Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

Getting to Blue


In my last blog A Purple Pursuit, I wrote about Browning’s Popularity, in which he referred to shellfish dye in a complex poem on inspiration, skill and genius. What I didn’t say, but others wisely pointed out, was the oddity of Browning referring to the dye as blue throughout the poem. Shellfish dye (from the ‘Tyrian shells’) is quite definitely purple and the colour, history and source of Imperial Purple were well known in Browning’s time. So, why blue?

Who has not heard how Tyrian shells
Enclosed the blue, that dye of dyes

Whereof one drop worked miracles,
And coloured like Astarte’s eyes
Raw silk the merchant sells?

I scratched around many sources but failed to find a historical reference, or image, defining Astarte’s eyes as blue. Maybe I have missed something. But the Resident Poetry Advisor says that Browning was more than capable of implying non-existent references, or even inventing them. This seems most perverse, but Browning was a poet and that’s the kind of thing poets do.


Author’s indigo-dyed wool yarn, using increasing vat strength

Putting Browning firmly aside, I happened across a reference to William Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Gladstone (1809 – 1908) was a British Liberal politician, three times Prime Minister, living at a time when politicians digested more than soundbites.

Gladstone studied the Iliad page by page, and as he did so he recorded the occurrence of words for colour. What he noticed was rather remarkable. He came across much mention of black, some white, less red, very little yellow, tiny amounts of green…but no blue. Was Homer ‘colourblind’, or unable to perceive colours? Were all Greeks the same, and their perception of colours (and the words to describe them) inherited, building over several generations? It left me wondering whether Astarte’s eyes could have been blue if there wasn’t yet a word for it, which was a head-spinning prospect.

Lazarus Geiger (1829-1870), a philosopher and philologist, took Gladstone’s research further and studied other ancient texts (for instance, Icelandic sagas, Vedic literature, and the original Hebrew version of the Bible) finding that none of them contained a word for blue. Geiger concluded that across ancient cultures, words for colour developed in an oddly consistent order. Black was always first, followed by white, red, yellow, green. Blue came next, eventually.

If this intrigues you, I suggest you listen to the Radiolab broadcast linked below. It makes more sense of it than I can here, but still left me wondering what exactly was being said. One of the programme’s guests is linguist Guy Deutscher. Listen, particularly, to the account of his little daughter trying to name the colour of the sky.


Author’s watercolour from sketchbook, 1995, recording the many dyed colours and fading shades of Buddhist monks’ robes in Sikkim and North India

My head can’t get itself round the concept that without an object to attach it to, a colour didn’t ‘exist’ and didn’t acquire a name. But that’s partly what is being said and it leads me to dyeing, and the need to name colours. I was dyeing felt last week, trying to achieve a good range of reds. I used different amounts of mordant, varied the percentages of weld, cochineal and madder and overdyed in different sequences. Small variations occurred in the reds and I sought to describe these to a client in words. Colours need adjectives like ‘bright’, ‘dark’, ‘dull’ etc but one inevitably ends up with a comparison to a universally understood coloured object, such as a poppy, a pillarbox, a brick, a patch of rust, a rose. We take this for granted but it’s very sophisticated, relying on a well-established set of understandings. We often need an object when we describe colour.

In her book Tintes y Tintoreros de América, Ana Roquero records the many changes that took place in Central and South American textile practice during the Spanish colonial period. One of the imports from Spain to the New World was an entire vocabulary for textiles. As well as words for machinery, tools, technical terms and cloth and fabric, this included words for colour. These colour words are still alive in parts of Latin America amongst mestizo weavers and dyers, when their use in today’s Spain is long lost.

In this case it’s the itinerant word that has preserved the colour, and I find that fascinating.


Radiolab broadcast ‘Why Isn’t the Sky Blue’ here

The Himba and the perception of colour Anthropology and the Human Condition: here


Roquero, Ana, 2006, Tintes y tintoreros de América: catálogo de materias primas y registro etnográfico de México, Centro América, Andes Centrales y Selva Amazónica, Ministerio de Cultura, España

Deutscher, Guy, 2010, Through the Language Glass, Heinemann


Please also check out the very interesting links offered in comments for this page. Many thanks to those who have written and included them


13 thoughts on “Getting to Blue

  1. One of the things I found most fascinating in learning Russian is that they have two different words for blue – essentially one for dark and one for light blue. However, the things they assign to the light blue category also include things we wouldn’t call blue at all, but grey. If I remember rightly (and my vocab is fast diminishing) the light blue word has the same root as the word for pigeon or dove. But having the two words has been shown to give them some advantages in discrimination between shades of blue over English speakers (

  2. Thanks for that link re ‘blue’ and Russian language speakers. I find it all distractingly fascinating, when I really ought to be doing something far more mundane!

  3. I’ve just been in Japan looking at basketmaking there where freshly split bamboo – green in colour, is called ‘blue’. When I asked why the answer was fairly vague but seemed to have something to do with blue being seen as ‘young’.

  4. Very interesting. The Chinese seem to have a similar concept to the Japanese. “Qing”, which I learnt as meaning green (whereas “lan” was blue), can actually mean green, blue or nearly black ( I always wondered why indigo in Chinese translated as “da qing ye” (big green leaf), but looks like it could be blue after all!

  5. Closer to home… Cornish/Welsh has the word glas which historically can mean blue/green/grey, though in Cornish these days it is reserved for blue and gwyrdh is used for green.
    Following on from others comments above, Morton Nance’s dictionary (1952/55 reprinted 1978) translates glas as “blue, green, grey, glaucous, pale, wan, (of fruit) unripe”. Glasa, the verb, means “to grow green, flourish, put forth leaves”, and other glas-words are all relating to greenness (eg evergreen oak, grass plot).
    MOST interestingly, glas is also the word for woad, blue dye! Woad dyed cloth IS green before it’s blue…

  6. I enjoyed this article and it reminded me of a Japanese friend who said that essentially Japanese lacks a word for ‘green’. A lot of what we would call green in England is the same word mentioned in the earlier comment which is closer to ‘fresh’–for example, to compliment somebody you can tell them their hair is looking very green today! On the other hand, traffic light green is called blue.

    An Italian friend on the other hand cites the same distinction as the Russian one, between ‘blu’ which is navy and ‘azul’ which is light blue or turquoise. So we look culturally rather ring-fenced in our colour naming choices…even if they seem like natural perceptions!

  7. Many thanks for this comment – I’m glad you enjoyed reading the article

  8. I love your blog and have just learned a great deal. I believe you may have some Japanese indigo plants which I would be interested in. I have lots of woad (seeds available) and am intending to process it this year. Advice gratefully received.

    • Hello Carole,
      Thank you for the feedback and I’m glad you have enjoyed reading my website. I’m sorry there have been few updates recently – I’ve been involved in countless other things. I do have some spare indigo plants but the practicality of getting them to you depends on where you live! I have just checked my ‘contact’ form as you could let me know your whereabouts through that, without the rest of the world seeing your details. But I’m now not sure I have it set up correctly. So first of all, please let me know where you live by replying to this – and we’ll take it from there. I’m not an expert on woad except to say that if you let it into your garden it will eventually put itself everywhere. It seeds like billy-o.

  9. From Susan Ackerman’s article at
    “Moreover, Astarte, like both her Greek counterpart Aphrodite and her Mesopotamian equivalent, the goddess Ishtar, has astral features. She is labeled the “lady of heaven” in several second-millennium b.c.e. Egyptian texts, and in the first-millennium b.c.e. inscription of Eshmunazor, she is called “Astarte of the highest heavens.””
    Perhaps Browning was thinking of the purple/blue of the sky?

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