Coppers, Kettles and Vats:

Equipment in Early Dyehouses

by Sidney Edelstein
Transcribed from The American Dyestuff Reporter Vol 44, April 1955 [Note from transcriber: additional images of early dyehouses can be found Here].

WHAT did an American dyehouse look like a century and a half ago? Are there any pictures of Colonial dyeing equipment? How were skeins handled? These and many similar questions relating to the actual equipment and technique used by the dyers in the early days of our country have been posed to this writer from time to time. Peculiarly enough, in spite of the publication in many countries of hundreds of books and manuscripts, which have come down to us through the centuries, very few have contained detailed information concerning the equipment used by the dyers, and almost none have contained drawings or engravings depicting the dyer at work in his dyehouse. As far as we have been able to determine, none of these publications actually depicts an American dyehouse nor the equipment used by dyers in the early days of this country. Fortunately, however, several of the oldest books on dyeing published in America do give detailed descriptions of dyeing equipment in use and exact instructions for carrying out dyeing processes with this equipment.

Up until the end of the 18th century, and for at least 2,000 years preceding, equipment used for dyeing throughout the world was of the simplest sort. The equipment used by an American dyer in 1790 did not differ basically from that depicted in woodcuts showing dyeing operations in Europe in the 12th century, in the 16th century or even in the 18th century. Only with the beginning of the industrial revolution did dyeing equipment begin to change. Even so, these changes took place much more slowly than those in spinning, weaving and other textile operations.

In contrast, during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, many improvements were made in the dyeing processes themselves and new dyestuffs and chemicals were constantly being introduced to the dyeing industry. As the New World became more thoroughly explored, many roots, barks and flowers containing coloring matter were examined and brought into use. The introduction of cochineal, the use of tin as a mordant, the manufacture of quercitron from the American black oak, offered new and improved colors which required new techniques. These new colors and techniques, however, were still applied in the same old type of equipment.

Until the beginning of the last century the basic apparatus for dyeing fabrics, skeins or textiles in any form consisted of a simple round vat. These vats were constructed of wood, ceramic, or of metal depending on the availability of specific construction materials. The dyebath itself was sometimes heated in the vat by a surrounding wood fire or furnace or sometimes the water was heated in a separate utensil and then poured into the dyebath. The dyestuffs themselves were prepared in small pots or kettles. Skeins were often dyed by simply hand dipping and turning in the dyebath. Refinements in the handling of skeins consisted either in using hooks to hold the skeins or in hanging skeins on wooden, sticks which were suspended across the dye vat. The skeins were turned by hand or sometimes by additional hooks. In the case of piece goods, the technique did not differ greatly from the handling of skeins. The fabrics were either dipped by hand or pulled through the dyebath over a pole laid across the vat. A special refinement, which was often used, was a simple wooden reel turned by hand over which the goods could be turned in the dyebath.

The few old woodcuts or drawings concerning dyeing, which have come down to us, picture this equipment and the dyer at work. Particularly interesting is the example shown by Singer in his monumental book on alum (1). This drawing, see Figure 1, is from a Florentine Manuscript Treatise on the silk art written in 1458. On the right, silk skeins are being dyed in a typical dye vat heated by a wood fire. The dyers are wearing shoes raised by clogs to keep their feet dry. The dyebath is a typical, evil-smelling one of the times. (Note the dyer at the left is holding his nose.) Washing the skeins and mordanting are being carried on by the other workmen.

One of the earliest, the most famous, and surely one of the rarest books on dyeing was that published by Giovanni Rosetti in Venice in 1540 (2). While this book went through many editions, only the first contained woodcuts showing dyers at work. These drawings depict the same type of simple apparatus which would have been used by our Yankee "country dyer." Figure 2 shows the dyeing of skeins in unheated vat, which was probably made of wood. A hook used for manipulating the skeins is shown hanging on the wall. Figure 3 shows a typical boiling dye vat heated with a wood fire, and the cloth turned through the bath over a windlass-again the same equipment as was used in this country two centuries later.

Text books and manuscripts are not the only sources of information about ancient trades or crafts. Witness the 16th century German Valentine in Figure 4. In this rare example, the dyer professes his love with such sayings as, "I intend to give a skein of real silk to my sweetheart," and "In order to look prim you have to use my colors," but at the same time he proudly reels his fabric through the dyebath in a typical dyehouse of the time.

As has been mentioned, while several of the early books on dyeing published in this country did not contain any illustrations, detailed information on the equipment and the setting up of a dyehouse are given. From these word pictures, together with the actual pictures we have seen, we can form a satisfactory idea of a typical dyehouse and the equipment used in the early days of our own country. Particularly detailed on this score is the information furnished by Asa Ellis in the first book on dyeing published in the United States (3).

