Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Textiles and Politics: Textile Society of America 13th Biennial Symposium Proceedings, Washington, DC, September 18- September 22, 2012.


Copyright 2012 by the author(s).


Dyes from shellfish ('murex') and lichens ('orchil') originated before 1000 BCE. Murex and orchil became symbolic of Roman privilege. Purple also attained iconic value as an emblem of wealth and power. Politics played a role in dye manufacture, as witness the male-dominated purple dye works which were later 'invaded' by female workers. This present study investigates these political issues by replicating the actual murex and orchil method. As we are a female team, our work here confronts references to so-called secret methods which women were (according to earlier historians) unlikely to grasp. Experiments undertaken by our Japanese- Canadian team have revealed features of puple which shed light on political issues. For example, murex and orchil were often used TOGETHER, a strategy that may have developed as a response to depletion of one organism or the other at times of ecological stress. Ancient texts hint at murex/orchil combinations as subterfuge, interpreted by some present historians as fraudulent dyes. By contrast, our work shows that together, murex and orchil produce an IMPROVED dye, one with enhanced fastness and great beauty. There was also a concomitant economic bonus with murex/orchil dyes. Murex was more labour-intensive, and so adding orchil saved time and money. Our replication of murex and orchil purples provides a lens through which to view political and cultural aspects of ancient purple manufacture.