Jane Rae reports on the Seeing Red exhibition which took place late last year at the Collins Gallery in Glasgow. Seeing Red: Scotland's Exotic Textile Heritage was originally conceived by textile historian and conservator, Liz Arthur. The aim of the exhibition was to raise awareness afthis fascinating but largely overlooked aspect of Scotland's textile history.

Left: Peacock design, gouache on card (1860-80), Inset Right: An original bandanna (1870-76)
When I visited the Vale of Leven for the Loch Lomond Quilt Show in 2007 it was hard to imagine that this stretch of water was once the centre of a flourishing textile industry that spanned over 200 years. The introduction of a successful means of dyeing fabric using the madder root (to produce a vivid red) in the late 18th century was a huge breakthrough for merchants George Mackintosh and David Dale that orbited the Vale of Leven into world trade and brought significant economic benefit to the local area. In the space of twenty years, nine factories were built and the workforce grew from 350 in 1835 to over 6,000 in 1879. Many Irish families settled in the Vale of Leven during this time and migrant workers from the Highlands of Scotland came down to the area to work during the summer months.

Turkey-red shirt worn by David Livingstone (midnineteenth century)
Through enlisting the skills of a French dyer, Pierre Jacques Papillon, Mackintosh and Dale finally achieved a means of dying cotton fabric a vivid red that would not deteriorate through washing, bleaching and sunlight. The dyeing process known as "Turkey-red" was complex and lengthy, employing large quantities of the root of the madder plant, urine, sheep's dung, bullocks' blood, olive oil, alum and soda ash. It involved 38 stages and took several weeks to complete. Up until 1835, drying and bleaching the fabric still needed to done out doors and one of the most memorable images at the exhibition was a picture of endless bolts of fabric spread out in grass fields that dominated the landscape. This was a necessary, but not an altogether secure, part of the process and as Liz Arthur points out: "temptation proved too much for many ...Catherine Veer stole printed cotton shawls from the bleachfield at Littlemill, near Dunglass, east of Dumbarton and was banished for 14 years. Others were transported to His Majesty's plantations."

Left: Late 19th century pieced strippy quilt, Right: Late 19th century log cabin quilt made in Edinburgh.
The demand for Turkey-red cloth went through the roof as production methods became faster and output potential increased. From 1835 to 1875, there was a 3,000 percent increase in the number of parcels of cloth being produced. Ironically, the main market for the fabric was in India with secondary markets in China, Indonesia, The Philippines, West African and the Americas. As dyeing and printing processes became more sophisticated, so did the patterns and there is a notable progression from striped and spotted patterns to complex motifs sympathetic to the different markets that they were designed for. Geometric and floral patterns were preferred by the Muslim market whilst the Hindus preferred designs incorporating elephants, tigers, peacocks and dancing girls.

Cowboy Fabric

One of the most famous Turkey-red products was the "bandanna" which has become an iconic symbol of the hardy, wholesome cowboy. It was a practical piece of clothing that shielded them from dust, was used to mop up perspiration and acted as a bandage on occasion, amongst other things. Simple patterns including circles, diamonds, clubs and florals were most common. Production processes improved and by 1817 it was possible to produce 224 bandannas every ten minutes. They quickly flooded the world market and were worn by all sectors of society, including European gentlewomen, African slaves, American cowboys and even Benjamin Bunny created by Beatrix Potter. Turkey-red fabric was also widely used in producing functional clothing and David Livingstone was known to have worn a Turkey-red shirt during his explorations in Africa.

Swatches of reproduction Turkey-red fabric
From a quilters perspective, Turkey-red fabric must have been a dream to work with as it didn't fade or bleed and the colours were intensely rich. In a Flowering of Quilts, edited by Patricia Cox Crews, the description of a Blossom Wreath quilt (America, 1850-60) captures the intensity of the Turkey-red fabric: "the contrast of the bright yellow-and-blue print against the saturated red fabric makes the quilt sparkle." With established trade routes from Glasgow to Virginia and Maryland, Turkey-red became a notable feature of many quilts found between 1840 and 1870 in neighbouring Delaware.
Closer to home, Turkey-red fabric made its way into Scottish quilts as well as those in Northern Ireland and the Northeast of England. In her book, Quilted Planet, Celia Eddy notes that: "in the north of Ireland, Turkey red and white patchwork quilts featured strongly, and were often referred to as "best quilts", kept for social occasions such as a visit from the doctor." The exhibition was fortunate enough to be displaying quilts on loan from Janet Rae, in particular, a strippy quilt from Cumbria, a Scottish quilt with log cabin design and a whole cloth from the Hexham area (Janet Rae points out in her descriptions that many of these quilts would have been backed in Turkey-red fabric as well).

New and Old

Whilst remnants of the original bolts of fabric still exist in the pattern books on display, digitally produced versions of 3 metre lengths of fabric had been commissioned especially for this event. Although not a true rendition of the intensity of Turkey-red fabric which, when described, is often accompanied by a host of rich adjectives such as luscious, luxurious and extravagant, visitors were still able experience the liveliness and diversity of designs. The next time I visit the Vale of Leven, I will see the landscape through different eyes and my experience will no doubt be enhanced by the memory of these great swathes of Turkey-red fabric. Barclay Lennie, the Chairman of Friends of Glasgow Museums, comments in his foreword to the exhibition publication that: "there is almost a collective amnesia about an industry which was a major exporter until the early part of the 20th century ...". The work of Liz Arthur and all involved in recording the story of Turkey-red dyeing will surely play an important part in reviving and sustaining interest in this important part of our textile heritage.

An illustrated publication to support the exhibition was produced and is still available . with essays by Liz Arthur, Lindsay Taylor, Mary Schoeser and John Burne (price: £10.00/£12.00 incl. p&p). Some of the swatches that you see here are also available to purchase at a cost of £100 (3 metre lengths) Email collinsdesk@strath. ac.uk for more information .


  • The Turkey-red technique originated in India employing the root of the madder plant, then spread to the Levant, to Smyrna and Adrianople, from where it got its name "Turkey-red".
  • The word "bandanna" originates from the Hindi bandhana which literally means "to tie".
  • David Livingstone was born in the mill town of Blantyre in Lanarkshire in 1813. The shirt pictured here was worn during his explorations of Southern and Central Africa.