Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Congo Red: April Fools

Putnam dye package purporting to contain Turkey red dye. 
"This envelope contains Concentrated Color...
Fast Fadeless"

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.

Evonne Cook's collection. Unknown pattern.

Probably Turkey red on the left; faded Congo red on the right.
Both blocks looked bright red once.

Turkey red is a process with many steps. One cannot package a coloring agent for Turkey red.

We discussed Congo red for a few weeks last October at the QuiltHistorySouth Facebook page.

Diana showed this Cotton Boll quilt from the North Carolina Museum of History collection.
"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."

Margaret Lau Simmons gave us information about the chemistry and history, directing our attention
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."

Congo red was cheap, fast and quite successful financially for Agfa.
If it had been colorfast we'd never give it another thought. this 1901 text tells us:
"The color is far from permanent. Exposure to light and air for a short period
dulls the color."

The longer the light exposure the worse the fading.

Revealing example of how Congo red fades in a set of blocks exposed to light.  Turkey red in the diamonds; Congo red in the baskets.
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.

Based on all the quilts we've seen we have to guess that Congo red, once close to the bright, blueish red that Turkey red produces, becomes a salmon orange.

More light, more fading?

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)."

Collection of Scott Heffley

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.

Teddy: "Oh you could slice your wrists over a disaster like that! 
Actually it looks as if someone did."

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."

Back of a quilt with bleeding red

Was the backing once white?

You see a lot more vintage reds fading than you do bleeding (for which we can be grateful.)

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

1893. Patchwork: Some Turkey red, some Congo red
The redwork embroidery apparently all Turkey red thread so it's remained red.

One of those Pennsylvania Four-Block Eagles from Cowan's Auctions
dated 1893

Her red thread was colorfast.

These are the two earliest date-inscribed quilts with fading red in my files, so it looks like it took ten  years for Congo red to affect the look of American quilts. Quilters bought Turkey red and Congo red; they looked the same---for a while. We  can assume we wouldn't see this kind of fading in the 1870s.

Lettie Homan's quilt, Oklahoma Territory, 1894

Red cotton embroidery thread was also dyed with Congo red. Names from a 1919 quilt have faded.

Mattie Bean, 1897 date

Congo red as a dating tool: When you see the shade look at the context (other areas are a true red) and think---faded synthetic. Date: 1885 at the earliest up through the 1920s. When's the latest????

And one more question: Is Congo red's characteristic fading a clue to a Southern quilt?

Rebecca E. Henderson, made in Kentucky,
recorded in the West Virginia project

Found in east Texas.

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.

From Paulding County, Georgia

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.

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