Viking-Age Dyes:Evidence & Methods


Evidence of Use


Chemical and spectral analysis of textile fragments from Viking-age settlements has resulted in the confirmation of the wide-ranging use of numerous natural dyes and mordants. At least seven individual dyes from plant, lichen and insect sources that were used both individually and in combination have emerge in recent years. Please examine the bar graph shown below. The vertical Y-axis depicts the number of textile finds that have been analysed and confirmed to contain dye while the horizontal X-axis shows two important pieces of information: the location (Norway, Denmark, Dublin, London and York) and the type of material (wool or silk). The bars have been coloured in by the number of specific dye samples found at each site (key in upper right corner) . This graph can be used simply to confirm the presence of specific dyes, or could further indicate the popularity and readible availability of each dye (adapted from Walton 1989- see Research Sources). Further information from some of the more famous textile finds of Mammen, Denmark indicate the use of indigotin (dye pigment found in woad and indigo), madder and lichen purple (Walton 1991). These finds also provide the additional plum that embroidery dyed with madder had been applied to a cushion dyed with indigotin. It's important to note though that the majority of woolen textiles recovered contain no direct evidence of dye use.

From the evidence we can surmise that there were five basic dye groups that would have varied wildly in intensity, colour and tone that could also be combined (except for kermes):

  • Indigotin (most likely woad) for blues,
  • Kermes for scarlets, pinks and purples,
  • Lichen purple for purples and reds,
  • Madder and bedstraw for reds and
  • Weld and/or Pigment X (pigment from an unknown plant source) for yellows. 

It's reasonable to assume that colour and intensity of colour both had a positive relationship with wealth and social status.


Mordants do several things during the dyeing process and are usually introduced into the dye solution prior to dyeing. These chemicals fall into three categories; metal oxides, tannins and oxyfatty acids. They work through opening the fiber and allow the dye to bite by acting as a bridge to bond a portion of the pigment molecules to the fiber protein (animal fibers) or cellulose (plant fibers) structure. They are key to determine the shade, tone, intensity and even the resulting colour of the finshed product while helping to make the colour light- and water-fast. Mordanting is a very important step in the dye process. In Scandinavia the most likely mordant was a clubmoss called Diphasiastrum complanatum which has high levels of aluminium and was readily available. Clubmosses for use as mordants have also been recovered from Anglo-Scandinavian York and the Greenland finds, these clubmosses were likely imported from Scandinavia.

Other mordants used include alum which is a volcanic metal salt readily available around the Mediterranean and traded throughout Europe. This mordant has been recovered from 11th Century London (Crowfoot et al. 2001). Iron oxide is another mordant which tends to bring out the brown and reddish hues of dyes and was likely used during the Viking Age though it's difficult to differentiate iron oxides as either a mordant or site contamination.

What Stage of Textile Production Should You be Dyeing?

Extant textile pieces from Scandinavia have been recovered with either dyed warp ends or dyed weft strands indicating that dyeing occurred prior to weaving. In addition, textiles with dyed patterns such as checks and stripes also indicate dyeing before weaving must have occured. It is unknown whether the fleece was dyed prior to spinning or whether dyeing occured at the yarn stage. I personally feel that dyeing occured most likely after spinning at the yarn stage. I believe this given that a certain amount of oil present is desirous for good spinning but should be removed for dyeing as oils prevent the uptake of the dye pigments. Dyeing of whole cloth also likely occured.  

Overview of the Dyes


This is the dye pigment found in the woad (Isatis tinctoria) and the indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria).

Woad: Has been grown in Scandinavia since the Roman Iron Age (0 - 200 AD). In terms of direct evidence during the Viking Age, there has been fruit-stalks and seeds from the woad plant recovered from the Oseberg ship burial as well as evidence of woad plants grown around Viking-Age villages. The dye vats were likely created from fermenting crushed leaves before adding an alkali agent such as lant (stale urine) or lye. Wetted cloth or fiber could then be exposed to the pale-green vat before being hung to dry and the emergence of the blue colour. Rich, dark blues have been recovered from Birka (Sweden) among other Norse sites.

I've dyed using both indigo and woad and the process is basically the same (you will need approxiamtely 4x the dried woad to get the same concentration of indigotin). Some of the important components to creating an indigotin vat are; good materials, fairly precise amounts at the correct time, keeping the liquid covered (and preferably airtight to reduce oxygenation) and making sure you don't drip liquid back into the vat while taking the fiber in or out. Leaving the vat uncovered as well as splashes and drips introduces oxygen into the vat binding up the pigment and reducing both the quantity and effectiveness of the dye.  


