Turkey red

Obtained by using madder, Turkey red was so famous at one point that the efforts made to create this colour by trying out hundreds of formulas helped the chemistry and textile industries grow in Europe

Since ancient times, the Orient has been the centre of attraction with its enigmatic looks and natural riches. Products like silk, spices and porcelain were to be found only in the Orient, and long voyages were made to obtain them. Travellers like Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama paved the way in establishing the trade routes to the destinations where these treasures could be found. There were plenty of goods in demand on these trade routes but textile dyes were at the top of the list. During that time, Europe had a great interest in coloured textiles, which of course required dyes. It’s hard to define the starting date of the dyeing craft in history. Still, the oldest records date it as far back as 4000 BC; to give an example, lavender-coloured money sacks believed to have been painted with a type of madder – the dye obtained from the root of the madder plant – were found in India.

Where does that acclaimed Turkey red colour come from?

Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1801 points to the strikingly beautiful red colour of the cottons produced in the Ottoman Empire, explaining that the technique was brought to Europe by the mid-18th century. Yes, many civilisations in history knew madder, but no one could have guessed Turkey red would be so popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Use of madder was common in Europe, and it became famous thanks to its association with Turkey red. But dyers were able to obtain only hues of brown, rather than the vivid bright red colour. The efforts to produce Turkey red by using madder began in Holland around the mid-1600s. There, the interest in dyed and printed cotton fabrics was very strong, and high demand had an impact in particular on the French economy.

By 1740, the Europeans were working very hard to achieve Turkey red, and many dye workshops were created, especially in France. Pierre Jacques Papillon was one of the very few people who could create Turkey red. John Wilson, a dyer from Manchester in the UK, even won an award for obtaining the best Turkey red at the end of the 1700s. Nevertheless, he expressed how hard Turkey red is to achieve and he even sent a young man to the Ottoman Empire in 1753 to acquire the formula for this colour.

Production of Turkey red played a crucial role in the development of the 19th century Scottish textile industry. Throughout that century, thousands of workers made textile items dyed with the bright, colour-fast and alluring Turkey red to be sold across the world. So much so that today, a project consisting an online exhibition which is named Colouring the Nation has been developed to draw attention to Turkey red samples and their historical roles.

As part of the project, with support from Edinburgh University and The National Museums Scotland, catalogues produced between 1830 and 1940 are on display. The collection is exhibited at the National Museums Scotland under the name of Turkey red, consisting of nearly 40,000 pieces made up of about 200 hard-cover and soft-cover sources, as well as dyed and printed textiles.