Madder Red: A History of Luxury and Trade : Plant Dyes and Pigments in World Commerce and Art

By Robert Chenciner | Go to book overview

17

The dyer's grail: alchemicalphilosophies & folklore

A tickling curiosity

“A MAN WAS building a canoe, and chewed some of the chips. He spat and saw that the saliva was black. In this way the people obtained that colour. Later they boiled everything to find out what colours various things would produce, and so obtained all their dyes.” This charming Micmac Amero-Indian folktale emerged from their remarkable specialisation. As mentioned earlier, in the 17th century, the Micmacs were noted dyers of porcupine quills with only black, natural white and madder red, which was much admired by the French. So might this story give an explanation of the discovery of Turkey red? 1

The Micmac made his original discovery in a void. Dyers were also involved in the rediscovery of lost methods and directional discovery of a desired result. Dyers repeatedly had to reinvent their techniques because of the disruption of wars and enforced population movements which regularly affected their small numbers. The dyer was a tranquil worker and there was no need for action until such accidents occurred. The dyer had access to few texts of this truly international craft, often described in unknown languages or ciphers. The defensive secrecy of the dyers' recipes and methods meant that, over the centuries, the hermetic art was repeatedly lost. How a non-chemist dyer could devise a 30-step process is a tantalising question. In general, discovery is stimulated by surreal leaps of thought which connect disparate ideas. Most original ideas occur at the meeting point of two different theoretical or practical disciplines which touch on the problem.

Imagine a dyer endlessly staring into his vat. He must have been obsessed with his craft. Before the advent or understanding of modern chemistry, his mind must have been filled with the magic of red. Different ways of understanding colour through different intellectual disciplines might unexpectedly have provided the inspiration. But what were his 'intellectual disciplines'? On the one hand, there were theories of the nature of colour which originated from Classical philosophers and had been preserved through Arabic writings from Baghdad and Cordova. Their theories endured over the

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