The Irishmen of the 16th century wore distinctively-patterned linen shirts dyed of saffron. At one time, there was a lot of discussion and consternation about this, as it seems to be a very expensive dyestuff for a historically poor people. Some thought it might be a general reference to the yellow color, rather than an actual statement of process. And yet, there was curiosity among costumers as to whether Saffron was actually used.
Years ago, I ran across Kass McGann’s article on dying with saffron (http://www.reconstructinghistory.com/blog/safflower-jacket.html) and she convinced me that it was certainly possible to use as a dyestuff, and that while the fashion of Ireland was unusual in Renaissance Europe, they likely has as much pride in their clothing as the rest of the world. Everyone displays their wealth in their clothing, even today, and as such I became a believer in the likelihood of a saffron-dyed shirt. If you are interested in my first attempts to dye with saffron and how that turned out, you can read my 2002 writeup on Sword Forum International.
I was asked, based largely on that writeup, to make two saffron-dyed Leines for a gentleman who participates in 16th century Irish Reenactment. The process began by making the garments themselves.
I used a 6oz bleached linen to begin with, (with a 43 warp and 33 weft count) and determined that the pattern should be made with 19″ widths as my maximum width. This is within the acceptable range of possible fabric widths (19-22″) for the time period in question. From there, I developed a pattern that is in line with the techniques of the time, as well as producing the distinctive appearance of the garments with a full “bag” sleeve.
There were laws about how many yards could be used in an Irish shirt, some laws even banned the use of Saffron as dyestuff.
Henry the VIII’s Prohibitive Act of 1537 banned overly voluminous leine which could be no more than 6.4m of cloth, and again banned the wearing of the Irish mantle. (Some leine’s were reputed to have been made of up to 32m of cloth before the act was passed). Source
But considering how often these laws were passed, altered, repassed and reconfirmed, it implies that the Irish continued to defy these sumptary laws. Certainly, there was in England a long-standing tradition of defying sumptary laws… if one were wealthy enough to pay the fine. The pattern I developed for these Leines used 11 1/4 yards of 19″ fabric, putting it above the 1537 ban, but certainly lower than the upward bound of 32 meter mentioned by this author.
I began by first pre-washing the garment in hot water and with only a tablespoon of detergent to remove any chemicals from the manufacturing process. I then dried the fabric in the drier, to help shrink it as much as possible. Since I planned to dye fully-constructed garments, I didn’t want shrinkage to occur during the dye.
My client and I discussed the possible methods of construction. These garments are going to be used in reenactments, after all, but there is also the cost of hand-sewing to be considered. We settled on machine sewing (with linen thread) the interior seams, but that seam finishing and all visible edges would be finished by hand. There are a few possible types of seams that could have been used by a 16th century tailor (or wife/mother) making a linen garment. Most likely are either a “french seam” or a “flat-felled seam“. We decided to make one Leine with each technique.
The collar and cuffs were finished using a hand-made linen bias tape, which was attached the edge by sewing it in place on the right side, wrapping it around the raw edges and tacking it down, as is shown in this drawing. The hem was finished with a whip stitch, shown here. (Incidentally – the drawings I reference here are from this lovely article about a 10th century byzantine shirt, showing that linen hand-sewing techniques changed very slowly over time and place.)
My previous experience with saffron dye was completed very simply. Without mordants, I boiled the linen with the saffron in the pot for about an hour. I then rinsed the fabric and dried it in the drier on high heat to set the color. This is about as simple of a process as one can possibly get.
This time, I have decided to change up the process just a bit based on some reading I did about cooking with saffron. One chef suggested (for saffron paella) that you should put the saffron threads in warm water for 2-12 hours BEFORE boiling to extract all of the chemicals from the saffron. Now, some of these chemicals may be solely scent or flavor-related, and thereby not particularly important to my process. That said, it can’t really hurt, and who knows, maybe some of those oils could add to the color.
I placed one ounce of saffron threads in one gallon of very warm (not boiling) water. Immediately the color began to leach out, turning the water a lovely red color. I covered the pot with a lid, and let it sit for two hours.
I then filled a 12-gallon pot with 7 gallons of water and put both leines in the water to soak, so that they were completely wet when it came time to add the dye.
I ended up throwing out that water, for after the garments had soaked (for 2 hours) I discovered that there were soap bubbles on the top of the water. I suspect even the extremely minimal amounts of soap I used in the prewash wasn’t adequately rinsed at that time. So, I dumped that water and started from scratch.
Another 6 gallons of water was put in the dyepot and I turned on the burner below it. I then brought out the Saffron “tea” and added it to the dyepot. After stirring, I put the garments into the pot. They immediately reacted, changing to a bright sunny yellow. I brought the water to a boil, and then lowered the heat so that the dye stayed at a low simmer. The garments remained in the dyestuff for an hour, and after that point, I took them out, rinsed them in two cold-water rinses, and finally dropped them in the drier to dry on high heat, hopefully setting the color.
As an aside, I just couldn’t throw away the saffron water at this point… so I dyed some silk, wool, and other linen I had laying around. I am sure I’ll find some project requiring saffron dyed fabric in the future.
Photo Documentation of the process is below:
The client and I discussed various possibilities for embellishment of the garments. There is documentation of the Irishmen using green or red silk to “join” their linen garments, as well as using woolen caddace (ribbon) to decorate the sleeves. We determined to use on one Leine a woolen green-and-white tablet-woven around the arm holes and green silk thread embroidery on the seams and around the neck. On the other, we would use red silk in a variety of embroidery treatments to finish the garment as is shown on some woodcuts.
Wool tape tablet-woven on a loom for this project. For more on tablet-weaving, see the Renaissance Tailor’s great page on general tablet weaving.
I have to admit, I was thrilled that the customer agreed to tablet weaving because I’d always wanted to learn how to do it, but never had the “excuse” to sit down and do so. Thanks to these projects, I was able to weave this nice woolen braid, as well as much, much more, which will show up in later projects, I am sure.
The Green Leine I ended up using an x-stitch pattern of green silk along the arm seams and shoulder seams; and a combination of blanket stitch, backstitch, and a zig-zag patterned backstitch on the neckline. I wanted to pick up on the pattern on the braid in the embroidery. I might go back and add a bit more to it before the client picks it up this week, but for now it’s done.
The Red Leine used chain stitching throughout, laid in a zig-zag pattern of red silk around the armholes, and in a double-line around the neckhole. I then added in a few common renaissance era motifs to the neckhole, just to spruce it up. A peapod, a couple flowers, a geometric shape, an acorn and oak leaf, and a snail (as well as a couple crosses for good luck) round out the work.
I am quite pleased with how the embroidery looks. As always, I could have kept going and going, but running out of thread will tend to stop one from embroidering more.
The garments are now complete and I wouldn’t change much.
I did discover in my rush to use the saffron dye that I had plenty of “dyeing power” left in the pot, as I dyed a yard of silk, a scrap of wool, another yard of linen, and some linen scraps and all came out a bright color. Of interest to me: the yard of linen I dyed at the end was straight from the manufacturer. No prewashing, no wetting, nothing. I just took it off the bolt and put it straight in the pot. It was there for an hour, like the Leines, but what is interesting to me is that it turned out MUCH darker than the leines did. Absolutely an orangey-yellow, whereas the leines ended up more on the yellow spectrum.
This makes me curious, and I think that if I am ever asked to do a project like this again, I might actually take the linen straight off the bolt, ignore everything I think I know about dying, and just… put it in the pot.
All in all, I am extremely pleased with this project, and with the final results.
Bob in his leine: