And so it begins…..

“We know better where we are going if we understand where we have been”

J. N. Liles
Niles, J. N. (1990). The art and craft of natural dying: Traditional recipes for modern use. University of Tennessee Press (2010 reprint), Knoxville, TN, pp. v.

Greetings! Thank you for following along on our journey. Several months ago, this global group of dyers joined together to develop a plan to recreate the dye methods from the Leyden and Stockholm Papyri (dye methods from Egypt about 1,800 years ago). I’m a natural dyer and fiber/visual artist (Sally KoskiSally’s Dye-Versions) who lives in rural northern Minnesota. How did we start this journey? Where will it take us? I’m here to offer one early perspective….

As member of the Facebook Natural Dye Education Group, we share a love and interest in natural dye work. Our leader, Mel Sweetnam, threw out a challenge to gather a group of people interested in recreating the “recipes” from the Leyden and Stockholm Papyri. As someone who has been fascinated with ancient Egypt since elementary school (a very long time ago), I decided this was the perfect fit. Working with this group will enable me to learn from a group of very experienced dyers, to make global connections, share ideas, and expand my knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture. Each of us has been challenged to select a “recipe” or two to recreate. Some of us will try to replicate the recipe exactly; others will add a modern twist to the work. Our collaborative and supportive work will result in a variety of samples, and in the end, each of us will contribute a piece of art, using the dyes we created, to be submitted to an upcoming conference. Simple? Hhhmmmm….

Early in my introduction to the Papyri, I realized the guidelines presented were similar to recipes and other instructions I received from my grandmothers. Ingredients were listed, but not the amounts; instructions included statements like “cook until right” and “plant loose bulbs in a hole and cover”.

Instructions are often handed down and not very specific.

Here lies some of the challenges: what exactly did these early dyers use to make dye, how much, and how long did the process take? How can I select a recipe that I can closely replicate when I live in a climate so very different from the Egyptian climate 1,800 years ago?

Looking through the Leyden and Stockholm Papyri, it became clear I needed to focus on replicating recipes that listed ingredients I could more easily obtain or grow (access to camel urine as an ingredient is difficult in northern Minnesota!) Will the results be the same as the dyers achieved so long ago? That’s doubtful. In her book “A Dyer’s Garden”, Rita Buchanan, a dyer and a gardener points out a number of reasons dye results might differ from one time to the next. Soil characteristics, moisture and temperature during the growing season, the mineral content and pH of the water in the dyebath, the type of fiber dyed, how long the fiber was immersed in the dye bath, as well as the ratio of fiber to dye plant are all factors that can contribute to these variations. Since most of this information from 1,800 years ago isn’t available (did the ancient Egyptians even know about pH?) I am not convinced that my colors for recipes 115 and 118 will be identical to those achieved 1,800 years ago.

My instructions for recipe 115 (Phoenician dye) simply states: “Take and combine heliotrope with alkanet. Lay them in an earthen vessel and sprinkle them for 3 days with white vinegar. On the fourth day boil them, with the addition of water, until these float at the top. If you desire, however, to dye cedar color then take out the alkanet, and boil lightly, but if you wish cherry-red then add krimnos soured with a little soap. Put the wool in and boil it together with the substances until it appears to you to be good.” Recipe 118 (gold color) is equally as vague stating: “Take safflower blossom and oxeye, crush them together and lay them in water. Put the wool in and sprinkle with water. Lift the wool out, expose it to the air, and use it.”

My vision of Phoenician dye and gold color might be very different than the actual Phoenician dye and gold color produced years ago. But here lies some of the fun!

In order to be consistent in our process and also to add to the body of knowledge centering around the Leyden and Stockholm Papyri, each dyer is charged with using a template for each dye recipe, keeping detailed notes and explanations of our successes as well as our not so successful experiments. We learn just as much (if not more) from the not so successful results than we do from our successes. These templates allow us to track some of the elements we know that we don’t have knowledge of from the original Papyri. Documenting our assumptions and justifying the reasons we made the decisions we made will be an important part of the process. Hopefully, our detailed work will add to the natural dye work body of knowledge and assist other dyers to successfully replicate of some of these ancient dye recipes – or at least of our more modern variations.

