When I started to think about what colour I should think about next, the choice was obvious in one way – I’ve already looked at the three primary colours and two of the three secondaries – but it wasn’t at all obvious in another. Purple is the missing colour, and I don’t really ‘do’ purple.
Then I had a good look at what I am – very laboriously – knitting at the moment, in Noro Blossom.
No, of course I don’t do purple. Not in the slightest.
How is this possible? Purple is – well, it’s so purple. So I got out the stash, and I found more. Much more… and then I realised there was a lot of purple in the garden too, at almost all seasons of the year – there’s even some right now. I’m surrounded by it. I popped down to the shop and the new fascia of our village post office is – you guessed it – purple. How has purple suddenly become so common, almost without me noticing it?
At the moment, it’s just a phase. Give it a couple of years and the shop will be blue, or red, or green. Like all colours, purple has gone through phases since the discovery of synthetic dyes in the nineteenth century – sometimes it’s been seen as vulgar; sometimes it’s been seen as luxurious.
And some shades (notably those with more grey in them) have almost always been respectable. I seem to do the lot.
Except I don’t, of course.
Going back well before William Henry Perkin and the discovery of synthetic purple, the colour was marked by its association with wealth and status. Everyone knows – well, everyone with an interest in textiles, that is – about the Romans and purple: senators with their purple stripe on their togas; emperors swathed in robes of this most precious, sea shell-derived colour. In actual fact, the Roman purple could be quite disappointing. Here is Pliny on the colour:
‘…it illuminates every garment and shares with gold the glory of the triumph. For these reasons we must pardon the mad desire for purple, but why the high prices for … a dye with an offensive smell and a hue which is dull and greenish, like an angry sea?’
There were long periods when only the emperor and his immediate family could wear entirely purple robes, and throughout time purple is probably the single most legislated-about colour (Nero punished anyone who breached his sumptuary laws about it with death). It could even be too expensive for emperors: Aurelian had to tell his wife that they couldn’t afford the purple dress she wanted.
(I’d have been fine, because I don’t do purple.)
The reason it was so pricy was because it took vast quantities of shellfish (usually Murex and Purpura) to dye even the smallest amount of fabric. In fact, nearly 10,000 individual animals for a single gram of dye. And they had to be really fresh. And the way they were used was complex, too – for instance, they had to be broken as part of the dyeing process, and in just the right way to get at the dye sack (that makes it possible to distinguish the shells from food remains). When the dye comes out it’s actually a yellowish white; oxidation turns it purple.
The trade brought enormous wealth to Phoenician cities – as always, the merchants and traders of the ancient world par excellence – especially in the Levant. The scale of it can be judged even today, by the many layers of crushed shells which still remain at places like Tyre – the imperial colour was often referred to as Tyrian purple – and Sidon in what is now Lebanon, and at Tarentum in southern Italy.
But purple is older than Ancient Rome, of course. Layers of crushed shells have been found on Minoan – Bronze Age – sites on the island of Crete, and at Akrotiri (the ‘Minoan Pompeii’) on the island of Thera. They come from another old site, too. Ugarit is on the coast of Syria, opposite the long pointy bit of Cyprus, and there an apparent dye pot has also been found, still stained with purple. More broken-shell mounds and deposit pits are being discovered around the Mediterranean all the time.
(I’d not have been interested, had I lived then. No purple here.)
Interestingly, there are also texts from this very early date – the earliest writing systems had been going strong for some time – which refer to purple wool and purple cloth, which implies that the yarn was died before weaving, rather than the cloth being dyed afterwards.
You can even chart colonisation through broken shells. Yet again, it’s the Phoenicians. They had to range further and further in quest of shells, and their colonies on the Atlantic shores of both Spain and Africa are marked by – yup – tell-tale mounds of broken shells. Had I lived in the ancient Med, I’d obviously have been the only person without the slightest interest in purple.
I like the grey…
(By the way, sea shells are still used as a source of purple on the other side of the Atlantic – but differently. On the coasts of Central America, local women dye their wool by pressing the shells against the yarn. They’re using a different animal, one where the dye sack is more accessible. I’d love to try it – well, I would if I did purple.)