William Morris & The Indigo Discharge Dye Technique

25th April 2016

Over the years, on this blog, we’ve discussed many aspects of William Morris’ life and the achievements he had and the designs he produced, however one aspect of these designs he produced as part of Morris & Co. is the techniques he used to print these, in terms of his dyeing method. These methods are complex and took a great level of skill from Morris, whenever we research something in his life that he dedicated such lengths of time to becoming a master at it, we always wonder how he got so much done in his 62 years; from his university degree from Oxford, to becoming an architect, artist, designer, poet… the list goes on!

His research into the use of natural dyes are amongst the most remarkable of these achievements; without becoming a master at these, he wouldn’t have been able to produce the beautifully intricate designs that that he did, in the colour ways and depths that he did. As with many of the crafts he took up, he viewed the dyeing method as endangered and fought to revive it; he spoke so passionately about it, in such a detailed manner that his daughter May said of his essay, “Of Dyeing as an art” that once read, even a complete novice would be able to produce these colours from the dye-pots after reading it!

strawberry thief apron

What Morris wanted to achieve were naturally brilliant, fast yet soft colours, which were hard at the time as dyes were made by commercial aniline dyes made from coal tar which produced harsh strident colours. Morris hugely disliked these colours, not just for their colouring but for how they reacted in the years after printing as they changed beyond recognition and faded with time.

During this time, since these aniline dyes were so popular, Morris had to go back to the start and so researched French dyers’ manuals. When May Morris spoke about this period, she recalled how she’d spent time with her father reading Gerard’s “Herbal,” she said how influential this was on Morris and compares Lily as reminiscent of Gerard’s work.

Morris also reached out to George Wardle who was his business manager, who’s family were originally silk dyers, so George’s brother Thomas, who was based in Leek, Staffordshire who printed many of Morris’s chintzes before he moved to Merton Abbey. He was therefore able to help out Morris in his quest to become skilled in the craft, and eventually Morris devised his formula for vegetable dyes; from the book, “William Morris” by Helen Dore, we know what he used to create these colours, “blue from indigo and woad; red from the insects kermis and cochineal and the plant madder; yellow from the weld, poplar, osier, birch, broom and quercitron; brown from walnut tree roots.” We know this due to the detail he wrote about it in his Arts and Crafts essay.


Indigo, which he used to print designs such as Eyebright, Strawberry Thief and Brother Rabbit, was the trickiest to use; it actually took three days to prepare and had to be extremely accurate; it was therefore the most arduous and time consuming method. We can learn of the complete process he used from his writings in an early 20th century Morris and Co. catalogue, “The cloth is first dyed all over in an indigo vat to a uniform depth of blue, and is then printed with a bleaching reagent which either reduces or removes the colour as required by the design. Mordants are next printed on the bleached parts and others where red is wanted, and the whole length of the material is then immersed in madder vat calculated to give the proper tint. This process is repeated for the yellow, the three colours being superimposed on each other to give green, purple and orange. All loose colouring matter is then cleared away and the colours are set by passing the fabric through soap at almost boiling point. The final treatment in the process is to lay the cloth flat on the grass, with its printed face to the light, so that the whites in the designs may be completely purified, and all fugitive colour removed in nature’s own way.”


Photo Credit: Collection of Merton Library Services

The indigo discharge method carried on into when Morris moved into Merton Abbey, the advantage of ready-built premises, soft water and beautiful surroundings made Merton Abbey a productive and enjoyable place to work, the water perfect for use for the dye. “The move to Merton Abbey began in June 1881 with the erecting of fabric and carpet looms, the equipping of the glass painters’ shop and setting up of dye vats and printing tables and it was not until 1882 that indigo discharge dying was put into production. Indigo discharge cottons are easy to recognise as the blue dye can always be seen on the back of the cloth.”- William Morris Textiles, Linda Parry. By that December, William Hillier, the firm’s blocker had successfully printed Brother Rabbit, which is one of our latest, and most loved design for Laura’s Beau.

brother rabbit