Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Drab Colors & Quercitron

Quilt with a ruffle of yellow-ground chintz
Spencer Museum of Art
University of Kansas
The long-lasting yellow dye may have been quercitron.

One fashionable chintz for furnishings and early quilts was known as drab style. My dictionary still defines drab as a light olive brown, but today's common meaning is dull or commonplace.

Detail of a whole-cloth quilt
from the Bidwell House Museum in Massachusetts

Camden, South Carolina, 1820
Wools in Drab or Bottle Green
 (Drab was olive green)

In 1812 drab style meant a color scheme of mustard yellows, olive greens and browns, a palette derived from a dye called quercitron, which can be printed with mordants similar to the way madder is printed. Different mordants produce different shades of green, brown and yellow.

Fabric sample from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Do a search for drab style in the Victoria and Albert database.
Describing quercitron’s color scheme as drab style confuses us because there is nothing dull or commonplace about it. Bright mustards set against dark brown grounds with shades of olive green and touches of blue can be quite vivid.

The quilt on the cover of the Massachusetts Quilts
book has a border of drab-style chintz,
 a fashionable early 19th-century look.

Cut out chintz framed by a floral
with the distinctive quercitron yellow background.
Unlike other natural yellow dyes, quercitron yellow was colorfast.

The colors came from a dye new to Europeans.  About 1785 Englishman Edward Bancroft visited Massachusetts and found Americans using yellow dye from the bark of the North American black oak tree. He obtained an English patent for black oak bark and coined the word ‘quercitron" from the Latin quercus for oak and citrina, probably referring to a yellow fruit. When Bancroft’s fifteen-year patent expired in 1800, British mills created a rage for the dye called "bark" in the trade. It was inexpensive; it was colorfast and the color combinations were novel.

Drab-style dress print in the center

Fabric historians have defined drab style in different ways. Peter Floud, once curator of textiles at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, limited it to green, brown, yellow and blue derived from quercitron. Florence Montgomery at the Winterthur Museum wrote that it is really the absence of reds and purples that defines drab.

Drab roses and red roses

Dyers could print cotton in querictron's shades first and then print in madder to obtain the full range of colors from yellow and green through red and purple, but this doubling of techniques was expensive. Montgomery noted it was rarely done. However, Heather Hansen in her 2011 thesis The Quest for Quercitron cites Bancroft's own writing:
"In many cases, madder colours are mixed in the same piece with those of the bark..."

Mixing quercitron and madder printing methods was probably common, but the wide spectrum of color might have been thought of as a full-chintz palette. "Drab-style" defined a print with only quercitron or bark colors.

Jeremy Adamson dated the English fad for drab prints to 1800-1812 but it seem to have continued in American quilts through the first quarter and into the 1830s and ‘40s.

The idea of yellow and brown color combination, whatever the dyestuff, is often found in early patchwork.

Read Heather Hansen's 2011 thesis The Quest for Quercitron: Revealing the Story of a Forgotten Dye. She's studied the dye extensively and Bancroft's dashing life (he was a spy and has been accused of murder.) She also includes many samples of drab-style prints.
Click here and download the PDF:


WoolenSails said...

I like the drab shades, and in yellow and brown, that would be a nice quilt to make. I find it hard to find good drab yellows or golds in the shops.


Jan said...

These drabs always please my eye. Thanks for writing about them, and for the links.

Judith said...

Thank you for this wonderful fabric history, and the link to more information. Your site is a real gift!