CO 104/3: 18th century wool sample books

CO 104/3 is a unique document in The National Archives Collection. It contains the records from the court case Bull versus Jesser and contains letters and documents about the dyeing and clothing business of the Whitchurch family of Frome, Somerset, dating from 1724 to 1736. The documents include six dye recipe books with colour samples.

The heritage scientists at The National Archives are in the process of gathering scientific information about 18th century dyes from the sample books. To do this, they use ‘non-destructive’ tests, which means that the scientists do not need to take a sample to test the wool to check what the dyes are made from. The information we gather will help us understand what the different dyes are made from, which can help us better preserve these valuable books. We also plan to share this information which will help other scientists, conservators and historians who are studying historic wools and dyeing practices.

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The wool sample books are a valuable source of information for textile, social and industrial historians. Recipe books like these were a day-to-day working tool in a dyeing factory. Once out of use, they hardly ever survived. The wool sample books at The National Archives are a rare source for original dye recipes and matching samples. As we have preserved the samples, they have not been exposed to natural light, which can cause dyes to fade, for over 250 years. This means that the wool samples are still very vibrant and colourful.

The sample book contains hundreds of dye samples made from all different materials. Some dyes are even made out of roots, such as the bright pink dye in the image below. This dye is called madder, and is made from the roots of the madder plant. It appears bright pink when it is photographed under ultraviolet light, which is a tell-tale sign for researchers that something contains madder. Using scientific photography, like the ultraviolet photography in the image below, heritage scientists can often distinguish between dyes that appear a similar colour in normal light.