“Help me-I’m dyeing here!”


“Stink is Period”


A Short Discussion

on the

Proper Type of Clothing for 18th Century Civilians,


How to Get it Colored the Right Color


Another in our series of articles pressed together from pocket lint and threads from the GaRefugees email list.  And an article which positively begs for photographs.  Well, at least for now, it will continue to beg until we take some more photos.  Until that time, use your imagination, and check the various hyperlinks shown in order to get a better idea of what folks are talking about.  


The article begins with Mark Hubbs delivering a bit of information:




After a conversation with Charlie McCulloh concerning possible colors for our civilian clothing, I posted a query on the BAR and RevList mail lists.  Someone brought this excellent web page to my attention: http://hometown.aol.com/CaptCresap/page/index.htm


In the excerpt below, I assume that “light colored” refers to a natural unbleached, undyed, material.  Brown seems to be the most popular color, but red, green, and blue also show up.  Let me know your thoughts on this issue.


Begin excerpt:


Deserter Descriptions from the Pennsylvania Packet & Pennsylvania Gazette.


“a snuff colored coat and a hunting shirt, linen breeches and leggings”

“a light cloth coat, jacket and breeches and linen leggings”

“brown coat, spotted waistcoat, leather breeches”

“brown coat, red waistcoat, light cloth breeches”

“light colored homespun jacket with sleeves, striped linsey waistcoat, brown cloth trousers”

“Sky blue cloth coat, green jacket and breeches”

“Light colored wilton coat, light colored jacket and black velvet breeches.”

“Blanket coat dyed black, light colored close bodied coat, light colored jacket and leggings”

“Blue coat faced with red, light colored jacket and breeches”

“light colored wilton coat and jacket, country cloth breeches with blue worsted knee bands”

“a hunting shirt and a light colored coat”

“a light colored cloth coat, jacket trimmed with yellow buttons,”

“buckskin breeches, small round hat”

“a light colored regimental coat with a red cape, blue jacket and leather breeches”


Patterns of Dress


“I was rather surprised by a pattern that emerged from the research. The manner of dress of these riflemen went against the myth we have come to accept about these "backwoodsmen" who as we formerly believed were dressed in hunting shirts and buckskins. Quite the contrary is true. These men are dressed pretty much the same as the rest of the men of the same station in life. They are not necessarily in uniform, but are dressed, for the time, properly. This also dispels the breechclout (or breechcloth) as an accepted item of clothing. I never found one reference to this unusual bit of clothing being worn by these riflemen. I did find that nearly all of the men were wearing breeches, with a few (very few) in “trowsers.”  Those who had hunting shirts were also wearing coats.”


End Excerpt


Mark Lewis’s comments quickly followed:


That is a good web site. I think we should avoid red for obvious reasons. I have always preferred brown and I dye my clothes mostly in walnut hulls. Brown was probably the easiest color to dye in the 18th century.  Blue (indigo or woad) were also easy colors. It seems to me that we wouldn't want to look too much alike, as we are portraying militia and would have provided our own clothes. If we could find documentation that they were supposed to show up for duty in certain colors, then that would be the thing to have. I think our persona and station in life would indicate what we wear. Scarlet red for instance could only be worn by the rich as it was very expensive to dye.  Brick red on the other hand would have been much more common.  Undyed was common, as it required no additional work. However, I have always felt that white looks kinda “greenhorn-ish,” as do most bright colors.  Just my two cents.  I don't want to wear velvet breeches...ha! I am a lower middle class farmer.  I do most of my own work but have the help of my children and neighbors. I would be wearing my hunting/work clothes.


(Say, Mark, don’t knock them there velvet breeches until you’ve tried ‘em!) 


Terry Oglesby, (a fish so fresh he twitches and flops on deck) is a still bit new to frontier life, and so asks a time-honored question:


For those of us who are “18th century challenged,” does the use of ‘Rit-berries” give an acceptable color and look to clothing? Charlie McCulloh just delivered my breeches and sleeved waistcoat (beautiful work, by the way), and I wanted the breeches (twilled hemp cloth) to be a dark brown and the waistcoat (linen-cotton fustian) to be sort of a dark yellow-ochre. Do the home dyestuffs look right?  Will everyone snicker at the colors and say nasty things about the farb in the clown suit?


Mark Lewis answers the query, ignoring the fact that everyone will laugh at Mr. Oglesby regardless of what he wears:


Everyone who does 18th century reenacting uses Rit or a similar product.  I dyed my 1812 trousers with a big box of tea. They came out a slightly uneven butternut color. I would urge you to be careful. as I have had some unusual colors from Rit.  It used to seem like everything came out purple.  The brown has a very reddish hue out of the box.  The black comes out dark grey.  I usually use 2 or 3 boxes of dye per item.  I have overdyed Rit with walnuts to get some nice subdued colors.  I try to stick with “woodsy” colors, as I think they are the most pleasing to the eye. 


Mark Hubbs goes on to add the following to what Florida Mark wrote (also mercifully ignoring Mr. Oglesby’s penchant for acting as a magnet for derision):


Mark Lewis is right on using some Rit dyes, but there are not many other options.  The biggest problem with any modern chemical dye is that sometimes the colors are too vivid.  If you want to tone them down, you can overdye with tea as Mark L. suggests.  I use the biggest, cheapest jar of instant tea (no lemon or sweetener) I can find.  Do it in a tub.  In some cases, you aren't so much dying with it, but just knocking the wattage down on some of the more vivid colors.