This pigment is derived from the dried, pulverized outer wings of a scale insect (Kermes ilicis and K. vermilio). This insect is found on live kermes oak trees (Quercus coccifera) located around the Mediterranean, especially in the western portion from Portugal to Greece. The insects were collected, dried and traded throughout Europe and Asia as a valuable and highly-prized dye stuff. Kermes has been comfirmed at a number of Viking-Age settlements throughout Scandinivia, Ireland and Britain though it appears it was only used to on silk and never in combination with other dyes (to date). The cochineal insect of the New World has now laregly wiped out the trade in kermes for a number of reasons; the dye pigment is 10x stronger in cochineal and is more readily and cheaply available. The pigment molecule is virtually identical from these two sources so the use of cochineal as a replacement for kermes appears to be reasonable. All attempts by the author to locate and acquire a source for this dye have been unsuccessful- please contact me if you have any information on sources of kermes! I mainly use cochineal to dye silk for tablet weaving.


Colours ranging from bluish-purples to deep red are possible through the fermentation of lichens. Lichen from the taxa  Lecanora, Ochrolechia, Parmelia and Roccella were collected and use in Scandinavia. Roccella tinctoria and R. fuciformis were used around the Mediterranean while similar species were used in Ireland and Britain on Viking-Age textiles. Two of the most likely candidates for dyeing in Scandinavia are Lichecn tartareus and Parmelia saxatalis which are both traditionally called litunarmosi meaning 'dyeing lichen' in Icelandic (T. Ewing 2006). The lichen were likely collected and fermented in a method similar to woad. Though the vat could either be made acidic for reds or alkali for purples. As seen from the graph above, dyes from this source were used all over the Viking world yet are not yet popular with medieval recreation groups such as the SCA.


This pigment can be found in the root of the madder plant (Rubia tintorum) as well as to a weaker degree in some members of the Bedstraw genus (Galium), probably mainly Galium boreale. The use of madder as a dye crop has been confirmed in parts of France, Ireland and Britain though whether it was grown in Scandinavia, imported as dyed cloth and/or as dye matter remains a mystery. The queen buried in the Oseberg ship find was laid in madder-dyed red cloth and it is likely madder and madder-dyed textiles were an expensive and highly-prized commodity.

I find dye pots made from madder can be exhausted a lot quicker than leading dye books lead on. Also, if you're finding you're getting more oranges than reds- make your bath more alkali. More basic bath will give better reds, even pinks.


Weld gives a lovely lemon yellow. This dye (from Reseda luteola, see right) appears to have been mainly a dye stuff from the British and Irish settlements with the unknown pigment-X (likley from a plant source) having been confirmed within Scandinavia. In terms of general historical use, the plant is native to the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean area and appears to have been a widely used dye plant for many thousands of years.

Weld is a weed which is very easy to grow in your garden. Please note that this is considered a noxious (invasive) plant in many areas and should not be transported across international borders. If you want to grow it in your garden, please confine it to a pot to prevent root spreading and harvest the flowers prior to pollination.

This dye is also probably the most susceptible dye to high heat that you can find. If the dye bath temperature is raised to a boil, the bath will turn brown and the fiber will simply not take up the dye.

Other Dye Material:

A number of other dyes have been confirmed during the Viking Age that are still relatively easy to locate. Common walnut (Juglans regia) shells have been recovered from the Hedeby settlement as well as from the Oseberg burial. This dye can give light browns, reddish browns to very dark browns (almost black) depending on the mordant and the methods used. Walnut husks should be harvested while still green, soaked and boiled prior to dyeing.

Basic Dye Steps

 (see Jim Liles book in Research Sources for specific instructions for the dye you're using)

1) Create loose skeins of your fiber- smaller skeins will dye more evenly and deeply than one big skein.

2) Totally submerge the fiber for at least 1 hour.

3) Scour the fiber at about 75'C for 1 hour with a suitable mild soap. Orvus paste works quite well. Scouring will remove the fat, oils and other material that may inhibit the dye uptake.

4) Mordanting: timing and temperature for this step is dependant on the dyes you want to use. Adding a small amount of cream of tartar to alum helps deepen colour intensity without altering the tone. Mordants and dye material are usually listed as a percent (%)  of the total weight of fiber (WOF).


  • Alum = 15% WOF
  • Cream of Tartar = 5% WOF
  • Ferrous sulphate= 7% WOF

5) Dye Bath Prep: If dyeing with plants (I first soak the plant matter for at least one or two hours) or insects such as cochineal I usually heat the matter to 75' for 1 hour, decant the liquid into a second dyebath through a strainer and three-layers of cheese cloth, add enough water to cover the dye material and heat twice more decanting each time. It takes a long time but gives a well concentrated dye bath free of large particles that could stick to your fiber.

