Pink adventure: dyeing with kermes (Kermes vermillo)

Today I would like to write a bit about really unique dyestuff: kermes (Kermes vermillo). I have dreamt about using kermes for a long time. It was one of the most expensive and rare dyestuffs of the Viking age - and stays expensive to this day.


This dyestuffs is provided not by the plant, but insects: the small shield-louse bugs feeding on Kermes oak trees (Quercus coccifera), growing in the Mediterranean area and on the eastern Adriatic coast line.

Written source indicate that in the early Medieval period the kermes dyestuff was used in the production of textiles at several places in the early Islamic world as well as Byzantium. It is not always clear however if Arabs chroniclers who used the name 'kirmiz' always meant only Kermes vermillo (it might be also used for the another kind of insect, the so-called Armenian carmine).

This rare dyestuff was found almost exclusively on silk textiles. For example: one fragment found in Oseberg was dyed in kermes (with a combination with madder). Some passages from chronicles suggest  however that other kinds of fabrics could be also dyed in kermes (or similar kind of insect derived dyestuff). Some elements of the rich Frankish clothes described in De Carolo Magno (account of Charles the Great reign, dated 883 - 884) were described in this way:

This was the attire or apparel of the Franks of old: shoes gilded outside, adorned with laces of three cubits, kermes-dyed bands of the shins, and under these, hose and breeches of linen, of the same colour but varied with the most intricate work.

It need to be underlined however, that the different types of dyestuffs could be used for dyeing these Franks'  breeches. As we are speaking here on textiles which could be produced locally (they were made of linen, not from imported silk), therefore also the northern Europen insect could be used for dyeing. Most precisely, the bug called Polish cochineal (Porphyrophora polonica) could be the dyestuff here. Given the strong tradition of dyeing with this insect and the fact it was exported on a massive scale (until of course the cochineal became available), I would say it is quite probable than the used dyestuff was actually the Polish cochineal! (unfortunately this one is virtually impossible to find nowadays, so no experiments in the predictable future...)

We can be sure about the used dyestuffs only when the examination of dyeing substance was performed. Like in a case of Jorvik, when two silk fragments dyed with kermes were identified. One which was probably a reliquiary pouch. I was much more interested in a second one though: a silk ribbon. This fragment, approximately 20 mm wide, was folded lengthwise and sewn to the fabric in this way (seam marks are still visible, and the fabric remains are preserved) It is therefore assumed that the ribbon had a decorative function.

It is not entirely certain what kind material was decorated in this way, as it was preserved in a residual form. Due to some characteristic features (difference in the twist of the weft and warp threads) it is however believed to have been wool.

Currently I am assembling the Jorvik Scandinavian settler costume in the rich version. I also got a birthday not so long time ago. Taking these two factors under consideration, I decided to make myself a birthday gift from Kermes vermillo bugs and perform some experiments.

Kermes is no longer collected commercially, but still there is one place where it is possible to buy it: Kremer Pigmente company. The bug comes from old supplies, but is still suitable for dyeing.


I was really excited when my kermes arrived. I did not want to wait very long to dye with it, but not to waste so precious dye, I have done a lot of research and practiced on other, similar (but much cheaper) dyestuff: sticklac (received from Keria lacca bugs). I really liked the results! (you can see them on the photo below, together with my kermes and silk ribbon which I was going to dye).


Recipes for dyeing kermes are not so easy to find nowadays - as this dyestuff is so rare, is not usually used by natural dyers. I decided then to adapt recipe used for cochineal dyeing.

I was also not sure how much kermes I needed. I decided finally to use 1/5 g of bugs (about 20 of them) for 3 g of silk. The silk was mordanted in alum and left soaked overnight.

I started from grinding my bugs in porcelain mortar. Then I poured boiling water over them and left them overnight. On the next day, I simmered them for 20 minutes and left to cool down - after that, I strained the lliquid with coffee filter (the metal one from IKEA - worked really nicely!).



I put then my silk into this nice, raspberry - coloured liquid, and simmered it for the next 40 minutes. I turned the heating off and left the whole pot overnight.
Here you can see the colour which I got the first day. A really nice shade of pink, but too pale for my liking!


I wanted to be as colourful Viking lady as possible, and to achieve this, I decided to deepend the shade. I repeated the whole dyeing procedure (on the same bit of silk of course), but with the double amount of kermes.

This time I was really pleased!
Here you have the final colour.


And both shades together.



Now I need to think about the colour for the dress which will be adorned with this pink silk!

2 comments

  • Hello, this is an interesting read indeed and a beatiful bright pink colour! I am doing research on historic red lake pigments and one of the sources that was used in the 15th century was kermes. Therefor I am also doing experiments with kermes I ordered at Kremer pigments. Now the grains I got appear to be much darker and dull than the ones on your pictures. Also the colour extracted from them is actualy more brownish than red. I know that ph level of the water and many more factors have an influence and I experimented with that too. but until now there is hardly any hue of red, stand alone a raspberry pink to be detected. Did you just use plain (demineralized?) water to extract the dye from the lice or did you manipulate the ph grade by adding either some alum of alkali like potassium carbonate? Hope to hear from you and wityh kind regards, Jan Bustin

    Jan Bustin
  • This is very interesting, Katarzyna. Thank you. What a lovely shade of deep pink the ribbon is. I’m a spinner and natural dyer and I’m doing some research at present about natural dyes in Anglo-Saxon times. The information I have is that kermes is a vat dye. That’s why I was looking on the internet to see how it was prepared. I was very interested to see that you have got a good colour just by following the usual method for cochineal. As you say, it’s not easy to find the ancient recipes. There should be a way of getting a richer colour by a fermentation method but perhaps that is now lost to us. Many thanks for sharing your experience. My very best wishes to you, from one natural dyer to another.

    Marye Miret

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