Natural dyes, from plants and lichens were probably used extensively before imported dyes (such as madder and indigo) were introduced.  Artificial dyes were available from the late 1850s.

The natural colours of un-dyed wool seem to have been common, especially for aprons which range in shades from white to black. J.C. Ibbetson’s illustrations of costumes include a lot of white which might be un-dyed wool, but might also be a result of his choice of colour palate.

Blue, from woad and indigo seems to have been a common colour for bedgowns and skirts and for men’s jackets, waistcoats, stockings and sometimes their breeches at the end of the 18th century.

Blue shades vary from light sky-blue to almost black. These shades can be varied according to the quantity of mordants (such as iron) added to the dye.

There is a Welsh proverb ‘Y gwir lâs, ni chyll mo’i liw’ (True blue keeps its hue)
Jones, Edward, Musical and poetical relicks of the Welsh Bards, (3rd edition 1808), vol. 1, p. 9

‘Blue is the colour of Wales’ wrote Catherine Hutton in her description of Welsh cloaks, having seen her first crimson cloak on her return to England after her 1796 tour. Her 1796 and subsequent tours were restricted to north Wales where the only known surviving cloaks are found and these are very dark blue, almost black in colour (for example, some in Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery collection).
Hutton, Catherine, letter 9, Shrewsbury; Sept. 5, 1796, Published in the Monthly Magazine, 1816 and Hutton Beale, Catherine, Reminiscences of a Gentlewoman of the last century; letters of Catherine Hutton (Birmingham, Cornish Brothers, 1891.

1827 (or earlier), Pwllheli
… the markets are numerously attended, and to a person who has never had an opportunity of seeing a large assembly of the natives, in their holiday dress, will appear remarkably striking, and different from a scene of a similar nature in England, where the colour of the cloaks, gowns, coats and stockings, and every article of dress are nearly as various as the persons who wear them; but here, on the contrary, one uniform tint pervades the whole; the men being dressed completely in blue, which is the prevailing colour; and the women wearing blue cloaks and men’s hats with a white muslin handkerchief tied round the head and under the chin. Thus exhibiting one sombre moving mass of black and blue, in all its various shades and modifications.
Batenham, A., The Traveller’s companion in a pedestrian excursion from Chester through North Wales, including a description of the suspension bridge at Bangor, (1827 edition), p. 60

Plain red and scarlet seems to have been common especially in south-west Wales for shawls and occasionally for cloaks and for striped gowns and skirts.  It was derived from madder. Turkey red, a very stable deep red dye was produced by a special process. There is little evidence that cockles were used in Wales to make red dyes. Carmine from the cochineal insect might have been used as a red dye in Wales.
Jenkins, J. Geraint, The Welsh Woollen Industry, (1969), pp. 15-28; Davies, Brian H., ‘Scarlet – a red to dye for’, Melin, 2008.

It is said that Welsh women wore red petticoats or underskirts because the colour helped to counteract rheumatism, but few illustrations and even fewer examples of these survive.

see also:
Nenadie, Stana, and Tuckett, Sally, Colouring the Nation: The Turkey Red  Printed Cotton Industry in Scotland c.1840-1940 (National Museum of Edinburgh, 2013)

Green was rarely used in Welsh costume, but see Peter Price’s dye book (below). Green does appear on the costumes in some prints but these were probably hand coloured by people who never saw the original costumes. Green very rarely appears in watercolour sketches and oil paintings of costumes, e.g. Bennet Hubbard, A Welsh Milk Girl. 1866 Portrait of a young woman wearing a green bedgown.

An artificial dye which permanently dyed fabrics purple or mauve was invented in 1856. Three of the skirts and one of the underskirts in the Welsh costume dolls project had purple threads, but further analysis is required to discover whether an artificial or natural dye was used. See Pennant’s reference to purple dyes derived from lichens below. Some fabrics appear to be purple but are actually a mixture of blue and red fibres.

Striped fabrics
Many of the fabrics used for tailored bedgowns and skirting were striped with different coloured yarns. The woollen gowns were often of dark blue (almost black) with red stripes of varying patterns. Skirts and underskirts were made with a variety of often bright coloured broad stripes. The origins and significance (if any) of these patterns requires further study.

 ‘Anciently each parish wore a distinctive petticoat; the people of each parish were known by their petticoat; the number of stripes indicated the parish. I do not know if this were so all over Wales; but it was so in some counties.’ Mary Curtis, The Antiquities of Laugharne, Pendine and their Neighbourhoods. (written in 1877), 2nd edition 1880, p. 40-44. It is at present impossible to ascertain whether this is true – the exact provenance of most surviving fabrics is unknown. It is possible that this simply reflects the traditional patterns of local mills.

