April Fool's Day is a good day to talk about Congo red. For many years manufacturers of the synthetic dye fooled quiltmakers into thinking it was as fast as the natural dye process Turkey red.
"Fugitive reds! This quilt has long puzzled me. Virginia Harrelson Bell (1878-1967) of Tabor City, Columbus County, NC made it ca. 1900-1910. I supposed she used two different red fabrics that appeared identical at the time of construction and then one faded while the other didn't. However, from the seam allowances you can't see any color difference at all in the supposedly faded reds--which you often can with other fugitive colors. Perhaps the chemical 'fading' process was not related to light exposure? Or is it possible that the quilt looked like this when she made it? Though that seems unlikely. The one block with bright reds doesn't appear to have been repaired or otherwise changed."
to quotes from D.P. Chattopadhyay's Handbook of Textile & Industrial Dyeing.
In 1883 "[Paul] Böttinger discovered that the diazo dye, Congo Red, coloured cotton without the necessity for pre-treatment with a metal salt (a so-called ‘mordant’). This finding led to the synthesis of related dyes which were referred to as the ‘direct’ dyes due to their ease of application....[Böttinger] who was working as a dye chemist for the Friedrich Bayer Company in Ebersfeld, Germany....left his employer, patented the compound under his own name and then sold the patent to AGFA in 1885. Today a great number of direct dyes are known which give a wide range of colours and are popularly used for the dyeing of cellulosic textiles [e.g. cotton & rayon.]"
We had many questions:
Teddy asked where the name Congo red came from?
A little Googling: In 1884 European powers slicing up Africa created a Congo Free State. The name was in the air and it must have represented something exotic and novel.
Pepper gave us a little more history on the German ownership of the patent for the dye.
"If it's a chemical, AGFA made it. Many dyes, to the point that we (US and western Europe) depended almost entirely on Germany for our dyestuffs by 1910. Then WORLD war I rolls around and all the German chemical companies got busy manufacturing munitions and various lethal gases. After the war in reparations the western powers forced Germany to give up their dye formulas, people were thrown out of work, and lo and behold Hitler offered the masses a belief in their national power and scapegoats the Jews. One war begat another and possession of dye formulas was part of the reason. The US didn't get its act together re: dyes for cotton until the early 1920s."
Top block = most light. But even the bottom block has faded showing how the light penetrates the thin fabrics. This may explain why looking at the seams of faded reds tells us nothing about what the color originally was.
Back to one of Diana's original questions: "Perhaps the chemical 'fading' process was not related to light exposure?"
Virginia: "Personally, I think much of the fading is other than light exposure. I'll keep checking seam allowances but I rarely see a difference in the seam from what the top of the quilt looks like."
Many of this have noticed this too. The fading basket blocks above might explain the faded seams because the light filters through the fabric. There are several ways color can change: Light fading; wet bleeding; chemical change over time, migration etc
"It is also interesting that Congo red is used as a PH indicator in biological work. Red indicates alkaline; blue indicates acid. I’m a novice in understanding dyes, but I would think that this property comes into play as the textile is exposed to the environment and/or is washed. Soaps are alkaline and thus, would “turn” Congo red, red. Detergents, where the alkalinity is reduced by adding other ingredients to assist in cleaning, were developed in the 1930’s. I wonder Congo red fabrics washed in detergent would more readily change (lose the red)."
Sounds like a reasonable guess. The combination of light and washing in alkalai detergent---double trouble.
The many, many quilts we've seen with differential fading tell us that Congo red and Turkey red looked pretty much the same on the bolt. The Oregon project recorded this Dutch Rose with the story that when Susie Lincoln Bays Cook ran out of fabric, her husband went all the way to Portland for more red. She had no idea this would happen over time.
Fading is bad but it could be worse. Red dyes could bleed (like some reds we have today.)
One Margaret asked the difference between fading and bleeding.
The other Margaret answered: "When something fades the color lightens, i.e. dark green turns to light green. When something bleeds, the dye does not stay firmly attached to the fibers. Thus, when the fabric makes contact with moisture (something spills on it), the dye migrates to fibers lying near. So in the picture you see the red has “bled” from pieces that were red to fibers nearby. The red would also be seen in the batting and backing if there had been enough moisture to carry it."
We've established that Congo red was formulated in 1883. How can we use the fading reds to date quilts? Found two quilts with tell-tale fading dated 1893
Most of the quilts pictured here are from online auctions, which rarely give you any information about the regional source. But observation indicates you are a lot more likely to see the typical Congo red fading in Texas quilts rather than New York quilts.
A guess: Quilters buy their fabric locally. Established Northern mills continued to use the red dye processes they'd been using (such as new synthetic versions ofTurkey reds) while newer Southern mills used the innovative, cheaper and easier to use synthetic dyes like Congo red. Therefore, Southerners did not have as much access to more reliable dyes.
And Southerners in the years we are talking about (1880-1930) were a good deal poorer than people in other cultural regions. The lower price of Congo red fabrics compared to Turkey red fabrics would be an incentive to make do.