The Colour of War

The Colour of War

In 2013 I started researching Khaki ready for the commemorations of World War 1. I wanted to know how they were producing the colour – was it natural or synthetic? Here’s a summary of my research, originally written to be an article for the Journal in 2016, they wanted to make too many changes so I’m sharing it here.

Khaki from Damsons

On the 4th August 1914 war was declared and thus a requirement to clothe over 6 million soldiers in British Army Uniform began.

The story begins by looking back to the Victorian era and changes in Industry and the army uniform.

The British Army was famous for its red coats (dyed with cochineal or madder depending on rank) originally adopted after the English Civil War by the Coldstream Guards who were formed from General Monck’s Regiment of the New Model Army.

However this bright red stood out against the landscape of India so in 1846 Sir Harry Lumsden (then assistant to Sir Henry Lawrence at Lahore) was commissioned to form a company of Guides who were to be “comfortably, loosely and suitably clad”. The story is told that he went to the bazaar in Lahore and purchased a quantity of white cotton cloth, went down to the river where he wet it out, then rubbed it all into the mud at the edge of the river until the mud was completely caked in. (this was not dyeing it was impregnating!) When rinsed out the cloth had changed to the colour of the earth and plains around. It was then dried, ironed and made into loose blouses and pants for the Guides to wear.

This was a very crude method of making the soldiers camouflaged clothes, in 1848 Brevet Major William Raikes Hodson then 2nd in Command and Adjutant to Lumsden (the Regiment of Guides) wrote home to his brother about the “drab” and requested that he “send enough of the material to clothe 900 men” and in 1850 Sir Charles Napier wrote “The Guides were the only properly dressed Light Infantry in India” Between 1860 and 1870 the new “drab” uniform was adopted by all regiments.

The name “Khaki” was also adopted as it translated from the Hindi and Urdu words meaning earth and dust. This word was used to describe certain shades of “drab”, varying from grey to olive to brown.

Britain started a coal tar industry in the 1840’s following Bethel’s use of Fractional Distillation to obtain the tar, ammonia and gas. The change to the dyeing industry began in 1856 when William Henry Perkin made his discovery of Mauveine. This famous man came from the East End of London and at an early age showed considerable interest in Chemistry. Enough so, that his teacher at the City of London School persuaded his father to allow him to attend the Royal College of Chemistry although he was then only 16.

He made such progress there, that by the age of 17 he was already doing his own investigative work on anthracine. (one of the components of coal tar, then known a Para-Naphthalene). The family moved house and Perkin set up his own small laboratory at home. It was here during the Easter vacation of 1856 that Perkin experimented with Aniline Sulphate and Potassium Dichromate resulting in the famous purple dye (although he was trying to synthesise quinine of course!)

Perkins Purple
image copyright D Bamford
Held by the Society of Dyers and Colourists, Perkin House, Bradford

Between 1856 and 1914 a Dye Industry developed based around the production of synthetic dyes. A huge investment began into the dye yielding abilities of aniline compounds (derived from Nitro – Benzene, another of the derivatives of coal tar) particularly in England and France.

German Chemists well trained and looking for opportunity started moving to where the bulk of the research was being done.  Many firms sprouted up, mainly in the North of England – Manchester and West Yorkshire in particular. The most significant of these was L. I. Levenstein and Sons. Interestingly (well for me, the Turkey red addict) Ivan Levenstein was a German Jew who moved to Manchester in 1864 and moved into Hulton House which remained the nucleus of his workplace. It was already famous – going under the local name of Burell Brow, it was the original home to the Turkey Red Dyeworks of Borell, Papillon and the Delauneys.

Until the mid 1870’s the British were leading the way. Unfortunately our then Government had a brilliant idea – If we sold all the intermediate chemicals to Germany then we wouldn’t have to do so much of the work and we could import the finished dyestuff back … ”English brains created the colour industry, English enterprise developed it, and English legislative folly has been the principle cause of its decline” (Ivan Levenstein 1903 Nature)

Alongside the work on the synthetic dyestuffs a band of dyers were applying for patents to produce Khaki using natural dyes. Some of the methods were very primitive and unusual – at the outbreak of the war with Afghanistan (1839 – 42) English troops stained their white uniforms with cowdung and there is a German preparation invented by Milch of Wilhelmshaven which was a decoction of chicory roasted with chlorophyll (green vegetables). The solution was provided to them in tins the idea being that their white uniforms could be dipped into the liquid to colour them but to make life easier it was cleaned out again with a couple of washings! (Clearly not intended as a washfast dye then!)

