Dyes - associated products


Mordants were used in the dyeing of cloth. They help to 'fix' the dye to the cloth and stop it washing out.


Originally the secret of the Arabs and Turks, alum was then discovered near Rome in the 15th century at which point it became a Papal monopoly – English dyers being forced to buy from there. There were a lot of problems especially when Henry VIII had a row with the pope because he wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, and the Vatican cut off our supply.

Fortunately for the textile industry in England, alum was discovered in Guisborough, Yorkshire by Chaloner in 1606 and the first successful alum works were established.

It was quarried in vast quantities from the shale on the coast, piled up in huge heaps up to 15 metres high on brushwood and gorse and set alight. These heaps could burn for up to a year. It was then steeped in water and the resulting liquor drawn off and sent to the alum works close by. Dog faeces (known as 'pure' – pure gatherers collected it from the streets and kennels) were also added to the mix. There it was heated and an alkili added – usually urine. It was judged ready when an egg would float on it.


Lant cart at Helmshore Mill

 Human urine contains a substance called urea which decomposes to form ammonia. It was used throughout the textile industry – from cleaning the raw wool to acting as a mordant for the finished cloth. It was therefore a hugely valuable commodity.

Lant, as it was known, was collected locally from pots people left on their doorsteps and collecting places in the streets. Lant troughs can still be seen in the hills around Calderdale. Titus Salt installed indoor toilets at Salts Mill in Bradford with separate cubicles for redheads and Methodists – their's was considered to be of better quality – the Methodists as there would be no alcohol in it and redheads from some obscure reason not known to us.

This was never enough, especially for the Alum industry,where it was brought in from Newcastle and Hull – and then later on shipped up from London. In November and December 1612, 16,000 gallons of "country urine" and 13,000 gallons of "London urine" were taken to the alum works at Sandsend.

It is said that this is where the expression 'taking the piss' comes from – andthepoliter version 'taking the mick' coming from taking the micturation.

Urine still has its uses – from peeing in the compost heap where it is excellent as an activator, to the rehydration of rations by US soldiers.

Genuine Harris Tweed is made from pure virgin wool produced in Scotland, spun, dyed and finished in Outer Hebrides and hand-woven by the islanders at their own homes in the Islands of Lewis , Harris, Uist, Barra and their several purtenances and all known as the Outer Hebrides. Urine would of course be used in its manufacture which perhaps gives rise to the story of the faint whiff of urine in the House of Lords on a damp rainy day.


This was sometimes known as Green Vitriol and was used as a mordant for dyeing cloth. Originally manufactured in the East, it became established in Italy, again becoming a monopoly. Under Henry and Elizabeth, state subisdies were offered for its development.

It is obtained from iron pyrites and the method of maufacture was to lay out the stones on a sloping bed dug into a hillside, on a bed of clayor chalk and left, often for several years. The pyrites gradually broke down and a liquor which, was a weak sulphuric acid was gradullay released and flowed down boarded channels to be collected in a cistern where it was boiled. It was then left to cool and the Copperas formed as crystals

Copperas was primarlily produced in the south and there were big Copperas works at Tankerton in Kent which have since been excavated – the industry there has since developed into the mega chemical industry of Whitstable.

As the textile industry grew up north, there were many Copperas wokrs established around the north, including Todmorden. Here, the river running down the Bacup valley was red with iron pyrites from the clao fields of east Lancs. It was an obvious opportunity to establish the Copperas works at Gauxholme between Todmorden and Walsden which Abraham and Thomas Crossley did.


Other allied trades and items


dipsacus-sativus_324 Photo Nathan Havers.metmuseum.jpg
The true Fullers teasel Photo by Nathan Havers, Met Museum

There are two species of teasel – the true Fullers teasel which has slightly barbed ends to the spines and the ordinary or wild teasel which doesn't.

Most teasels, found all over Yorkshire very often on waste land, are the wild kind.

It is known that teasels were grown in Yorkshire for the fulling industry as this picture shows.

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Teasel gatherers by George Walker. It is thought that this scene was painted at Sherburn in Elmet, near Leeds

The teasels were used to raise the nap on the fulled cloth and were originally set into a hand frame and later into a gig mill. There is an excellent gig mill to be seen at Helmshore Mill in Lancashire.

Machines with metal 'teasels' were later developed but often discounted because they could not retain the quality of the fabric – they would tend to catch the threads, creating holes. Melhiuishes, in Delph, still use teasels for raising the nap on the top quality cloth they produce and import several milliona year from Spain.

Teasel mill at Helmshore Mill


Bobbin manufacture was an important allied trade to the textile industry – producing bobbins for the spinning mills.

Most of the beech trees in Calderdale e.g. at Judy Woods, were planted for bobbin production.

The Bobbin Mill at Cornholme was originally at Houghstones Mill in the Wickenberry Clough near Todmorden.

Children were very often employed in placing or 'ligging' the bobbins on the frame and 'doffing' or taking them off.