From dyer’s craft secrecy to openness: causes of the degradation of the black dye method in the Northern Low Countries in the seventeenth century
Kins, Laura van
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In the mid-seventeenth century, the Northern Netherlandish textile cities decided to no longer oblige their dyers to dye their high-quality product broadcloth black with the highest quality dyestuff woad and indigo overdyed with madder. Instead, they allowed to dye with tannins and metal salts that damaged the broadcloth and produced a lower quality dye. Given that the economic success of this product was based on the reputation of the exclusive, highest quality dye, this seems like an extremely illogical move. This thesis investigates why this black dye degradation happened in the mid-seventeenth century. It suggests that one of the causes was a power shift from city government to dyer, partly in the transition from dyer’s craft secrecy to openness. The incorrect idea that the cause behind the degradation was a changing fashion from a desaturated, purplish black to a saturated, deep black is debunked. The core of the decision to degrade in dye methods lies in the power relationship between city governments and dyers and their opposed interests with regards to the materials. The city governments, aiming to protect the broadcloth’s reputation, preferred the use of woad or indigo and madder, which are materials that were cost, skill, and time intensive, but gave a light- and washfast colour and did not affect the broadcloth. The dyers on the other hand preferred to use tannins and metal salts, that produced a less durable dye but were lower in cost, skill, and time. City governments enforced the use of woad or indigo and madder until the dyers’ objection became too strong to resist. When the legislation was changed in the mid-seventeenth century, it was a matter of the city government giving in to the dyers’ demand because they no longer exercised sufficient power to enforce the rule. This loss of power runs like a thread through the following four developments that have already been found to be causes for innovation in the dyer’s workshop, including the black dye degradation. These are the pressing economic competition, the arrival of Southern Netherlandish textile workers, the shift in textile production towards low-quality fabrics, and the introduction of unknown dye materials from the New World. This thesis offers a new additional cause for the degradation by describing the change from dyer’s craft secrecy to openness as a shift in power from the city governments to the dyers. When the city governments could no longer enforce craft secrecy, dyers gained more control over their craft knowledge. This openness of craft knowledge is further seen in the simultaneous spread of black dye recipes using tannins and metal salts in print culture. One manuscript in particular gives the impression that dyeing could be practised as an elite artistic pastime.