Ellis advises as follows:

Now obviously the equipment for dyeing in an early American dyehouse was of the simplest. The techniques for carrying on the various dyeing processes themselves were often quite complicated, however, and required the greatest of skill in manipulation by the, dyer. In fact, in those days the dyer had to accomplish by his skill and agility what we often do today through the use of specially designed dyeing equipment and mechanical aids.

A realization of the skill required by these early dyers in using their very simple equipment can only be realized when we examine the actual details by which they carried on a particular dyeing operation. The early dyers had many dyestuffs and could produce a wide variety of shades. Of all the dyeing processes which the dyer had available, perhaps the best known and at the same time the most complicated was the dyeing of indigo. The dyer of indigo had to have not only highly developed manipulative skills but what amounted to a special intuition in order to recognize the many critical signs which indicated possible changes in the indigo bath. If the dyer did not heed these signs properly and at the right time, many days could be lost and dyestuffs and chemicals of considerable value wasted. While each dyer had many pet methods for preparing an indigo vat, these all depended on a careful reduction of the indigo by a fermentation process. Even with the variations in formulas from one dyer to another, they were all essentially the same and depended on a great deal of experience. Again we turn to Ellis (3) for typical instructions in preparing an indigo vat and for carrying on the dyeing.


After reading over this complicated technique of 150 years ago for preparing an indigo vat, we must smile when we think of how easily we prepare such vats today by the use of hydrosulfite and alkalies. The addition of bran, urine and other materials may seem unscientific, foolish, or perhaps even the result of superstition. The true facts are far from this. The use of these natural materials were necessary and each material had a particular function. The dyer in effect had to act as a bacteriologist without knowing anything about bacteria, for the proper preparation and use of an indigo vat depended on close control of fermentation processes. The indigo had to be solubilized in order to be suitable for dyeing. In order to be solubilized the indigo had to be reduced or in other words "de-oxygenated." In the early days, the only satisfactory method for carrying this on was by a fermentation process wherein the required reducing conditions were set up. Both bran and madder as well as urine each contributed its own ferments and bacteria. One fermenting ingredient might give quick reducing action and then lose its power whereas another material might be slower but last longer. Hence the use of a combination of natural ingredients which would contribute various ferments to the bath. Only through long experience could a vat dyer tell when conditions were right. To plague him even more, the natural materials such as bran and madder varied from lot to lot in their fermenting power. An indigo vat had to be nurtured and tended as carefully as one might a child. The vat required the dyer's constant attention and care. No vat dyer of the old days could listen to a five o'clock whistle. In fact, the dyer's living quarters often were attached to the dyehouse so that he could constantly watch his vat and keep it in "the best of health."

While unquestionably the indigo or woad bath was the most difficult to prepare and required the most care in its use, the early dyer still had to use a consider-able amount of skill and care in dyeing with other dyestuffs. The dyer was constantly beset with the fact that his dyestuffs and chemicals were not uniform and he had no scientific methods for testing. In addition, lack of mechanical aids and unsatisfactory methods of heating necessitated great skill in manipulating fabrics or yarn so that the dyestuffs would go onto the goods evenly and without spotting. Even with "simple" dyeings it is easy to see how the dyer of years gone by might well charge prices for his dyeings far in excess of what he would charge today.

Towards the end of the 18th century, in France, some dyeing establishments began to reach great size. In some of these factories, each individual type of dyeing was carried on as a separate operation with its own dyers, helpers and its own particular dyehouse. In the great Gobelins works, individual dyehouses were set up which were devoted exclusively to indigo dyeing of fabrics; indigo dyeing of skeins; the dyeing of blacks; and the dyeing of light colors. Even separate rooms for washing fabrics and for preparing dyestuffs were maintained. Special means for pumping water and highly developed heating systems for the dyebaths were in use. Nevertheless, even in this great establishment, the dyeing equipment itself was basically the same as that used by the poorest "Yankee Dyer" in this country. See Figures 5 and 6.

Not until about the end of the 19th century did American dyehouse equipment equal and then begin to surpass that of Europe. In the present century the American dyer is no longer at the mercy of his equipment, but because of it he can accomplish great feats of high production and low cost. His "country cousin" of a century and a half ago would not have believed that such things could be possible. The dyeing machines of today would have appeared just as unlikely and fanciful to the old dyers as did one ancient's dream of angels preparing his colors and tending his vats while he slept peacefully beside his wood fire. See Figure 7.

(1) Singer, Charles, "The Earliest Chemical Industry", London, 1948.
(2) Rosetti, Giovanni, "Plictho De Larthe De Tentori Che Insegna Tenger Pani Telle Banbasi et Sede si Per Larthe Magiore come per la Comune" (How to dye cloth, linen, cotton and silk by the great and common art), Venice, 1540.
(3) Ellis, Asa, Jr, "The Country Dyer's As-sistant", Brookfield, Mass, 1798.
(4) "The Art of Dyeing Wool, Silk and Cotton", London, 1786.
(5) Schiffermueller, Ignatz, "Versuch Eines Farbensystems". Vienna. 1772.

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