

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Last week, I was shopping I overheard an African woman speaking in a language I'd never heard before, on her cellphone, trying to explain to her husband the thing he needed was purple. He didn't speak English. She kept saying purple! purple! in English. There was no word for the color purple in his language.

We brainstormed, trying to find a simile. We tried different languages, we tried the names of flowers, eggplant, sunset, amethyst. Nothing conveyed. I showed her my amethyst ring. She grabbed my hand and said she loved purple, her daughter's birthday was in February, was mine? But the only stone in her country was diamonds. Blood diamonds, she said. Like the movie. That's about my tribe, my people. That was my country: Sierra Leone. The war, she said. The war it changes everything. It brought me here.

Purple of royalty was a bit like that—only those in power wore purple.


Purple from Irish Medieval History

Tyrian Purple

Traditional dyes of the Scottish Highlands

Urine was used for whitening teeth in Ancient Rome I know you needed to know that.

Rare Dyed Fabrics Found in Israeli Cave

Why so blue? Biblical dye was made from snails

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