Updated: May 31, 2022
For this edition of History of Hues, we will be focusing on a shade of grey that we like to consider “stone.” When grey dye first became popular, it leaned more heavily toward tan and brown undertones. It wasn’t until chemical dyes came into fashion that a range of warm and cool greys could be produced as we know them today.
Evidence of fabrics found during archeological digs shows that textile dyeing began thousands of years ago in what is now called the New Stone Age, which took place around 10,200 BCE. Many textiles have also been found in Egyptian tombs from 4,000 years ago. Pigments made from ochre in cave painting were traced back as early as 15,000 BCE. From 7200 to 2000 BCE, fixed settlements and textiles were developed, which led to the use of dyes as well.
Natural dyes come mainly from plants and minerals. To achieve a grey color, the plants Butternut and Canaigre Dock are used. For dyes to adhere to fabric, mordants must be used. Mordants are water-soluble chemicals, usually metallic salts, which create a bond between dye and fiber thus increasing the adherence of various dyes to the item being dyed. The actual color one gets from a natural dye depends not only on the source of the dye but also on the mordant, and the item being dyed. Iron and copper are the common mordants to achieve grey. They also help lighten or darken the color.
Butternut, a tree native to the eastern United States, was both a food source and a dye source. Research suggests that the dye was never used commercially, but was very popular in the mid-19th century for dyeing homespun fabric. The bark was used for a brown dye and the young roots for a grey or black depending on the duration of the soaking. The most popular use of butternut for dyeing was the grey coats of the Confederate Army.
Canaigre Dock, which is also known as Wild Rhubarb, is native to California. It can also be found outside of California but remains confined to Western North America. The tissue of the plant is used for dye, and depending on the mordant, can result in a yellow, green, or grey dye.
The rise of synthetic dyes started in the 1850s. The industrial revolution began in the 1700s and textiles was one of the main industries that benefited from this era of invention. Many inventors developed machines and techniques that helped improve the production of fabric and clothing. Multiple chemists started exploring and creating dye formulas for fabrics.
There are cool greys and warm greys. Payne’s grey, named after the artist William Payne is a cooler variant of the color. It is a combination of black and ultramarine blue.
The room darkener in stone falls on the side of Warm grey, which has a little bit of yellow in it. A neutral stone will look good in many rooms and coordinate with multiple color palettes. A neutral window curtain is a wonderful way to let your walls and windows become the backdrop and let your furniture and accessories become the star of the room.
Want to learn more about the history of hues? Check out the other colors we cover in the series.