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The History of Turkey Red

by Celia Eddy – August 12, 2012

Since the seventeenth century, traders had been bringing back vivid red printed fabrics from the East that didn’t fade in sunlight or run in water. The question, of course, was: how was it done? Much industrial espionage went into trying to find out but it was the French who, in about 1747, discovered the secret of Turkey red dyeing and set up the first successful dyehouses in Europe. In England, the first Turkey red dyeworks was established in Manchester after Louis and Abraham Borelle of Rouen revealed the ingredients and processes to the Manchester Committee of Trade. Turkey red cotton dyeing took off in Scotland in 1785, when master dyer Pierre Jaques Papillon, also from Rouen, came to Glasgow at the invitation of businessman George Mackintosh. Mackintosh went into partnership with David Dale and set up a dyeworks at Dalmarnock on the river Clyde in 1785.  Papillon’s methods were soon improved upon: in 1787 Mackintosh wrote ‘I have made a great improvement in his process. I dye in twenty days what he took 25 to do, and the colour better’. In 1790 the industry expanded westwards to the Vale of Leven, attracted by lower labour costs and the pure fast-flowing water in the river Leven.

The chemical alizarin extracted from the roots of the madder plant is the vital ingredient for the production of mordanted red dyes. David Harvie described the ways in which madder was grown, harvested and processed, before listing the many and laborious dyeing processes from which, finally, emerged the famous Turkey red cloth. Including the processes which had to be repeated, there could be anything up to 38 stages. Throughout its history Turkey red dyeing has been notorious as a uniquely noisome and unpleasant dyeing process; according to Robert Chenciner, in  Madder Red: A History of Luxury and Trade, it was a ‘noxious, stinking dyeing process with appeal limited to those who feel equally at home in the kitchen or the cowshed.’ Chenciner goes on to tell us that an 18th-century traveller in Greece, hunting for the secrets of Turkey red, noted that in a certain village where it was produced ‘the stench was so bad its only inhabitants were the dyers and their families.’ This is only too credible, as the dyeing processes required the use of copious quantities of blood, urine and animal dung!

Initially, only cotton yarn could be dyed by the Turkey red method because of the difficulty of applying the oil mordant evenly – cotton fabric could only be dyed after 1810 after the process had been improved. The success of the industry was such that during the 19th century the Vale came to be dominated by the production of Turkey red fabric; a vast network of mills and factories sprang up to accommodate the many processes necessary to the production of finished fabric, including bleaching, mordanting, dyeing, patterning and  finishing. This led to a huge rise in the population of that area, such that between 1831 and 1891 it had risen from 3874 to 14,379. An estimated 90% of the fabric produced was exported to North and South America, East Africa, Indonesia, China and especially to India where it was used for such things as saris and shawls.

In the 1880s the production of alizarin was synthesized and German technical monopoly in production of this artificial alizarin, which speeded up the dyeing process considerably, resulted in a reduction in price of the finished goods. In 1897, in response to this and increasingly difficult trading conditions, compounded by restrictive tariffs on imports to India introduced in the 1890s, the leading Vale of Leven companies joined forces to found the United Turkey Red Company. John Christie jnr, son of the first Chairman of UTR, formulated a cheaper and quicker Turkey-red dyeing process, as well as introducing other artificial dyestuffs, but the company failed to encourage or exploit the diversification promised in this work. This attitude reflected the more general malaise which led to the eventual decline of UTR. Use of the new Napthol red dyes was tested but rejected as unsuitable by the company as early as 1914, but it was the increasing use of these synthetic dyes by other manufacturers during the 1920s which finally destroyed the Turkey red industry and production ceased in the 1930s. Although the UTR continued to produce high-class furnishing and dressmaking fabrics, albeit with increasing use of synthetic dyes, there was a general decline in the British textile industries and in 1961 the company closed. Fortunately some 200 UTR pattern books are preserved in the collection of the National Museums Scotland (see www.nms.ac.uk/collections__research/colouring_the_nation.aspx).