A Few Arguments on the Subject of Saffron

A Few Arguments on the Subject of Saffron

On most topics explored in historical re-enactment, there is enough evidence on one side or the other to reasonably prove or disprove its use or existence.  Not so with the use of saffron in Ireland in the 16th century.  It appears that evidence exists both to support its use and to refute it.  Below are some arguments for both sides. In a letter to the town of Galway, 28 April, 1536, Henry VIII wrote:
Item, that no man, woman, or child, do wear in their shirts or smocks, or any other garments, no saffron, nor have any more cloth in their shirts or smocks, but 5 standard ells of that country cloth. 1
Again, in 1537, Henry VIII forbid any number of articles to be "coloured or dyed with saffron" 2. In a letter to Henry VIII's minister, Thomas Cromwell, on July 10th 1539, Allen reports that Art O'Toole sent Gerald "a saffron shirt dressed with silke."3 Yet other writers seem less sure that the shirts were dyed with saffron, using the word instead to describe the colour. Richard Stanihurst, the son of James Stanihurst, Recorder of Dublin, wrote a four-volume Latin work entitled De rebus in Hibernia gestis, published in 1584 in which he writes:
The first place at table is that of the mother of the family, wrapped in a tunic reaching to the ankles, often saffron-coloured and long-sleeved.
William Good, a Jesuit missionary to Ireland and schoolmaster in Limerick, in 1566, wrote an account of Ireland which is incorporated in Camden.s Britannia6  He says:
With the boughs, bark, and leaves of poplar trees beaten together they dye their loose shirts of a saffron colour (which are now much out of use) mising the bark of the wild Arbut-tree and salt and saffron.  In dyeing, their way is not to boil the thing long, but to let it soak for some days together in urine that the colour may be deeper and more durable.
In my research I found that the bark of the American Black Oak replaced weld as a substantive yellow dye in the 18th century in America.7  If the poplar leaves mentioned in the above recipe contained a similar chemical, perhaps that is what made the linen yellow and the saffron was added just to say it was dyed with saffron. However, it was also a source of tannin, and that might have been its sole purpose. But everything I have read says saffron is substantive and needs no mordant on cellulose fibres, unlike most dyes. Yet the fact remains that a great deal of saffron would be needed to dye a shirt the size of the legendary saffron shirts (25-35 ells).  At $150 an ounce today, that would still be an almost impossible use.  It would be less expensive to have a shirt made of pure gold than to dye a shirt with saffron. Ireland did a brisk trade with Spain (who exported saffron) in the 16th century, and I intend to investigate those records more fully.  However, some accounts lead us to believe that saffron may have been grown in Ireland as well. I am not a botanist, and do not claim to have any shade of green thumb.  But as I remember, crocus were the plants in my mother's garden to sprout first in the Spring, before the last snow had even melted.  Of course autumn crocus may be entirely different that the species I am familiar with.  However, it is not outside the realm of possibility that this spice, though not native to Ireland, was grown there.  Other evidence supports this idea. McClintock8 tells us that the autumn crocus, of which saffron is the dried stigma, was grown in England at Saffron Walden in Essex until as late as 1768.  And that there is a place called Castle Saffron in County Cork and a pamphlet published by the Dublin Society in 1732 advocating the cultivation of saffron in Ireland.  In 1858 William Pinkerton in "The Highland Kilt and the Old Irish Dress" in the Ulster Journal of Archeology quotes from a 14th century poem which lists "All the herbys of Ierlond" and "saffrowne" is listed therein. The Craftsman's Handbook "Il Libro dell' Arte" translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. lists a recipe for dyeing with saffron on page 29:
ON THE CHARACTER OF A YELLOW CALLED SAFFRON . CHAPTER XLVIII A color which is made from an herb called saffron is yellow. You should put it on a linen cloth, over a hot stone or brick. Then take half a goblet or glass full of good strong lye. Put this saffron it it; work it up on the slap. This makes a fine color for dyeing linen or cloth.
Linen Hand Spinning and Weaving by Patricia Baines discusses the use of various dyes on early Egyptian cloths on page 76 says:
Dyer's saffron (Carthamus tinctorius) was the principle source for yellow; linen sheets of that colour have been positively identified as coming from the flowers of the plant.
This is an impossibility.  As much as I dislike contradicting Patricia Baines, she must have either misquoted or misinterpreted the source she used regarding the yellow dye on Egyptian linen.  Safflower cannot dye linen yellow.  It dyes it red.  Believe me. I tried. You can get three colours out of safflower on silk, but only one on cotton and linen and a different colour on wool. There are two dyestuffs in safflower petals. The yellow does not dye vegetable fibres no matter what you do. This is why cotton dyed with safflower becomes pink but a silk scarf in the same dyebath will be orange (it picks up the yellow dye). Matter of fact, to get your silk to pick up red without any yellow taint, you have to dye it in the discharge from cotton, thus eliminating the yellow that cotton won't absorb. And if you heat the safflower petals, only the yellow dye stays and it will dye wool and silk but it will rinse off cotton and linen as if it wasn't there. Wool, strangely, won't pick up the pink no matter what you do.  If you want to read about my experiments with safflower, click here. True saffron is Crocus sativusCarthamus tinctorius is safflower5, a spice often substituted for saffron in cooking.  It is commonly called .Bastard Saffron. and I have found it labeled .Saffron. in Asian food markets.  Safflower is much less expensive than saffron, and this would solve the mystery except for the problem of it not dyeing vegetable fibres like linen. To read about a dye experiment I did with yellow dyes native to Ireland, click here. To read an experiment with real Spanish saffron, click here. McClintock states,
...and when we find sixteeth-century writers repeatedly calling the colour of the Irish shirts "saffron" in three languages (Enlgish, saffron; Latin, crocotus; Irish, croich), and never calling it anything else, we need very strong evidence to show that the dye was not saffron or, at any rate, a dye which produced the colour of saffron.9
  Another possibility is that croch in Irish does not signify saffron at all.  Just because the word resembles the Latin word for saffron (crocotus) does not mean that it has the same meaning. The word is remarkably similar to the Irish word for lichen, crotal.  McClintock mentions that he has heard it said that "saffron" was made from heather-tops or from rock-lichen. 8  Eileen Bolton(1) in her book on dyeing with lichens calls Paremlia caperata "Stone Crottle or Acel (Ireland)". She says:
In Ireland it is called Stone Crottle or Arcel, being used for a yellow dye on wool.  It is said to yield orange and brown also,.  With boiling water it gives a good clear yellow.
Peltigera canina may also be the "culprit".  Bolton mentions that alum-mordanted linen can be dyed yellow with P. canina. One thing is for certain.  The colour produced by dyeing linen with saffron is a pure yellow, not any brownish or mustard shade.  This agrees with the 16th century illustrations of men wearing saffron shirts.  The colour of modern Irish pipe regiments who sport "saffron kilts" is not the colour that saffron produces.


