*Spoonflower fabric: too nice to cut.

Like many quilters, I love fabric. And like many quilters, colour attracts me like shiny things do a magpie. After my love affair with fabric (see my Golden Thread blog post), I found myself wondering about the names of colours-often outdated now, but so very evocative! Modern classifications just don’t have the lyricism of the words which we have inherited. Does anything sound less appealing than puce ( purple-brown) ? Or more delicious than amaranthine ( purple-red)? Ashes of roses, eau de nil, sad, turkey red, shocking pink, greige, gamboge, mi se, Tyrian purple, coquelicot……..lovely names, and there are stories behind every one. It would probably be a lifetime’s work to research them all, but what a wonderful job to have! Think of the research, the libraries, the galleries, the fashion houses, the fabric and paper design collections you would need access to. A perfect job for me! It is a fact well-known to anyone who knows me that I can ramble with the best. Start me off on something, and I can wander happily along any primrose path that ensues, however unlikely. It can be serendipitous, and it is rarely boring.

*Dyed linen in my sewing stash.

When the UKQU Continuing Development group looked at the topic of green recently, I found myself drawn to research this abundant colour. It surrounds us in our gardens, fields, window boxes, clothes, furnishings-even our eyes sometimes mirror this versatile and natural colour! Viridian, copperas, forest, celadon, spring, grass, leaf, lime, fir, sea… all subtle shades or vibrant tones and all lovely. Or red? Cardinal, scarlet, crimson, blood, vermilion, rose madder. Evocative, luscious, tangible. It is no myth that we quilters love to stroke fabric! Colours and fabrics are not just words for us; they are memories, textures, feelings. I bet you can remember the colours of special textiles from childhood: or weddings, baby clothes, quilts you are particularly proud of? It comes as no surprise that the Mongolians have over 300 words for the colours of horses. I have a favourite photograph of my toddler daughter; my favourite not only because she was a beautiful golden-curled cherub of 2 or 3, or because it reminds me of my youth and my beautiful baby, but also because also my husband over-exposed it slightly and her palest pink-tinged face is riveting because the blue eyeshadow she has applied so liberally – from my bag – to her face is exactly the colour and shade of her dark blue eyes, and the deep rose lipstick only a few tones different from her lips.

In my mind I can still see the old-rose bedspread I made into a dress in my teen years, or the Jaffa orange of the wool crepe my mum had no use for; the scarlet-lined cerulean corduroy cape I made 40 years ago for my niece and the peacock blue woollen “costume” my mum wore in my childhood. Now we just call it a “suit.” The fabric we buy may be tactile, may be lovely, may be a promise for the future: but I wonder if its appeal is that it calls to something deep in our memories?

Who knew that scarlet originated from the kermes beetle, and was used by Spain to pay taxes to Rome? You might spot the root in carmine, a red name we don’t use much now. Tyrian purple, once so expensive because the Murex molluscs which provide it must be dived for was once used to dye the Imperial cloaks of Roman emperors. Cadbury’s, anybody? And red tape, the phrase we use to describe bureaucratic processes is the name of the crimson pink tape we used to tie round legal documents. Perhaps we still do? This dye comes from safflower, which we know now chiefly for its oil.

*Believe it or not, the deep pinks are identical-away from the scarlet.

Saffron Walden was once Chipping Walden, but I learned that its name was changed as its fortunes soared – saffron is still a very expensive spice – astronomical in the Middle Ages. And the oldest piece of porcelain recorded in Britain was recorded in 1516. It is a sea green porcelain cup but so rare was it that the clerk, who had no idea how to classify it, called it “lapis” , latin for stone. The Old Masters who first depicted our world in really glorious colour made their own pigments – chemists as well as artists. The blue of Titian’s skies was costly lapis lazuli, a stone graded at three levels and described by the locals as “colour-of-water”, “green” or “red feather” as the grades improve. Odd, isn’t it, that we should describe colour through other colours? A bit like describing the taste of wine as “leather” or “grassy”. We don’t taste either!



Verdigris came back into fashion a few years ago, though for many years it was very popular with artists. Known to the Greeks as “copper-flowers” or more whimsically “fur-tongue” because of the way the mouth feels after too much ouzo. We of course, would never call it that – our verdigris was made with cider! That lovely yellow we know as saffron comes from pretty crocuses – not the petals, as you might expect, but the stigma, which, oddly, is crimson! The petals are waste. So many sources and so many colours; how do we ever choose.

But of course, colour is not straightforward. It is affected by its surroundings. The time of day, the location, even the setting varies the look of a colour to our eyes. Artist know this. Designers know this. And I think we quilters know it too. Colour theories suggest families which work together in tones to create effects in harmony or contrast, though I, for one, never took to a vile purple and yellow spotted fabric I bought from Laura Ashley in the ‘90s!

*The same batiks, in the same light with and without the jersey.


And the Impressionist movement of the 19th Century used adjacent colours to enhance them, e.g. red with green. The Fauve group used paint precisely opposite to what what we would expect. (Excuse my simplistic explanations).

Art and artists led me on to wonder how we see colour. I know about the spectrum of red/blue ;light in which we see, and I understand from a colour-blind relative that even with no colour vision, all colours are discernible. Just rather limited, I suppose. And would it not be fabulous to discover that you are one of those *putative* individuals who have not 3, the usual number, but 4 types of cone cells in your eyes and so can make out many more colours? A tetrochromat! This is disputed as there have not been many studies, but I harbour a secret hope that maybe we are fabriholics, textile artists and quilters BECAUSE we perceive colours more acutely. Colour vision defects are, after all, largely the genetic province of the male. (apologies, male quilters). And those tempting ranges of wonderful fabrics which appear so often seduce us because they are designed exactly to complement and enhance each other. And if we buy one, we may as well buy them all…

  •  almost Impressionist-painterly Kaffe Fassett fabric

If this has inspired you to look further into this fascinating subject, there are many resources you can use. Books, colour wheels, paints, watercolour pencils, even fabrics like my fabulous Spoonflower header picture. Even those game apps like Hue, all help you to see how colour lightens and sings in our lives. This game sets out a series of toning squares from one colour to the next. Lovely, you think! I get that! Then they scramble them and your job is to reassemble to sequence accurately. And you soon realise colours are as varied and as individual as we are.

Resources to consider

*I was entranced by Colour, Travels through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay.

*Another lovely book is The Secret Lives of Colour by the author of The Golden Thread, Kassia St Clair

*On the internet a lovely site called the Phrontistery which seems to like words almost as much as I do. Worth checking for long last names of colours and fabrics.

*Hue colour differentiation app. game.

* Joen Wolfron has produced an excellent colour tool which is worth a look.