I don’t care for black and never use it when I am dyeing. It is a color that requires care in use. It simply takes over. Overdyeing usually results in a mottled black so using black dye means strictly controlling it.
But of course black was used, in fact it was required. Black was already the color of mourning by Colonial times, even if the rules decreeing social behavior weren’t as strict as they became later on in the Victorian era.
Depending upon the mordants, some of the natural dyes produce charcoal. Staghorn Sumac, for example, which dyes fiber a soft brown, (and does not need to be mordanted since it is full of tannin) will dye charcoal if the fiber is mordanted with iron water.
Black walnut and black walnut do not dye black either, despite the names. Black willow bark (which will not dye cotton – in fact, many natural dyes do not do well on cotton) produces a light brown to a rose tan upon wool when mordanted with alum. Black walnut, which is full of tannin and does not require additional mordanting, produces a rich brown.
So where does one find black? The dye of choice came from logwood, a tree that is native to Mexico and Central America. The British successfully propagated the species to Jamaica and the West Indies as well. Logwood was sold by apothacaries and in general stores, usually as logs since customers feared adulteration. However, a Pennsylvania newspaper advertised in 1798 that chipped logwood ( produced by Philadelphia prison inmantes ) could be had at reasonable rates.
Only the reddish heartwood was used. The chipped wood was dampened and then gathered in a sack and immersed in the dye kettle. After boiling for twenty minutes, the sack was removed and the fabric was submerged into the dyebath. Logwood could be used on silk, wool and yes, cotton, with the hues varying ( as usual) depending upon the mordant. Logwood could be used to dye textiles navy blue and was a much cheaper alternative to indigo, although not as colorfast.
Black was a compund color and other dyes such as fustic were used to produce black. It too was not wonderfully colorfast. However, anyone who has ever worn black jeans and watched them fade can attest to the poor colorfastness of current black synthetic dyes as well.
Logwood was important for dyeing right up to the beginning of World War II.