  1. Bolton, Eileen M. Lichens for Vegetable Dyeing. Oregon: Robin & Russ Handweavers, 1972.
  2. McClintock, Henry Foster. Old Irish and Highland Dress. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 1943.

  • Maxwell's Irish History from Contemporary Sources, page 366, as quoted in McClintock(2)
  • "An act of Henry VIII forbade any person in Ireland after 1 May, 1539 to dress their hair in the Irish fashion or to: ...weare any shirt, smock, kerchor, bendel [band or ribbon], neckerchour, mocket [bib or handkerchief], or linnen cappe coloured, or dyed with Saffron, be yet to use, or weare in any of their shirts or smocks above seven yards of cloth to be measured according to the King's Standard, and that also no woman use or weare any kyrtell, or cote tucked up, or imbroydered or garnished with silke, or courched [overlaid, embroidered] ne layd with usker [usgar Irish for jewels], after the Irish fashion, and that no person or persons, of what estate, condition or degree they be, shall use, or weare any mantles, cote, or hood, made after the Irish fashion."  From a Collection of all the Statutes of in use in the Kingdom of Ireland, Dublin 1678, as quoted in McClintock.(2)
  • As quoted in McClintock.(2)
  • Reprinted in Judge Madden's Early History of Classical Learning in Ireland, page 44, as quoted in McClintock.(2)
  • page 95 in Rita Buchanan's Weaver's Garden.  Loveland, CO:  Interweave Press, 1987: "Safflower Composite family. Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is a dye of ancient usage in its own right, but it carries the epithet "Bastard saffron" because of its use as a substitute for, or adulterant of, that more expensive dyestuff, true saffron. Apparently native to central Asia, safflower has been cultivated as a dye plant in China, Japan, India and Egypt."
  • Vol II of the 1722 edition of Camden's Britannia
  • page 33 in Liles, J.N.  The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing.  Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
  • McClintock(2), page 69.
  • McClintock(2), page 70.
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