6) Dyeing: Add the scoured, mordanting fiber to the dye bath, heat for the required period of time (usually about an hour) and then leave to cool. With madder, I usually leave the fiber in and stir occationally for several days until I get the intensity I want.

 General Dyeing Tips

  • The real key of dyeing is patience. Take the three main components; scouring, mordanting and dyeing as three separate steps. Some days you only complete one step- the end results will be worth it.
  • In dyeing (scouring, mordanting, dyeing, washing) the following things will determine your colour and intensity (listed roughly in order): materials, timing, pH and heat. Ignore any of these at your peril.
  • Always keep your fiber wet once you've started this process unless you're planning on storing the fiber before completing the process. Keeping the fiber submerged will help give you even dye results.
  • You'll also need to pay attention to temperature. Dramatic temperature changes can felt your fiber: especially if it's single-ply wool. Use thermoregular bridges between each step (allow baths to cool on their own before moving fiber and use the tap to gently heat up the fiber). Sometimes dyeing plied wool can lull you into a false sense of security that felting (by not adequately controling tempertature) is someone else's problem...
  • Controlling your pH is very important for dyeing with madder, lichens and cochineal. Creating a more basic dyebath will bring out the richer, bluer pinks and purples (you can even get a purply/red from madder this way). Do not do this with baking soda as it binds up the dye-pigment molecules. Controlling the pH means determining the pH of the dye vat AND the water the fiber is sitting in prior to adding it to the dye vat. Do not change the pH once the fiber is in the dye bath- this will give you uneven results.
  • Owning a niddy-noddy, ball-winder and swift will make your life with fiber a lot more enjoyable. If you love to dye and weave think about getting this equipment if you don't have it. I can't believe I struggled so long without these key pieces of equipment.
  • Be careful when working with these substances. Use gloves and kitchens with good ventilations. As long as the materials are not too toxic (I don't use chrome as a mordant due to environmental concerns), you won't need a respirator but use common sense.
  • When overdyeing, dye first with the lighter colour and then check the overdyeing frequently to get the colour you want. When overdyeing with indigo (to get Saxon green), you only need to submerge the fiber for about 7 seconds. Then open up the fiber and leave for several hours to even out the tone before washing. 
  • Branching out and dyeing with as many different types of plant and animal matter as possible will help make you a better dyer and helps keep things interesting.

Lastly, keeping a dye record is a nice way of keeping track of what your dyeing, learning and how your developing as a dyer. I write down notes as I go and then write it up on single pages with samples which I keep in page protectors in a binder. See photo on the right for a record sample. You may want to keep a small sample of predyed fiber as a comparison. I also keep records when the dye processes doesn't work. Pictured below are some samples from left to right; indigo (no mordant), cochineal (w/ alum), cochineal overdyed with indigo (w/ alum and iron), weld (w/ alum) and then goldenrod overdyed with indigo (w/ alum):

    Dyeing Equipment:

    All dye equipment should be used solely for the purpose of dyeing and should never be used to prepare or serve food.

    Basic Equipment:

    • Metal pots: pick up aluminum pots from a second-hand store or garage sale. Steer clear of ceramic-coated pots as they can clip and leak Fe+ ions which will change your colours (steel pots can also leak colour-changing metal ions). The larger the better. Get at least two to start- sometimes you'll be decanting from one to the other. Save yourself later hassle and get pots as large as you can- the fiber needs a lot of room.
    • Large plastic spoon with slits for straining, I use white spoons to better monitor my dye colours.

    • Strainer
    • Cheese cloth
    • Candy thermometer
    • Plastic gloves
    • Measuring spoons and cups
    • Specific to Indigo:
    •  Large plastic bucket with lid for creating the indigo vat
    •  clean glass jar with lid

    More Extensive Equipment:

    • Digital scale good to the nearest 1 g (or 0.5 g for small amounts of dyeing)
    • Second strainer
    • Second or third candy thermometer
    • Second or third spoon
    • pH kit
    • Set of large plastic tupperware-style containers for holding, transfering liquid
    • Face shield if using toxic chemicals (ie- for chrome-based mordants).

    Where to Get Natural Dyes and Mordants

    If you live in Canada go with Maiwa Prints ( in Vancouver. This is an excellent dye shop that will carry everything you should need. They also have a good overview handouts on many of these dyes including creating and using an indigo vat. Anyone with information on dye shops internationally please contact me to fill in this section with more information.

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