Yellow should be one of the easier colors to obtain, right? After all, aren’t a lot of flowers yellow?
Well, yes. I can think of two plants right off the bat that grow in the US: showy goldenrod and tickseed sunflower, that produce yellow dyes. That fabric must be premordanted with alum – and yes, alum was used in Colonial times for a variety of purposes. The tickseed produces a strong orange but the goldenrod gives a bright sunny yellow.
The flowers must be collected. For tickseed, put in hot water but do not simmer or boil, for 1 – 2 hours. Strain out the flowers and add the cloth or fiber. Soak for an hour or so. The process for goldenrod is similar, except that the water should be simmering and the flower simmered in the water for 1 – 2 hours. Once the plant material is removed, the fiber can be added and simmered in the dye bath again, until the desired color is attained.
In Colonial times, however, the source for yellow was something called ‘fustic’. Never heard of fustic? Well, it was so important that at one time the English enacted a law stating that the logs from which fustic is obtained could not be shipped into any Colony except by British ships. Fustic is derived from the wood of a tropical American tree (Chlorophora tinctoria), a member of the mulberry family. Sometimes the wood was called dyer’s mulberry.
It arrived in the form of logs which were chipped into small fragments. Usually, after being tied in a bag, they were soaked in water for two or three days before going into the dye bath.
Fustic was usually mordanted with alum and cream of tartar (yes, the same stuff one uses in a scratch cake). It was not a bright yellow, and some Colonial sources describe it as faintly orange (fustic was also used for drab colors) but it stood up well to washing and light. Fustic was also used regularly in compound colors: with indigo to make green, with red to make red oranges and so on.
Not bad for a material most of us have never heard of.