“Tyria” or Shellfish purple
“Tyria” or Shellfish purple
by Cheryl Kolander, who IS Aurora Silk
As a professional Natural dyer for 50 years I have done a lot of research on the shellfish or
“Tyrian” purple dye. The following is a synopsis.
It is important to remember Tyrian Purple or Mollusk Purple is a dye used from great antiquity.
And this is in all places where it grows naturally, including the Mediterranean, and the Pacific
coast of Central America.
The sustainable harvesting of this dye is very important, as it could and did go extinct in places,
from overharvesting. Let’s not make the same mistake.
The traditional method of dying this precious colour is to return the live mollusk to its feeding
grounds, while only harvesting the dye. In Oaxaca, Mexico this is done by men who climb onto
the rocks at low tide, after first making a group prayer for thanks and safety. The sea snail is
plucked from the rock, held up to the sun, turned “foot” side up. The snail excretes a pale
yellow liquid: this is the dye. It is daubed onto a skein of yarn draped over the harvester’s
shoulder. In the air the colour turns purple. Then the snail is thanked and returned to the spot
from whence it was plucked. It is unharmed and will be there for further harvest next year.
The vat fermentation method seems to have been developed by the Phoenicians in the area
around Tyre, thus the name Tyrian Purple. In this method the mollusks are trolled up and
collected by youngsters in rowboats near shore. The snails are pulled from their shells, and
dropped into fresh water in ceramic vats, wooden tubs or pits gouged out of the rock. The mess
is let ferment for about a week. This reduces the liquid to a pale yellow.
In this reduced form it can enter the textile fiber. Then the cloth or yarn is wrung out, laid in the
air, and the yellow oxidizes to the Purple. This is exactly the same as Natural Indigo. In fact the
chemical is almost identical to Indigo, only more red, less blue.
The Romans overdid the harvesting. A stripe of this colour on an overrobe could only be worn
by Roman Nobility. This “Sign of Honor” was very precious, because it meant: “I am a Roman
Noble and you must feed me and house me, not just me but also my entire retinue”. Wow, talk
about “value”! This is what made Tyrian Purple dyed silk “worth its weight in gold”.
And if you wore it and were not a Roman Noble, it was the death penalty. Thus the prayer
shawls of the Hebrew people had to be revised. Traditionally the corner tassels, especially the
one long elaborate one, had been Tyrian Purple. They were changed to be Indigo blue.
Now here is a Million Dollar Tip: It is said the Phoenicians had dye works, not just as now being
harvested off the coast of Tunisia, but also off the coast of Morocco. I have asked a Natural
dyer there if he knows of any dyeworks being developed. None. Ho Ho! And remember: