Stinky Snails and the Color Purple

Queen Elizabeth I in Purple - Unknown Artist

Queen Elizabeth I royally dressed in purple.

Purple has been the color of royalty since, well,​ pretty much forever.  In the ancient cultures around the Mediterranean Sea, purple was the color of kings, nobles, priests and magistrates.  The tradition continued through the centuries, and Queen Elizabeth I forbade anyone but royalty to wear purple.  The truth is that the rarity and cost of the purple dye made it unlikely that anyone except royalty could afford to wear it anyway. 

Purple dye comes from the Bolinus brandaris, a small sea snail that only lives in the Tyre region of the Mediterranean Sea (which is why purple was often called "Tyrian" purple).  The snail secretes a milky mucous that is clear underwater but becomes a deep purple when exposed to air.  The snail uses the mucus to sedate prey, and it is also secreted when the snail is disturbed or scared, similar to an octopus' cloud of ink.  Dyers can collect the mucus by "milking" the snails by poking them and then collecting the mucus.  It's labor intensive, but doesn't hurt the snail.  Or the dyer can crush the snail, which is easier but also kills it. 

Now, repeat that 9,000 times.  The Bolinus brandaris snail is small, and it takes about 9,000 snails to collect just one gram of dye.  No wonder purple dye was prohibitively expensive!

Extracting the dye from the snail is a slow and stinky process.  How great would you smell after "milking" sea animals all day?  And archeological evidence suggests it was more common to extract the dye by allowing the snails to die and then decompose.  In ancient times, dyers set up their vats of decomposing snails on the edge of Tyre, because the smell was so awful it couldn't be allowed in town.

In 1909 Harvard anthropologist studied the history of the purple dying process and reproduced the ancient method himself, stating that the purple dyed cloth he studied had a "disagreeable ... strong fishy smell, which appears to be as lasting as the color itself."  The stench of the dying process (and the dyer!) was so disgusting that the Talmud allowed Jewish women to divorce a husband who had become a dyer after marriage.  

Queen Victoria in Purple - The_Secret_of_Englands_Greatness_Queen_Victoria_presenting_a_Bible_in_the_Audience_Chamber_at_Windsor - by Thomas Jones Barker - 1863

Queen Victoria in 1863. Even after the invention of chemical dyes made purple dye widely available purple still remained a royal color. 

If purple dye is so difficult and expensive to produce, how is it that us commoners can wear it today?​  You can thank William Henry Perkin, who was quite possibly the world's first chemistry nerd.  In 1856, at age 18, a professor gave Perkins the challenge to synthetically produce quinine, a very expensive malarial treatment made from the bark of a tree.  He failed in his attempt to reproduce quinine, but one of his failures created a deep purple substance.

Perkin was also a budding artist, and immediately liked the color and saw the potential of the substance as a fabric dye.  It turns out Perkins was also a shrewd businessman.  He patented the process for making purple dye and mauve dye (an entirely new color!) and was commercially successful.  For the first time ever, inexpensive purple fabric was available to anyone.

Do you want to look as regal as a queen draped in purple - but without stinking like decomposing fish?  We can help you!  The Queen's Shawlette is an elegant shawl with simple cables and an easy mesh lace, knit with the glorious hand dyed Mountain Color's Fever River Lite yarn.  The Queen's Robe colorway is royal purple with hints of spring green and fuscia - and not a single stinky snail was used in the dying process.  You'll look great and smell great in the Queen's Shawlette!

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

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