The definition of a true Khaki from Theis’ book published in 1903 is that “technically in the original meaning it is synonymous with one particular colouring on cotton, distinguished by a degree of fastness, hitherto unattainable by any natural or artificial true dyestuff, and whereto for wearing qualities even the modern sulphur colours must yield precedence”

The first English patent on Khaki Dyeing – no 11456 A.D. 1884 was granted to Frederick Albert Gatty

His dyeing method –

“I take a solution of chrome alum or any other soluble salt of chromium and mix it with a solution of sulphate of iron, capable of being precipitated with an alkali. After the yarns or fabrics have been boiled in weak soda ash and washed in the ordinary way well understood by dyers, for the purpose of freeing them from all impurities, and the excess of water has been extracted, the yarns or fabrics are impregnated with the mixed solutions of chromium and iron salts.

For an olive shade I take 5 gallons of solution of chrome alum at ten degrees of Twaddle’s hydrometer or an equivalent quantity of acetate of chromium or chloride of chromium any other soluble salt of chromium and mix therewith one gallon of a solution of protoxide of iron, containing one and a half pounds weight Avoirdupois of the sulphate per gallon, or an equivalent quantity of any other soluble salt of iron, such as the acetate, or common iron liquor.

For brown shade, I increase the quantity of the iron salt according to the shade required, and extract or squeeze out the excess of the liquid, in the case of yarns by wringing and in the case of fabrics by passing them between two rollers, or in any other suitable manner. The yarns or fabrics are then passed through a solution of soda at four or more degrees of Twaddle’s hydrometer; this solution I prefer to use at 140 degrees to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, but a higher or lower temperature does not materially affect the result.

In place of soda, potash, ammonia or their carbonates may be used. If ammonia is used, it must be applied cold – or nearly so.

After coming out of the soda or other alkaline solution, the yarns or fabrics are washed in water and then dried, but if the colour I found too pale, the process may be repeated a second or third time, until the shade is dark enough……….”

Reading the above recipe, you will realize that quite a lot of the colour is coming from Chrome, most of the recipes for Khaki using natural dyes have chrome and iron as a base – mordant – and then tannins on top, for example cutch, to give a greater depth of colour.

A HUGE NOTE here: Should you want try and reproduce any of the recipes PLEASE bear in mind that these products MUST be handled with care. I wouldn’t recommend using Chrome, it is not good for you and is definitely not good for the environment in the quantities quoted.

There is one very interesting patent – English patent no 25581 AD 1896 granted to Eliza Jessie Stewart –

“My invention relates to improvements in dyeing and which improvements are specially useful in the production of certain fast shade, known as Khaki, and in dyeing fabrics in fast colours in brown, drabs and greenish yellows.

I have discovered that if the outer shells or husk of the pods of the cotton plant, which have hitherto been regarded as a waste-product, be extracted by boiling water, on decanting and straining the resulting solution, a clear brown liquid is obtained, which on evaporation at a slow rate leaves a glossy brown residue. This clear liquid, or a solution of the residue water, form a most valuable dyestuff …”

How do we not have details of this crucial and exceptional dye? Which leads to Damsons of course. There are many links and references to Damsons being used as a dye for Khaki during the war, if only they could be validated! (therein lies yet another story…)

By the start of the First World War in 1914 80% of the dyes used in Britain were imported from Germany, this included khaki and most other colours – remember that mad idea of the British Government to sell the intermediaries and import the dyestuff? It may have been coming home to roost!.

On the 18th August 1914 Levenstein Ltd entered a contract to provide the War Office with Thionol Khaki dye. By May 1915 his company had provided enough dyestuff to colour the uniforms of 9 million soldiers. (this is more than was needed in terms of men, but as each soldier was issued with more than 1 uniform he was covering requirements and beyond!)

What an unsung hero!

Authors note: This is by no means the full story – there are more chemists and dye producers, also the story of Levenstein Ltd, synthetic indigo and its production at Ellesmere Port. I hope that some of you may have had your interest piqued enough to go and research a little more!

Ivan Levenstein


THEIS, Freidrich Carl, Kayser, E. C. “Khaki” on cotton and other material  1903 Heywood & Co, London

TYNAN Jane.  British Army Uniform and the First World War.  2013 Palgrave Macmillan

FOX, M R  Dyemakers of Great Britain 1856 – 1976 1987 Imperial Chemical Industries

TORDOFF Maurice,  Servant of Colour  1984 The Society of Dyers and Colourists

Patent law reform – Levenstein test case  Journal of the Society of Dyers and Colourists. Dec 1908

A note on Khaki  Dyer and Calico Printer Sept 21 1914 p192

Khaki and Field Grey  ditto p222


Cotton braid dyed with Damsons to produce Khaki by the author

Levenstein’ cover page of the sample book

The first sample of Mauveine posted out by W H Perkin (held by the SDC at Perkin House, Bradford)

Levenstein’ Thionol Khaki sample

Ivan Levenstein

© D Bamford 12 July 2016

One thought on “The Colour of War

  1. Some time ago I found a single reference that damsons were grown in Belper to dye stockings made there, not for the fruit. Try as I might, I can’t find anything else. Is it nit rather a fading dye though?

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