Category Archives: Turkey Red


Turkey Red describes a process of dyeing cotton with madder plant to produce a red color that is rich, bright, and color-fast. It was widely used in 18th and 19th century Europe, and for many years before that in India and the Middle East.

Why was Turkey Red so valuable? If it were not for this process, it would be difficult to impossible to dye cotton with madder and produce a color that is true and lasting. We take this for-granted because it is so simple now to dye red with synthetic dyes.

Dyers before the 20th century treasured the Turkey Red method and were in awe of its mystique. The process was long, complicated, and largely mysterious. Recipes often consisted of 12-20 steps, while many of the steps were repeated numerous times. It would sometimes take weeks for the process to be completed. Each recipe differed slightly, and ingredients varied in regards to place. For example, all recipes involved steeping the fabric in oil. In many Middle-Eastern recipes this meant using rancid olive oil. In India it was animal fat, and in some European recipes it was whale oil.

By re-creating this historical process and color with materials that are local to the Chicago region, I hope to bring attention to the labor and process that it takes to refine raw resources to create the brilliant Turkey Red color.

1. Boil Cotton in Lye of Barilla or Wood Ash

Recipe 1

20131021_185514 This ash is from our WELCOME HOME bonfire pit.



Grapes- Green City Market

Received a garbage bag full of grapes that were rescued from the compost at Green City Market from a friend. They smelled sweet and fermented, way past edibility.

I took half of the bag for my first attempt at potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar) extraction.

20131015_143659Twin pots boiling simultaneously.

After some heavy boiling, I will strain the juice and let that boil down and thicken. Then I will quickly transfer the liquids to a freezer and hope to find crystals gather on the surface.


Recipe 1 – Map

I will be basing my first Turkey Red attempts with this first recipe from Wikipedia.

1786 recipe from Manchester dyer



  • White argol – Potassium bitartrate, aka. Cream of Tartar:
    Mineral crystals that are found naturally in grapes. Grapes can be found in growing wild along the Chicago River. Fall is also grape season, and you would not believe the amount of surplus at the end of the Farmer’s Markets.
  • Olive oil – Vegetable oil: Refuse vegetable oil can be collected from restaurants after use.
  • Lye of Barilla/ wood ash – Wood ash: Wood ash can be produced through the burning of scrap wood and mulch from the Bureau of Forestry maintenance. Free pick-up sites are located throughout the city.
  • Sheep’s dung – Horse manure:
    Horse manure from local stables can be a rich soil amendment and is commonly used for compost for urban agriculture. Ask local farms or visit horse stables in and around Chicago for manure, including the city’s police horse stables.

  • Gall nut – Wasp gall on Oak: Galls are formed around the eggs of wasps on Oak trees. They are high in tannic acids and have been long used for inks and dyes. Oak trees grow throughout the city’s public parks.