Turkey Red (Part 1)

Turkey Red (Part 1)

6m Turkey Red dyed cloth

The term Turkey Red can be quite confusing – it is often used to describe a colour (particularly in modern parlance) – but it is actually an historical method for producing a very fast red colour on cotton cloth using the dyestuff madder.

As a collector of historical dye books and Journals it always thrills me to find one I’ve been particularly looking for. At the Antique Textile Fair in Manchester in the early noughties I found one of particular importance – The Art of Dyeing Wool, Silk and Cotton by Hellot, Macquer and M le Pileur d’Apligny.


It is said to contain the first (European) written record of how to dye Turkey Red, and I needed that recipe! Almost from when I first started using madder to dye reds I had wanted to know about this very special process, said to be the most complex there is and the most efficient from a fastness point of view.

In another of my “old books” Dyeing and Calico Printing by Dr F Crace Calvert there are actual swatches of some cotton cloth dyed by the process and of course another set of instructions. This particular book is of particular interest as it is written in the middle of the boom period for the production of Turkey red dyed items from both Scotland and Manchester.

The origins of the method are somewhat “lost in time” but the method is believed to originate in India and then to spread to Adrianople in Turkey (modern day Edirne, near the Greek border) It is also sometimes referred to as Adrianople Red rather than Turkey Red, but the names are synonymous.

The method really only became known in Northern Europe after a group of Greek Dyers moved to Rouen and then Mulhouse to set up dyehouses in these centres. Darnétal near Rouen was the first in the 1740’s – sadly much of the detail is now lost – where “The Greeks” were persuaded to teach the process. (A visit to Darnétal now gives very little information other than a walking tour of the buildings and factories – now homes for the most part.) The Mulhouse dyers became particularly famous in 1810 when they worked out a discharge method to print Turkey Red dyed cloth with other colours. The method was used on handkerchiefs, scarves and soft furnishings these printed cottons were richly coloured and were very much in demand.

In the UK the Manchester Committee of Commerce were approached by Abraham Henri and Louis Borelle from Rouen there was an agreement that they would produce samples that could be checked by the Committee and the method would then be made available publicly. This was successful and the Borelles were paid £2500 by the Treasury this was used by them to set up their own dyehouse. The only competition they had at that time was from Scotland. In 1804 the Borelles decided to retire and sold their dyeworks to the Delauney family another family from Rouen who continued dyeing there until they also retired in the mid 1860’s (the land and premises then being bought by a German immigrant named Ivan Levenstein, thus starting the chemical dye industry in Manchester. )

Pierre Jacques Papillon was not so lucky with the Manchester Committee of Commerce – they were already in negotiation with the Borelles when he got in touch – so he went to Glasgow to join Mackintosh and Dale (actually to his advantage as it turns out) where he become the first dyer to successfully produce Turkey Red in Britain. The Vale of Leven in Scotland became famous for producing Turkey red and the industry went from strength to strength long outliving the Manchester businesses.

The archive held by Glasgow University is well worth a visit if you are interested in the history – ledgers, sample books, letters everything you could hope for – except actual recipes! There are also several research theses on their holdings.

If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating process and getting some practical experience, I am running a 5 day course in late February on behalf of @BotanicalColors. Details can be found here

References and Links:

Archives are known to be held by Glasgow University, The Society of Dyers and Colourists and Manchester Science Museum. I am sure there must be many more!

Books –

Brunello F 1973  The art of dyeing in the history of mankind Vicenza Stampato in Italia

Crace – Calvert 1876 Dyeing and Calico Printing Stenhouse Manchester

Hellot, Macquer and M Le Pileur D’Apligny 1901 The art of Dyeing Wool, Silk and Cotton London

Miray F 1932 Origine et Histoire de l’Industrie de la Teinture en Rouge des Indes (dit Rouge Turc, Rouge d’Adrianople ou Rouge de Rouen) Darnétal


Turkey Red dyeing in Blackley

Turkey Red at The National Museum of Scotland – Colouring the nation