Colour: red, glorious red

I have always loved red. Scarlet, russet, vermillion, deep ruby red – and all the other variations on a theme. It lifts and contrasts; it draws the attention, and it also draws the attention to all the other colours around it.

When I was about six, in a foretaste of what was to come, I begged my mother to make me a party dress with long sleeves and in an unusual fabric for a six year old to choose: white with a striking pattern of large black and red flowers. Fair play to her, she did it, and I adored it. And as an alleged adult, I’ve devoted an unhealthy amount of time to finding exactly the right shade of red lippy (and then tracking down a replacement when Lancome discontinued it).

At least I’m far from being alone. Ask people to name a colour instantly, without thinking about it, and most of them will say ‘red’. This immediate impact might be partly because of our physiology: the red end of the spectrum is easily and ‘most infallibly’ distinguished by humans, which is why warning lights and signs are usually red.

Red tells you to be careful, to be aware, to watch your step.

In the UK, letter boxes have traditionally been painted red, but they were originally green. People complained ceaselessly about colliding with green pillar boxes, so the colour was changed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Of course not everyone was happy, but most of the complaints were then about the red fading into a dull pink, not about the red itself.

Red is an ancient colour, not just as ochre painted on cave walls, but also in textiles. All over the world, wherever dyed fabrics have survived from a very early date, red is present – from Egyptian mummy wrappings to textiles from burial mounds in the Russian steppe.

It’s often been associated with power, too. The Incas of Peru had no system of writing which could convey important messages, but they did need to send them. Runners memorised messages and took them all over the Inca empire, but if the message was complicated the runner carried knotted cords. These were in a variety of colours and knot combinations, giving them different meanings. Red cords represented the Inca emperor, his armies and his people.

Of course, power and women go together (!), and red is unavoidably associated with female status in traditional dress. It’s a wedding colour in many parts of the world, and is often used to convey information. In traditional Palestinian costume, for example, lavish red embroidery was a sign of marital status and what one commentator calls ‘full womanhood’.

It also revealed where you lived or came from. Particular areas, towns and villages had their own preferred shades, though these have changed over time. In the late nineteenth century an orangey-red was popular in Ramallah, but later on this changed to a rather deep pink; women in Jaffa went for scarlet and crimson.

(Embroidered Palestinian dress from the area of Jaffa, from the Palestinian Embroidery website)

The colour of Palestinian embroidery still has meaning today, possibly even more meaning. In the late 1990s one shopkeeper in Jordan was reported as quickly being able to select exactly the right colour for a refugee customer depending on where her family had originally come from: a woman from Hebron would want one specific shade of DMC cotton, while someone from elsewhere would need another. A particular red can define identity, a place in the world.

And in many languages the word for ‘red’ also means ‘beautiful’ – or even ‘colour’ itself. I suddenly understood why that was so this winter, when we’d been frozen solid for days. It stopped snowing, and I went out to take photographs in the garden – and then I saw one left-over rose hip. Everything else was white, black, brown or grey, but here was a sharp shock of colour in an almost entirely monochrome world.

And it was wonderful.

Maybe that delightful contrast was part of the reason why I’d been so insistent on my white, black and red party dress, and perhaps that’s why I often knit in red even though I usually wear black.

A red shawl over a black polo neck – that’s almost the same kind of effect… And here’s one of my Ishbels, knitted in some gorgeous Manos del Uruguay yarn (I think – I can’t find it in my notebook). I couldn’t bear to give it away.

Ah well. A longish post, but I do love red. And tomorrow I’m due to have the cortisone injections in my hand which may help it recover, but I have to rest it afterwards. (Inspired by the idea of shawls, I’ve just been fondling my laceweight, hoping to bring about a positive outcome by positive thinking – let’s see if it works!)


6 thoughts on “Colour: red, glorious red

  1. Anne

    I love red but funnily enough don’t wear much of it, maybe I should ? !!!
    Love the red jacket in your last post , I looked at that last year on Louise’s stand but didn’t buy 😦 Are you making it in the free pattern she had too?

    1. kate Post author

      I tried it on – and it was lovely – but it was moss stitch and I didn’t think I could handle (argh, sorry about that pun) it. I was sorely tempted though – it’s still on my ‘to do’ list…

    1. kate Post author

      I thought you might be another red addict – after all, look at the colour of those socks (even if you were giving them away!)

  2. naperie

    There’s a Palestinian dress yoke on display at the Ashmolean in Oxford that’s very similar in palette to the dress you’ve posted. It’s almost impossibly red. I couldn’t work out how it was so red until I sat and painstakingly recorded all the colours, just to try and work it out.

    I counted 5 different reds in it, plus orange, gold and violet. The careful proportion of colours against details in black and grey in the pattern really made the red sing. Real artistry ~Fiona

    1. kate Post author

      The next time I’m in the Oxford area I must pop in… I was blown away by an exhibition of Palestinian dress years ago; the embroidery really sticks in your mind, doesn’t it? Fascinating…


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