Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.



Purple dye

Sea snail purple, also known as Shellfish purple, Tyrian purple, Royal purple, Ancient purple or Murex purple, abbreviated to purple in this text, is a pigment obtained from the secretion of the hypobranchial glands of certain species marine mollusks (Fig. 1). The milky secretion from the glands includes a purple precursor which can be applied directly onto textiles (Fig. 2), where the final pigments are formed in the presence of oxygen and sunlight (Fig. 3). The main chemical constituent of the purple pigment was discovered by Paul Friedländer in 1909 to be 6,6′- dibromoindigo.

Purple dye in Central America

Purple has been used for dyeing of traditional textiles in Central and South America. It still continues to be used in Mexico, Costa Rica and El Salvador. In April 2004, I stayed in the community of the Boruca in the south of Costa Rica. Borucan are known for their traditional weaving, using cotton yarn dyed with purple. In Boruca, about 15 people, men and women, do purple dyeing work on the Pacific coast where only indigenous people have permission to collect the snails for the traditional dyeing.