The ancient Greeks and Romans colored flax, silk, and wool fleece before processing them into linen, fiber, or yarn. In villages, women were in charge of dyeing fabrics. In cities, professional dyers extracted dyes from various sources and concocted recipes for making a variety of colors and hues. Their workshops were filled with boiling vats of colored dye.
Plants, insects, and shellfish were the most widely used sources of dyes. Dyers knew which sources produced the most distinctive colors. Red dye was obtained from the root of a small flowering plant called the madder, or from females of the cochineal insect. Dyers obtained blue from the woad plant. Yellow, a color very popular among Greek and Roman women, came from the flowers of saffron and crocus.
Purple, the color worn by royalty, was the most expensive dye. It was extracted by crushing small snails that produced purple liquid that could be collected. A less expensive way to create purple was first to dye a fabric blue, then to use a red dye over that. Before dyeing a fabric with plant extracts, the material had to be pretreated with minerals, such as alum or iron. This both affected the shade and made the dye adhere to the cloth.
The ancient Romans used color to denote class distinctions. Decorative borders on togas* indicated a person’s class. Farmers, shepherds, and poor people wore dark-colored wool of muddy brown or green. Dark colors were also used for funerals and for mourning. Upper-class Roman women wore garments of fine fabrics and many colors. And, in contrast to present-day fashion, brides wore a veil of orange-yellow, like an egg yolk, a color that symbolized fidelity. (See also Class Structure, Greek; Class Structure, Roman; Clothing; Death and Burial; Textiles.)
* toga loose outer garment worn by Roman citizens