Back to the main Quilters' Guild website

Turkey Red Study Day

by Celia Eddy – August 13, 2012

8 July 2012
Dumbarton, Scotland


The first issue of Quilt Studies, the Journal of the British Quilt Study Group, appeared in 1999 and contained four articles on different aspects of Turkey red. The study day gave us the chance to revisit this subject, always of great interest to quilt researchers and historians, and deepen our understanding of the processes and history of this legendary colour.

The study day was organized by Ruth Higham and Isabel Paterson, directors of the annual Loch Lomond Quilt Show (www.lochlomondquiltshow.com), and thanks are owed to them for a fascinating and well-run event. We began at Dumbarton Library and Heritage Centre, where there was a small exhibition of quilts incorporating Turkey red fabrics. These included a handsome wholecloth from Wales in Turkey red paisley fabric, a red, white and green ‘Rose of Sharon’ appliqué coverlet, and a quilt from Wigton in West Cumbria with alternating square frames of Turkey red and white. You can see this quilt here: Quilt of the Month: Turkey Red Frame Quilt

David Harvie, a local social historian, gave an illustrated talk on the history of Turkey red dyeing, and the growth and extent of the Turkey red industry in the Vale of Leven. Although the term ‘Turkey red’ is usually understood as a description of a colour, in fact it more properly describes a very particular and complex dyeing process, the end product of which was a uniquely brilliant red colour impervious to light and water. From time immemorial, red dyes have been obtained from both animals and plants, especially the madder plant, and many and diverse are the recipes which have appeared over the years for achieving various tints and shades of red using madder. In the West, madder was used to dye wool and silk, but the means by which to achieve a bright, fast red on cotton fabrics was a mystery to Europeans.

See the associated entry for more information about the history of Turkey red.

After our visit to the Library, we went to The Studio, just outside Dumbarton, which is a centre for the classes and workshops run by Ruth Higham and Isabel Paterson. (www.thestudiolochlomond.com) There we were able to examine some of the pattern books, fabric samples and the colourful decorative labels that were put on the bales of export cloth, which had been loaned from the collection of West Dunbartonshire Library and Cultural Services.

 Ruth and Isabel had kindly provided lunch, after which we examined and discussed quilts which had been brought in by course members especially for the day.  All the quilts incorporated Turkey red fabric in one form or another, but the salient factor was that in each quilt the legendary dye justified its reputation – some fabrics of other colours showed evidence of fading, whereas the Turkey red fabrics were still bright and fresh, the only exceptions being where there were signs of actual wear and tear. In her book Clues in the Calico, the American quilt historian Barbara Brackman mentions that this pattern of wear is characteristic of Turkey red dyed fabrics and is one way of distinguishing them from other red fabrics of similar date. This fact could be useful in terms of quilt-dating since fabrics produced by the later, synthetic, dyeing techniques would not share this property.