Recipes for dyes

Peter Price’s dye book, late 18th century. NLW ms 2865A 

References to dyes

1797 Malltraeth, Anglesey
Sea Sponge used for dying wool yellow
Davies, Walter, NLW MS 1755Bi, Notebook 2, Journal of a tour through n. Wales in 1797 (iv), pp. 1-11


1770 (about)
On all the slopes of this country is a lichen of a … colour called in welch Ker y Cerrig. It is gathered by the country people [something thoroughly crossed out] is the natural dye of the country; dyes purple or crimson; and much is sent to London and sold here at 10d per hundred. [note on opposite page:] Did not London borrow the dye from us Lleu Ker y Cerrig worn by our old gentry. Vast deal brought from Malta.
Pennant, Thomas, Account of a Journey through Wales, about 1770. NLW MS 2532 B (Pennant 12) with additions and corrections by John Lloyd, Caerwys, p. 36

1781 Bala
Reach Bala, a small town in the parish of Llanyckil, [Lanycil] noted for its vast trade in woollen stockings, and its great markets every Saturday mornings, when from two to five hundred pounds worth are sold each day, according to the demand. Round the place, women and children are in full employ, knitting along the roads; and mixed with them Herculean figures appear, assisting their Omphales in this effeminate employ.
Pennant, Thomas, The Journey to Snowdon, (1781), p. 67
Tours in Wales, by Thomas Pennant, Esq; 1778-1781 by the Editor, John Rhys, (1883), Volume 2, p. 204
1781 Snowdon
They manufacture their own cloaths; and dye their cloths with Cenn du y Cerrig, or Lichen omphaloides; and another Cenn, the Lichen parietinus; native dyes, collected from the rocks.
Pennant, Thomas, The Journey to Snowdon, (1781), p. 161
Tours in Wales, by Thomas Pennant, Esq; 1778-1781 by the Editor, John Rhys, (1883), p. 325

The significance of the use of the term Omphales in the first entry, and omphaloides in the second requires further research.

1815 (about)
The following is from Walter Davies’s note books. He refers to Theo (Theophilus) Jones, author of a History of Breconshire; E.W., probably Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg) with whom he worked on his survey of south Wales and Payne, probably Rev Henry Thomas Payne (1759-1832) who wrote much on the history of Breconshire.
Rocks in Penderyn , see Theo Jones in loc. Lichen calcareous, or limestone moss, when steeped in urine produces a fine scarlet colour sometimes collected and sold in large quantities for the English Mrs p. 627. E.W. doubts their being on limestone. He says they generally grow on sandstone. The Sugar Loaf and Skyryd Fawr, are sandstones- and a few years ago two old women collected £80 worth of the scarlet lichen for the contractor for soldiers clothing. Mr Payne. In Cardiganshire etc, the grey mountain rock [slate never]  produces a lichen, collected by the poor and sold to dealers in Aberystwyth. [is not this already entered. See journal CDE – 1813].’
Davies, Walter, NLW 1759 Bii, 6 chapter 15 poor, f. 382v. [The square brackets are his. Mrs = manufacturers.]

References to colours

The object of this prize is the improvement of the dying of the Welsh woollens which are now frequently deteriorated by the mixture of worsted, introduced on account of the superiority of its colour; but which in consequence of its shrinking, when wetted, in a different proportion to the wool, greatly injures the substance and appearance of the fabric, while the best Welsh woollens, as to texture are generally dull and muddy in colour.
Abergavenny Eisteddfod. NLW MS 13962E, 98b, bilingual poster; Cambrian (newspaper), 17.10.1840, 31.10.1840; The Welshman, 9.10.1840

[The pais (petticoat)] is made of flannel, as they call it; of a dark brown or puce colour, variegated in south Wales by lighter stripes, intersecting each other at right angles, checquerwise; but in the north, these stripes run only parallel to one another from top to bottom … Light and dark red seem to have endured thro’ centuries, and maintained their places till today, for it is in these colours that their flannels are principally dyed.
Anon (Pedestres), A Pedestrian Tour of Thirteen Hundred and Forty Seven Miles through Wales and England (1836), vol II, Chapter 1 p. 3-6

Mr Jones of Gwenffrwd says that the old Welsh coloured or dyed as follows:
Cochineal (red)
Oak (blue)
Walnut (delicate brown)
vol. 1, p. 80
notes on natural dyes
vol. 2, pp. 88-127
[notes from Jacob Jones of Moelwyn Mills, Blaenau Ffestiniog]
Lliw Cen Cerig dry on stones in north Wales (Clwyd) gathered from stones (boiled in loose sack for 20 minutes). No gulch (north Wales word for unrine). No Madder. dyed itself
Jacob Jones said: this was inexpensive to work and colour fast. whereas copras (?) changed the shade darker.
Coch Newydd. Alum had to be used before dipped into coch Newydd. Probably Coch Newydd was cochineal. Washed between Alum treatment and dyeing. Boiler cleaned in between.
vol. 5, p. 73
[Interview with an expert Welsh weaver. His father was also an expert and knew all the old Welsh terms in vernacular.]
Scarlet dyeing in Wales
Llifo Coch Newydd (old)       } red
Llifo Lerpool (new)                }
{Method of making dye from cochineal insects}
Cochineal used for shawls, quilts, striped flannels
Blue cloaks (indigo) for north Wales
vol. 5, p. 78
National Library of Wales, John Richard Jones collection,