Early medieval Estonia's favorite color was 'blackish blue'

Woad blue was the most enduring textile color of the period.
Woad blue was the most enduring textile color of the period. Source: Mervi Pasanen

Textile finds from the early medieval period indicate that the most popular color in Estonia was "blackish-blue." While the blue hue was achieved by using imported compounds, the dark-purple shade was added to it through a mixing of native plants, Riina Rammo, an archaeologist at the University of Tartu explained.

The majority of medieval clothing found in Estonia comes from women's burial sites. Their garments were intricately adorned with metal ornaments, which helped in preserving the fabric in the soil. Riina Rammo, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Tartu, said that the fashionable color of the period was certainly blackish-blue. 

"We have information [on the fabrics worn] in the Estonian region from the 11th up to the 15th century. From then on I dare not say whether it was still a fashionable color, but in that period it was certainly the most popular one for festive occasions, especially for women," she said.

In collaboration with Finnish colleagues Krista Wright and Mervi Pasanen, she has completed a preliminary analysis of how this blue hue is obtained. The blue hue of the fabric is derived from indigotin-based dyestuff. Organic indigo is a powder from the leaves of the indigo plant called Indigofera tinctoria, one of the oldest dyes known to humankind. It is the only natural blue. However, it did not reach Estonia until the 17th century.

According to Rammo, in this region during the early Middle Ages, indigo was derived from a mustard family plant from central and western Europe, woad (Isatis tinctoria L.), to which local plants were added in northern Estonia and southern Finland, respectively. 

Dark blue fabric fragment from Pudivere deposit find. Source: R. Rammo

European prestige

The woad (Isatis tinctoria) is a biennial plant about a meter tall with yellow flowers, which nowadays also grows in coastal areas and islands in Estonia. "It's not what we would call a native plant, which would have been growing wild here since the Ice Age, but it has been introduced, probably as a weed," Rammo explains. The archaeologist Jüri Peets has also suggested that it arrived here in connection with the revival of trade in the Middle Ages or later.

"We have no ethnographic reports indicating that the woad that grows naturally here was used for dyeing," Rammo said. It was introduced in Estonian territories in a semi-manufactured form: it is known that from the 13th century onward, the plant started to be widely cultivated in Europe. It was formed into pellets, which were then dried, sliced into pieces, and fermented. The finished product was used as the foundation for a dye solution.

Since ancient times, woad (Isatis tincotria) was an important source of blue dye and was cultivated throughout Europe. Source: Stefan.lefnaer 7 CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

"There are medieval depictions of merchants with a bag full of woad balls. Recipes and written sources on the trade have also survived - although only more widely from the 13th century onward," the associate professor said. According to her, it is unknown exactly how and where trade in blue dye took place in 11th and 12th-century Estonia.

While archaeologists were already aware of the usage of woad, the discovery that other dyes had been added to the foreign pigment in northern Estonia and southern Finland was new. "Either different dye mixtures were made, where the textile was dyed in succession, or several substances were combined in one dye solution," the co-professor suggested.

At the moment, only a preliminary analysis has been completed, and it is not yet clear, which dyes were added to the woad. Rammo said that her team is currently speculating that it could have been a native species of lichen, the Lasallia pustulata. "It is possible to get slightly reddish and bluish purple tones from this lichen. Combined with a woad, it can add a darker shade," she said. It should be noted that in Estonia, the lichen is protected and cannot be harvested.

However, the goal of people in the past may have been to produce the darkest shade possible. "Woad blue was the most enduring textile color of the period. It stayed on the fabric, didn't come off in the wash and was not afraid of fading," the co-professor explained. Also, the fact that the dye's raw ingredient was imported from afar may have made the blue color more prestigious to the wearer.

Remains of a headpiece from an early 17th century. Source: Edgar Laksa

A well-forgotten old

The study is just one of the first steps in a wider EU-supported international project "Colour4CRAFTS", which brings together scientific disciplines with modern product development. "The aim is to develop, in cooperation with companies and textile chemists, new dyeing technologies that would be applicable today, but at the same time sustainable," Rammo said. For example, new methods could use significantly less water than current ones.

The textile tradition on the eastern shore of the Baltic provides inspiration and new materials for creating new technologies, the co-professor said. The natural dye sources used here have been slightly different from those used in central Europe. "It is lichens and tree bark that provide inspiration for chemists developing new dyes in laboratories that can be applied using these water-free methods," Rammo continued.

As part of the project, she and her colleagues will test old recipes and put together a reference collection of samples. "Comparing the results of analyses of today's samples with those of the past should tell us what was used to dye the textiles." The trouble, she said, is that native plants used in Estonia may not be found in European reference collections and so have remained unidentified. "That's why it's so exciting that we can focus on a specific region and the color plants found here," she said.

The yarn is dyed with woad dye. Source: Mervi Pasanen

The picture is not quite even throughout Estonia. The textile culture of early medieval northern Estonia is very similar in technology to that of south-western and southern Finland. At the same time, the medieval Siksälä region in the south-eastern corner of southern Estonia stands out for its distinctive textile culture, which has similarities with the Latvian area. "There, apparently, only woad was used. Again, this is a very interesting difference that should be studied in the future," Rammo said.

She is also interested to find out what other colors, besides blue, were used in Estonia at the end of the Middle Ages. For example, she would like to know why not many yellow-colored garments were worn here: "I got the impression that yellow was not used very much in our region - it wasn't a color that have been appreciated." She said that the yellows and browns are very poorly preserved in the soil, so her impression may be a preservation misconception.

"Both what colors are used and how they are perceived are linked to cultural beliefs. We cannot, for example, transfer discoveries made in Denmark directly to the Estonian context. I'd still like to have that chemical proof of what has been used here," Rammo said.

Riina Rammo and colleagues wrote about their work in the collection "Interdisciplinary Approaches to Research of North and Central European Archaeological Textiles. The Proceedings of the North European Symposium for Archeological Textiles."


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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