The Mysteries of the Dye Department

Hannah Fay from The University of Leeds delves into our Archive.

May 6th, 2020

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Since October I have been researching the work of the dyers of Sunny Bank Mills in the Archive, on my MA placement from the University of Leeds. In normal circumstances, I would have created a display in the archive itself to share what I’ve learnt with all our visitors. But, as you will all be aware this is not currently possible, so I am going to share some of my findings with you here instead. So let me to take you on a brief digital tour of the dye department!

Figure 1: Piece dye recipe card (shade number 941)

The first items I want to show are ones that would have been the final product of the dye department, before the newly dyed materials left the dye house. That product is the dye recipe cards; Sunny Bank Mills Archive holds over 5,000 dye recipe cards, Here there is yarn dye shade P121 and piece dye shade 941 (The dye house at Sunny Bank definitely made far more shades of navy blue than they did fuchsia pink!)

Recipe cards recorded the unique combination of dyes and chemicals necessary to produce specific colours. There were two types of dye card, one for yarn dyeing (when the yarn was dyed, wrapped around cones, then woven) and piece dyeing (when large sheets of fabric were dyed). The key difference between the two of them was that yarn dyeing recipes needed to state how many cones of yarn were being dyed. Some shades of dye were made dozens of time and when we look at a shade’s complete set of recipe cards we can see how the recipe has evolved over time.

There are several steps that the dyers at Sunny Bank had to go through before they got to the final dye. First they had to find the synthetic dye compound that they could use. Most of the dyes were brought from Sandoz, Bayer or CIBA, which were large dye manufactures. There were endless combinations of dyes that could be put together to produce unique shades. Brilliant Allizarine Milling Blue BL was one of 4 dyes used to make shade P121.

Figure 2: Sandoz Omega Chrome Allzarine chrome dyestuffs

The companies constantly evolved their formulas. This meant the dye workers were constantly comparing different dyes with each other to ensure that they were using the highest quality dye possible.

The dye workers at Sunny Bank Mill were experts in their field and wouldn’t tolerate imperfect materials, in the archive there are records of dyes being sent back because they had been a ‘bad batch.’ But for the most part the dye workers at Sunny Bank Mills had a cooperative relationship with the dye manufactures, with the dyers’ notebooks frequently noting the advice given by the dye companies to fix problems or how to get the best result.

Figure 3: a page from a dyers’ notebook noting how to improve the dye process

The dyers’ notebooks are fascinating documents revealing that dyeing fabric to precise shades required a great deal of experimentation, even with the help of the dye manufactures and their own experiences, often the only way forward was experimentation. The dyeing process could be affected by the water quality that day, the temperature of the water, the chemicals added during the process, and the type of fabric itself. While Sunny Bank Mills was famed for working with wool, they also made use of silks, cashmere and polyesters.

The dyers at Sunny Bank Mill, as evidenced in their notes and final recipes, were skilled and versatile workers who produced stunning colours, sometimes with a single bold dye, and sometimes a complex shade of navy blue that required 8 separate dyes.


By Hannah Fay MA History student University of Leeds

Read more about our archive here.

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