Oct 262013

Salts Walks were recently invited to assist Titus Salt School with a project on dyeing. I was very impressed by this school initiative which was the brainchild of Heather Graham, Creative and Community Projects Manager and Claire Welles-Smith from the Fabric of Bradford Project, founded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and based at HIVE in Shipley.  Our task was to give students some idea of the dyeing process at Salts Mill during Titus Salt’s lifetime, and to show them around the village. They then went on to Claire who would introduce them to plant dyes and provide a practical experience of dyeing cloth, and on again to Martin Bijl from Roberts Park who would give them a practical session on planting the plants which yield the dyes.

Everyone benefited from the experience of sharing across boundaries.

For Salts Walks I enjoyed the challenge of researching the subject and then, with Maria Glot (Salts Walks co-ordinator), delivering the result to 12 year olds in a way which hopefully engaged them.

Heather reported later that ‘we have had some fantastic feedback from the students involved.  They all very much enjoyed learning about the history of dyeing in Saltaire in such an entertaining way.’

Over the next few months I’d like to share some of my early thoughts about dyeing in Saltaire with Sentinel readers, in the hope that you might have additional information to share to build up an accurate picture on the pages of the Sentinel.


I began with the fact that Titus Salt was born into a family of shopkeepers.  His maternal grandfather was a drysalter in Morley, and Titus’ father, Daniel, succeeded him in this business when he died.

A drysalter was primarily a dealer in preserved meats, which before refrigerators were smoked, dried, pickled, or salted.  There is no evidence that the family name Salt originated from this occupation.  In addition to selling meat, Daniel also sold gums, drugs, oils, pickles, sauces and dyes, providing Titus with first hand knowledge of the latter.

Apart from this early contact, it was unlikely that Titus had much contact with dyes until he began to produce his alpaca worsted in 1836 in Bradford, although he would have met them in his work experience with William Rouse and Son in Bradford in 1822.


The dyeing industry was very specialised.  Before the 18th century, cloth was exported to Flanders to be dyed, and then imported as finished material.  Dyeing could be done on the raw material, the yarn or the finished piece (white stuff).

With the development of the textile industry in the 19th century, the major dyes were those from natural sources (animals, plants, shellfish and minerals) and included

  • cochineal (from a scale insect produces red, scarlet and pink),
  • logwood (from flowering tree and colour depends on mordant used +pH with acid environments giving red and alkaline giving blue),
  • murex (from snails produces red and purple),
  • purpura (also from snails),
  • indigo (from a plant producing blue),
  • madder (a type of climbing shrub which produces red and orange).
  • fustic (a tropical American tree of the fig family producing yellows)


A mordant was needed to fix the dye into the cloth (from the early French “mordre” to bite).  Typical mordants were stale urine and a variety of metallic ores and sulphates including alum with an aluminium base, and copperas with copper and iron bases.  Yarns or pieces were normally placed in the mordant before dyeing.


Bradford stuff was formerly dyed in Wakefield or Leeds but was dyeing its own by 1797 when there were two dye houses in the town – Bowling Dye works and Peel’s of Thornton Road.

Dyers needed clean, soft water.  Dye works were situated upstream to obtain the cleanest water. There was a concentration of dye works along the Bradford Beck making it little more than a drain flowing out of Bradford since it also contained the effluent from an increasing population, much of which found its way into the Bradford canal.


The discovery of alpaca in 1836 presented many problems.  It was possible to produce alpaca cloth without dyeing, using the natural colours of the fibre (which is hair, not wool).  It ranges from black to white with 24 colours in between including four shades of grey, creams, beiges, browns etc.  However, the sorting of these colours into large enough batches to satisfy the growing textile industry was impractical.  Economies of scale could not be achieved, and so dyeing was the only solution.  But Titus was producing worsted cloth, a mixed cloth with a cotton warp and an alpaca or wool weft.  The combination of a vegetable with an animal fibres presented problems for the dyer; and indeed when wool and cotton were first combined it was the practice to dye them separately, since cotton was not as amenable to permanent dyes as wool.  The techniques of dyeing them together were mastered by Edward Ripley and Son of Bowling in Bradford in 1837 and generously shared within the industry.


1840 brought another breakthrough in the dyeing industry with the introduction of bi-chromate of potash to replace the mordants listed previously.  The result was to increase the number of colours, all available at lower cost, but more importantly to shorten the time taken to process the material.  Dyers were able to achieve in hours what previously had taken days to produce.


When Titus opened his Saltaire Mill in 1853, the industry was still using natural dyes but with improved mordants.

In 1868, Titus built New Mill on the north side of the Leeds/Liverpool canal, and used it to house a new dye works.  Significant changes had been made in the dyeing process with the introduction of aniline dyes.  Their discovery is a fascinating story.

In 1856, an 18 year old chemistry student named William Henry Perkin was looking for a cure for malaria and trying to synthesise quinine.  His experiments were with coal tar which was left after coal was “cooked” to produce gas for commercial use.  His experiments were unsuccessful and a common result of failed experiments in organic chemistry is a thick black residue in the bottom of the flask.  While cleaning the flask with alcohol, Perkins noticed that it formed a purple liquid which could be used for dyeing cloth.  He called his substance “mauveine”.  Other colours followed mauve, including magenta, fuschia, violet and then a plethora of blues and greens.  Previously the only way to produce a bright green was to use arsenic – hence the title “poison green”.

The popularity of Titus’ alpaca worsted was partly due to Queen Victoria’s fashion of the crinoline which used so much of this “Orlean’s cloth” in its manufacture.  On the death of Prince Albert in 1861, black became the order of the day as the Queen went into extensive mourning.  Fortunately she liked the new mauve and felt that it was suitable to wear in her unfortunate circumstances.

Most of these aniline dyes produced very bright colours which were acceptable in daylight, firelight and gas light but under electric lighting they appeared garish and harsh.  As a result of this, and of the criticism of these crude, bright colours by the Aesthetic Movement, there was a slow return to the more subtle shades of vegetable dyes by the 1890s.

As a final aside, the pharmaceutical industry had it’s origins in the dyestuffs industry.  It was found that the many of the new chemical dyes killed bacteria.


Roger Clarke

July, 13




 Posted by at 7:26 am

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