Monday, November 14, 2011


It's been YEARS since I added to my series of blog posts on dyes and colors (links in the side bar). So, it's a fine time to do it.

White, as a color name in English, goes back through Old English and eventually traces to several older Scandinavian languages that mean 'bright' or 'shiny'. There's a really interesting listing of idioms using the term white, and when and how they came about, here.

The oldest form of white paint or pigment would have been chalk, and related soft, white ores. It's available pretty much world wide, often on the surface, so it's not what you'd call hard to find.
Flint, which was used for tools before the invention of metallurgy, is often found in a chalky matrix, so there you go. Two for one; tools and pigment. (Interesting, if useless, note: The Iceland Spar from the viking navigation post? It's essentially a crystalline form of chalk.) They'd have been mixed with clay or oil at first, then other carriers later on. Tempera paints in the middle ages were made with a mineral pigment (chalk) and eggs as the carrier/glue to hold it to whatever surface it was painted on. Chalk, however, has drawbacks; it's not REALLY white, it can mix really badly - or not at all - with other pigments, and it can flake or rub off easily. But, for all it's drawbacks, we STILL use it, in 2011, on slate or synthetic chalk boards. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

But, oil darkens chalk, and it's not white any more. So when oil painting was developed, sometime around the 1400s, they had to find something else.

The 'something else' turned out to be "white lead", or lead carbonate. Powdered lead, what could possibly go wrong? It was beloved by many artists because it was so opaque - you could paint it over other colors, and it would cover them. It could also be mixed with other colors and make THOSE opaque. It had a couple problems, though. The toxicity was one, but I don't think that's why it was abandoned. Compared to other paints they were using - cadmium yellow, orange, red and green; cobalt blue; arsenic based yellow and oranges - really, lead white was relatively stable in comparison. No, I think lead white fell out of use because it turns BLACK when exposed to sulfur. And guess what the coal fuel of the Industrial Revolution belched into the air in amazing amounts? Yup. Sulfur. You wind up with cave paintings originally painted with lead white, that have sadly gone black on us.
For a few decades painters dabbled with Zinc White, but it was expensive (four times the cost of white lead, by some accounts), it dried too slowly, and it was transparent, making it useless as a true replacement for white lead. It was introduced as a watercolor ("Chinese White") but it never really caught on, otherwise. Well, no, wait. It did. The white goo that mountain climbers and lifeguards paint their noses with, to avoid sunburn? That's known to them as "zinc oxide", or our friend Zinc White.
What finally took the place of white lead is the pigment we still use: Titanium dioxide. It's the white in Liquid Paper. It's in your nail polish. It's in the paint on your walls and on your cars. Even the colored paints have titanium dioxide added to make it opaque. It occurs naturally, and it is 'mined' out of swamps and riverbeds by a complicated sifting process that sort of slurps out the dirt, removes the titanium dioxide from it, and replaces the gunk right back in the river where they started; kind of neat.

And this brings us to textiles.

For much of history, truly white clothing/fabric didn't exist. They could hunt albino animals, and did. They could color leather with chalk, and they did. Later, after animals and plants were domesticated, they could breed for white in both animal and plant fibers - and did. But as everyone knows, there's no such thing as true, 'bright' white in nature. For that, you need bleach.

Linens were originally washed with lye-based soaps and left out in the sun to whiten. Wool and animal fibers, well, they bred the animals to be as white as possible, and that was about it. In the 1700s, with industrial chemistry gearing up, people began 'bleaching' (read, 'damaging all to hell, but whitening') finished textiles with SULFURIC ACID. That didn't work out so well for the long term (good gourd), and finally, in the 1780s, chlorine bleach was invented - the stuff we know as 'bleach' today. But even with bleach, that's not the end of it.

What we, today, think of as a white textile - let's say a white tee shirt - is the end result of some wild and crazy processes. First the cotton was bred, over thousands of years, to be as white as possible. Then, as part of processing, it is bleached as white as it's possible to get it, without (overly) damaging the fiber. Then, it is in fact dyed. The class of dyes used are called "optical whiteners" and are there to reflect back as much of the visible light spectrum as possible. Have you ever noticed how your white clothes will often glow under black light? That's why - the optical whitener is bouncing back all the light possible.
Oddly, it's true, bright white that is the hardest 'color' to achieve in modern textiles.

Oh, and one last thing - white LED lights? They aren't true white, in that they don't produce ALL colored light wavelengths. They're really an optical illusion; they produce yellow and blue wavelengths and trick the eye into 'seeing' white. So don't expect colors to look right under them.
Didn't know white was quite so complicated, did you?

PS: Traditional knitting NEVER uses true white yarn. Because it didn't exist. The closest they got was undyed, 'natural' yarns. And there's no way in hell any house wife worth a damn would send her family out in light clothes, because she didn't have the detergents it takes to get them clean again. There's a reason real fishermen's sweaters were dyed nearly black with indigo.


Amy Lane said...

LOL-- only you would have a science/history/art basted post with a picture of Spiccoli on it. Well done!

Anonymous said...

An old 'friend', who had well water, used to stuff her washer and dryer as full as possible. Her 'whites' were such a dark gray that it was hard to tell what color they were originally. I am not overly concerned with what people think about me, but I would have been totally embarrassed to send a family member out in public wearing them. You couldn't tell the clean clothes from the dirty ones.
I really think some people should not be allowed to buy 'whites'

Jilly Bean said...

Additional tidbit about chalk--- it's also still used in house paint. Cheaper paint skimps on the titanium dioxide and adds chalk to make up for it.

(Former paint slinger, so I became very familiar with titanium dioxide.)

Nicole T said...


I have read your other posts on the history of color dyes, and I loved them. I literally cheered when I saw what today's post was about.

I have mixed feelings about the color white, it being a status symbol and all. I feel the same way housewives do, about dark clothes and all.

Antonia said...

Hey Julie, were real fisherman sweaters really dyed with indigo? Because indigo has some astounding insect repellant properties, so they would be preserving them as well as covering the dirt.

Freyalyn said...

Fascinating article - thank you. Of course, this is why both Middle Eastern and Scandinavian colour knitting use cotton yarn for the white, rather than the darker 'white' wool.

Donna Lee said...

I was thinking that I wouldn't have wanted my family to wear white since I wouldn't have been able to keep it clean very well.

Even now, I hate to see my husband wear a white shirt. Might as well paint a target on his chest.

Emily said...

Oh goody! Great post! Wahoo!

laurel said...

Did you ever read the Earth's Children Series by Jean Auel? It mentioned a leather dying technique that involved urine to bleach out the hides to a white color. It's fiction but the author put a lot of research into the books so I wonder if there is any truth to that technique?

Now, Vogue Review! Do eet!

Roxie said...

Brains and urine to whiten leather. Since brains are edible, white leather is a sign that things are going so well that you can afford to use food to fancy things up.

I know the Romans used the ammonia in urine to clean white wool togas, but I don't know if it had any bleaching properties.

Fascinating post, as always.

Ginger_nut said...

I was also gonna say I've heard from a few sources that ammonia in stale urine can be used for bleaching - as for brains, I thought they were generally just used in the leather tanning process to get nice soft supple hides.

=Tamar said...

Good article, but white wasn't that totally ignored. It was used for undergarments, and in the 19th century began to be worn visibly.