Oxeye growing in a field

Is the oxeye plant mentioned in the Papyri the same as the oxeye plant I see in the field down the road? What types of “earthen vessels” were used as dye pots? How was vinegar made and used in the dye process?  How can we replicate the properties of “Cimolian earth”? What fibers were dyed besides “raw wool”? My growing seasons for oxeye and safflower are different – they are ready for harvest at different times. How do I handle this?  At this point in the journey, there seem to be more questions than answers.  I have no doubt though, through the collective wisdom of this group of dyers, we will persevere, make some mistakes, learn a great deal, end up with a successful “product”, and have great fun in the process. Follow along with us!


Welcome to our collaborative blog! I’m Mel Sweetnam, of Mamie’s Schoolhouse. I am privileged to be working with the marvellous group of global dyers who have decided to join me on this adventure to recreate the 1,800 year old dye methods found in the Leyden and Stockholm Papyri (learn about the papyri here, and about the dyers here).

I am fascinated by the long arc of incremental human knowledge – each generation building on what our ancestors learned – and also by the ways in which hard-won knowledge and skills are sometimes forgotten or lost to us.

I feel an obligation to help preserve and build awareness of the body of knowledge created by the practitioners who came before us. I have wanted to undertake a more systematic recreation of the papyri methods for quite some time, but the scale is quite daunting (there are 81 dye related methods in the two papyri).

This Spring, it occurred to me that there were likely others who would be interested in collaborating to recreate these methods, and that I could use the Natural Dye Education FB group I manage to reach them.

The Starting Line

We’ve been working together for a couple of months now, and have already compiled some invaluable resources on terminology, historical context, textile styles of the period, how to collect urine from a camel (but more on that later!), and many other things. In some instances, more than one dyer is planning to recreate a given recipe, which should make for some interesting comparisons of interpretation and results.

One of the big question marks hanging over our endeavour is to what degree the methods in the papyri were intended to create good, colourfast dye results, and/or to what degree the methods were written as a kind of forger’s handbook, designed to create results that impersonated those of dyed goods much in demand at the time – such as Tyrian Purple from the Murex mollusc – but through the use of far less costly ingredients.

Murex dyes.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As experienced natural dyers, we can read some of the papyri methods and know they will work to produce good dye results. Others, however, have us scratching our heads in wonderment at unusual ingredients or bewildering process steps. But therein lies the adventure of this project!

The Oldest Chemical Manuscripts

” . . . neither papyrus contains the mystical symbolism and allegorical indirection so typical of the true alchemical literature. Rather they consist largely of simple, short recipes.”

Caley, E.R.., (1927) The Leyden and Stockholm Papyri, ed. W. Jensen, Cincinnati, p.4

We do know that in much of the first century after their re-discovery, they were regarded primarily as alchemical works (a view reinforced by the numerous methods for attempting to create the appearance of precious metals and gems). However, in the last century there has been a growing recognition of the papyri, instead, as recordings of experimental results, something we now recognize as a foundation of the modern science of chemistry. It was a chemist after all, Professor Earle Radcliffe Caley, who published the first full English translation, in the academic Journal of Chemical Education.

A Treasure of World Heritage…

These papyri are a record not just of Egyptian civilization at the time, but of much wider human civilization. While created in Thebes, the papyri are written in Greek, in a country under Roman rule. But long before Greek and then Roman occupation, Thebes was the beneficiary of vast trade routes in Africa, the Mediterranean, and stretching across Asia, along which knowledge and goods were exchanged for millennia. We can not know for certain, but it is possible that the use of some ingredients and methods in the papyri originated in lands far distant from Thebes. From Roman occupation onwards, trade routes expanded throughout much of Europe, too, and we do see some methods from the papyri being repeated, for example, in the Mappae Clavicula, a family of medieval texts in use across Europe from the 8th century AD onwards.

Please Join Us…

We hope you’ll join us as we peer back through two millennia to try to interpret and recreate the world’s oldest surviving written dye methods. Our hope is that through our collective effort, we can once again make these methods a living practice, relevant for current and future practitioners. We’ll share our trials and our triumphs along the way – through word, images and video – as different project participants share their research process and insights over the coming months. Next year, we’ll be mounting a virtual exhibit of finished fibre works using what we’ve learned through this collaborative endeavour, as well as submitting to one or more relevant conferences. You can sign up below to be notified when a new blog post is published.

With gratitude to the unknown scribe in Thebes, Egypt, who recorded these methods some 1,800 years ago,

Mel Sweetnam

Unama’ki (Cape Breton Island), Nova Scotia, Canada