January 4, 2012

Turkey Red: Little Squares of Red Oil Calico

Mary Frances (Mollie) Dutton grew up in and near Waterford, Virginia, the daughter of a prominent Quaker family.  Due to her mother's poor health, Mollie spent much of her childhood in the home of an elderly Quaker couple,William and Louisa Steer, called Corby Hall.  She later fondly remembered her time there in a letter written to a friend in 1910.  In this letter, Mollie describes a quilt she made as a child.

Mary F. (Mollie) Dutton (1840-1933)
Photograph courtesy of the Waterford Foundation Archives:
Dudley Dutton Heath Collection

"In the autumn, when the nights grew chilly, I went one day to the old chest for some soft-wool blankets for the beds.  When what should come to view but an old patchwork quilt pieced by a very little girl over sixty years ago [i.e., before 1850] and that little girl my own self.  I spread it out and counted the squares -- 272 little ones pieced into larger ones called nine patch, of which there were 68 joined together by a narrow strip of white with a little square in each corner of red oil calico as fresh & bright today as when first put in.  In those days nearly every baby had a pretty red dress & many were the scraps given to me for this same quilt."  (Divine, Souders and Souders, 11.)

The little squares Mollie described as "red oil calico" were made using a process called "Turkey red" that produced a product from madder root for dyeing cotton fibers.  In this country, fabrics produced using this process came to be called "boiled oil" or "red oil" (boiling-hot olive oil being a main ingredient of the process) as well as "Turkey red".  These fabrics were much sought after and admired in the nineteenth century, not only for their brilliant color but because they were colorfast.  Many are the nineteenth century sampler album and single-pattern friendship quilts that feature red fabrics produced using the Turkey red process.

19th century Christian Cross (also known as Chimney Sweep) block made from
"Turkey red" fabric and stamped awaiting inscription.  From Lynda Salter Chenoweth's collection.

The Turkey red process originated in the Middle East and remained a closely guarded secret from European manufacturers until the mid-eighteenth century.  The French called the color it produced rouge Turc, rouge des Indes, or rouge d'Adrianople, two of these terms implying an origin within what was then the Ottoman Empire.  The name Turkey became associated with the color but, in fact, it was produced over a broad area of the eastern world that included Persia, India, Asia Minor in general, the Balkans, and Greece.

It wasn't until the mid-seventeenth century that the process was reproduced in France using Greek dyers brought to the country for that purpose.  Once the secret was known, it quickly spread to dyers in other European countries, including England.  England and France soon produced fabrics using the process and these were exported in large quantities to America in the nineteenth century, where they became increasingly popular for use in both clothing and quilts.

Botanical watercolor of the madder plant.  Courtesy of  artist
Marlene McLoughlin.

Process refinements were developed in Europe but, even with these, the Turkey red process remained a long and laborious one that included steps using, among other ingredients, madder root, olive oil, dung, alum, ox-blood, and potash.  (For a detailed process description, refer to Sarah Lowengard's e-book The Creation of Color in Eighteenth Century Europe - section on Industry and Ideas, Turkey Red -- at www.gutenberg-e.org/lowengard.)

Printed "Turkey red" fabric was achieved by printing over the red or by using chemical techniques to "discharge", or remove, areas of the red ground to create white or to convert these areas to other colors.  This multi-step printing process, along with the complicated dyeing process and the ready availability of imported fabrics from Europe, discouraged American textile manufacturers from producing these fabrics in commercial quantities until the introduction of artificial alizarin in 1869.  This dye, derived from the successful synthesis of the coloring agent in madder, provided a simplified process for producing colorfast, brilliant red fabrics. 

Modern Whig Rose block made with reproduction fabrics.  Block
by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.

Nineteenth century quilts made by Quakers often contain red fabrics.  If you come across a quilt made prior to the 1860s featuring brilliant reds that have not faded, you are probably looking at what-was-then expensive fabric imported from England, France, or another European country.


Affleck, Diane L. Fagan.  Just New from the Mills, Printed Cottons in America.  Lowell, MA: American Textile History Museum, 1987.

Divine, John E., Bronwen C. Souders and John M. Souders.  "To Talk Is Treason", Quakers of Waterford, Virginia on Life, Love, Death & War in the Southern Confederacy, From Their Diaries and Correspondence.  Waterford, VA: Waterford Foundation, 1996.

Sandberg, Gosta.  The Red Dyes, Cochineal, Madder, and Murex Purple.  Asheville: Lark Books, 1994.

Storey, Joyce.  The Thames and Hudson Manual of Dyes and Fabrics.  London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012


  1. I'm enjoying your posts. Thank you for sharing your research and stories!

  2. Great quote about the babies having red dresses, so they were using the reds for children and quilts. And that would explain why people aren't finding extant red clothing as those garments would have been been used and used up.

  3. I just found this post researching Quaker quilts. My great grandmother was Lida Dutton. What fun! Than you.