ExhibitionsWorld of Red

Museum Exhibition 2013

Red has been an ever present, even predominant, colour in textiles around the world from the earliest times when the secret of extracting the colour from plants and insects and of using it to dye fibres was first found. Mummies found in Central Asia, some dating back as much as 4000 years, wear clothing which has been remarkably well preserved. Many of these textiles are still coloured a strong and clear red.

Madder was one of the early red plant dyes and has been found on linen in the tomb of Tutankhamen. The so-called Pazyryk Rug, excavated in the Atlas Mountains, is densely knotted and richly decorated against a background of madder red. It is in the Hermitage Museum where it is dated to the 5th to 4th centuries BC. Textiles from the Peruvian Paracas culture of 900-200 BC were coloured with madder.

Madder took readily to wool and other animal fibres but was more difficult when dealing with plant fibres. It is not known how the early people achieved this. However, from the 16th century, a colour known as ‘Turkey Red’ came into use. Based on madder, Turkey red was a very fast dye for cotton. First developed in India, it resulted from a complicated process taking weeks to complete and involving ‘oak galls, calf’s blood, sheep dung, oil, soda, alum and a solution of tin’.

Another early red dye was kermes. Kermes was a scale insect that lived on certain oaks, and a similar insect that lived on the roots of some plants. Jars of kermes have been found in a Neolithic cave burial. It was very valued in the Middle Ages until it was replaced by Cochineal which was a much stronger dye.

Cochineal, another insect dye, is obtained from a parasitic scale insect which lives on the prickly pear cactus of central and southern America. It has been found to have been used by the Indians for dyeing textiles as long ago as 1000 BC. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Mayan and Aztec people were using the cochineal dye. The Spanish realised the value of this dyestuff and from the mid-sixteenth century a thriving export trade existed.

Among its uses, was the dyeing of textiles, notably the red coats of military uniforms. With the introduction of synthetic dyes in the latter part of the 19th century, the demand for cochineal dwindled. However, it is still used extensively as a colouring for foodstuffs and medicines and for cosmetics, particularly lipstick.

In an attempt to establish a cochineal industry in Australia, Captain Phillip collected cochineal-infected plants from Brazil. The cochineal insects did not survive but the prickly pear host pant flourished in plague proportions to overrun vast tracts of land. Another unfortunate result came about a little earlier when Swedish botanist, Carl von Linne, was able with considerable difficulty, to import a cactus loaded with living cochineal scale insects. This was delivered to the botanic gardens where the gardener, finding the plant to be full of vermin, rinsed it clean!

Over the years, the colour red has taken on a symbolic significance. However, it has very different meanings in different cultures. While blue stood for the sky, red came to represent the earth. Red, the colour of fire and blood, was associated with war and power, strength and courage, anger and danger. But it also represented life and vitality, passion and love, prosperity and longevity.

A Syrian woman may embroider her traditional dress in red because it is the colour of joy, of wealth, of summer and symbolises the desire for a long life. It may increase fertility and protect from the evil eye. In China, brides wear red as the colour of prosperity and joy and to bring good luck; while in Africa, it is the colour for mourning.

Today, textile workers of many cultures may choose red because of its symbolic significance or simply because it has become traditional to do so. As embroiderers, we may choose red because it is appealing and suits our chosen design.

In our culture, red is used to attract attention and as a warning. Red lights mean stop: danger signals and stop signs are always in red. Red is used in advertising to catch the eye, drawing the viewer’s attention to whatever is being promoted.

However, many of the symbolic meanings of red have become part of our language. We speak of ‘seeing red’, ‘in the red’, ‘red herring’, red letter day’, ‘red light district’, ‘paint the town red’, ‘red flag’, ‘red nark’, ‘not worth a red cent’ and ‘scarlet woman’.

Deirdre Scott. Curator


Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Mummies of Urumchi
Bennett, Ian (ed). Rugs and Carpets of the World
Ciba ‘Review’ March 1938
Finlay, Victoria. Colour
Hermitage Museum Web Site
Sandberg, Costa. The Red Dyes