When using Rit dyes, to get the actual color that you are shooting for, I almost double the dye load that they recommend.  Add at least a cup of table salt as a mordant.  It will help the colors stick better.  The dark brown they sell is a little red;  I used it on the jacket in the oxen picture.  The clothes that Steve Brown is wearing was dyed in “taupe” color. You can also mix the dyes a bit.  For example, if you want a pair of breeches to be dark brown, use two boxes of brown and one of black.


Here is the web address for a dye company that has been recommended to me, but I have not tried yet:  http://www.dharmatrading.com/


Go to the link “Dyes” on the left side, then to “Procion” on the next page.  Loads of colors, 6 versions of “brown” even.  Under “DEKA-L” they have others that are designed for wool.  I think I will try some of these for my next dying venture.


Mark Lewis (you know, keeping up with the two Marks is getting to be rather difficult) gives Terry, who is no longer averse to soaking clothes in the stuff you’re supposed to drink, another recipe for tea dyeing and other hints:


I use a huge box of tea bags with the tags cut off (cheapest kind).  The more the better.  I boil them in a large pot, let them set a while, pour it in a 5 gallon plastic bucket, maybe adding a little more hot water if needed.  Try not to dilute any more than you have to.  I then soak the article overnight, turning and moving the garment every so often to make sure it doesn't look tie-dyed.  I don't use mordant as I don't wash my clothes.  No natural dye will withstand modern detergents and machines. I just hang my clothes outside and let them air out. Stink is period.


All of Mark Hubbs’s info was just exactly the way it should have been worded, and I could scarcely add anything. One thing to remember is that if someone uses polyester thread on something, it will stick out like a blaze orange vest. I know that we wouldn't do that, but watch people that make stuff for you.


I think Blue Heron Mercantile has some natural dyes. Logwood was one that I thought of; it make shades of brown to black.  Remind me to tell you about the time I boiled goldenrods to make yellow and made us all sick.



Mark With Cannon returns to the fray with additional information from afar:


My original question on the RevList about clothing color launched a discussion among some of the know-it-alls that had nothing to do with my question: the use of hunting frocks and breech clouts!  Anyway, I did get a very good response from Jennifer.  She recommends a good book that I think I will have to invest in. Here is her posting (Now where can I get some of that Nanking?. . .):


>From: Jennifer Richard-Morrow

>Subject: Militia clothing- colours  


>Dear Mark:    


>Since you asked about the colours of clothes (not those frocks!),  Spouse and I have two suggestions.  Try 18c >newspapers in your area, if there are any still available, and look at the runaway ads, shop  and tailor ads.  Keep >a table of the descriptions.  Up here in NYS I  could tell you what the most common colours were but they may >be different down there.  An EXCELLENT RESOUCE is a doctoral dissertation  from a few years ago by Bryan >P. Howard called HAD ON AND TOOK WITH  HIM: RUNAWAY INDENTURED SERVANT CLOTHING >IN VIGINIA, 1774-1778. (©1996,  Texas A & M).    In it, the author analyzes over 200 runaway ads for their >clothes  and has many tables and appendixes.  He found that the most common  colour of coats and jackets was >blue (37), brown (24), followed  by ‘light’ coloured, meaning light, white and gray, (14), gray (11)  and small >amounts of various other colours.  For breeches, he found 46  pair of leather/buckskin, and cloth breeches in >black (18), white(16), blue (12), brown (8), light (7),  7 or 8 pairs of nankeen (which was a yellow cotton), and >red (5).  The cloth is described as ‘cloth,’ ‘drill’, ‘nankeen,’ ‘duffil,’ ‘Virginia/country,’ (whatever that was) drab, >linen (only 5!),plush (5), and a variety of others you would have to look up in Montgomery's Dictionary of >Fabric.  Try University Microfilms Inc at 1-800-521-0600.  This only scratches the surface of this fascinating >and valuable  work  and Mr. Howard deserves the undying gratitude of all of us.                              


>Hope this is helpful,                               

>Jennifer, Pres.                               

>2nd Albany County Militia                                                  


OK, who get to wear the "plush" breeches?!!


Well, Charlie volunteered Ross Rich, but I believe only because he doesn’t have a computer, and therefore is unable to read these articles.  A final word here from Terry to wrap things up:


I just got through reading the exchange about clothing colors, too. Great stuff in among the chaff (of which there is always a bunch). From what I can tell, I believe I am still acceptable in my choices of colors (Dark yellow ochre waistcoat, dark brown breeches). As far as hunting smocks, frocks, overshirts, frock coats, breechclouts, etc., etc, in the end it seems as though it boiled down to how much money you had. If you were poor, you wore what you had. If you had a bit more money, you might be able to afford something a bit rougher for trips to the woods, (which might also be serviceable for your occupation) along with something nicer for church. Some more money and you might have hunting clothes, occupational clothes, and church clothes. Even more and you would be considered a gentleman and be into fashionable imported cloth of silks and such, and never stoop to dirty yourself with anything other than foxhunts. (And would probably be a militia colonel, and have a real military-style garment made for yourself).


Terry also went on to later report success in the dyeing of his clothes:


Well, I went and did it and colored my clothes yesterday using authentic Ritnut hulls. Both turned out looking the way I wanted--dark yellow ochre coat and brown pants. The coat was colored with two packs of golden yellow and one brown, and the pants with two browns and one black. The only problem I had was two spots on the seams of the coat unraveled--one on the back seam and one on the front of the arm, both about an inch and a half long. My question to Mr. McCulloh my tailor is, “what is the best way to fix these?”


Sorry, Terry, that’s an article for another day!



January 16, 2001

Reformatted July 12, 2001