Kermes (dye)

Last updated
The Coronation Mantle of Roger II of Sicily, silk dyed with kermes and embroidered with gold thread and pearls. Royal Workshop, Palermo, Sicily, 1133-34. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Weltliche Schatzkammer Wienc.jpg
The Coronation Mantle of Roger II of Sicily, silk dyed with kermes and embroidered with gold thread and pearls. Royal Workshop, Palermo, Sicily, 1133–34. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Kermes is a red dye derived from the dried bodies of the females of a scale insect in the genus Kermes , primarily Kermes vermilio . The Kermes insects are native in the Mediterranean region and are parasites living on the sap of the host plant, the Kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) and the Palestine oak (Quercus calliprinos). [1] These insects were used as a red dye since antiquity by the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Indians, Greeks, Romans, and Iranians. The kermes dye is a rich red, a crimson. It has good colour fastness in silk and wool. It was much esteemed in the medieval era for dyeing silk and wool, particularly scarlet cloth. Post-medievally it was replaced by other red dyes, starting with cochineal.



Kermes ultimately derives from the Sanskrit word कृमिज or kṛmija meaning "worm-made". [2] This was adopted into Persian and later Arabic as قرمز qermez. The modern English word kermes was borrowed from the French term kermès.


Kermes dye is of ancient origin; jars of kermes have been found in a Neolithic cave-burial at Adaouste, northeast of Aix-en-Provence. [3] The early Egyptians made use of the kermes dye. [4]

In the Middle Ages, rich crimson and scarlet silks dyed with kermes in the new silk-weaving centers of Italy and Sicily exceeded the legendary Tyrian purple "in status and desirability". [5] The dyestuff was called "grain" (grana) in all Western European languages because the desiccated eggs resembled fine grains of wheat (or sand), [6] and they were mistaken for plants [7] ; so textiles dyed with kermes were described as dyed in the grain. [8] Woollens were frequently dyed blue with woad before spinning and weaving, and then piece-dyed in kermes, producing a wide range colours from blacks and grays through browns, murreys, purples, and sanguines. [8] One source dated to the 12th-century notes that kermes dye adheres best to animal-based fibers (e.g. wool, silk, etc.), rather than to plant-based fibers (e.g. cotton, linen, etc.). [9]

By the 14th and early 15th century, brilliant full grain pure kermes scarlet was "by far the most esteemed, most regal" colour for luxury woollen textiles in the Low Countries, England, France, Spain and Italy. [6]

Following the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Mexican cochineal, which produced a stronger dye and could thus be used in smaller quantities, replaced kermes dyes in general use in Europe. [10] [11]

The biblical scarlet (tolaʻat šanī)

In the Bible, scarlet was one of three principal pigments used in the Temple curtain, [12] [13] appurtenances, [12] [14] and sacred vestments. [12] [15] In some cases scarlet wool threads were woven together with threads of other colors; [16] elsewhere a purely scarlet fabric was required. [17] In addition, scarlet-dyed yarn was thrown as an adjunct into the burning ashes of the Red heifer, [18] and was used as an adjunct in the purification ritual of lepers who had been healed. [19]

The English word for the biblical "scarlet" (Exodus 25:4, etc.) is a literal translation from the Septuagint (Koinē Greek : κόκκινον = kókkinon, meaning "scarlet"). The original Hebrew text (tola'at shani) translates to "scarlet worm", indicating that the scarlet color is derived from an animal, a requirement which was formalized in the Jerusalem Talmud (Kila'im 9:1 [32a]). [20] This animal, generally mistaken for a plant, was known in the Roman world as grani coccum = "the grain of scarlet." [21]

While production of the crimson or scarlet dye from the kermes scale insect had, traditionally, been an art preserved with medieval dyers, the practice seemed to have been lost for many centuries. [22] Late exponents of Jewish law were baffled by the Tosefta's ruling that tola'at shani (scarlet colored ritual wool) may only be made from the tola'at (worm-like aphid) which lives in the mountainous regions. [23] [24] The dye's crimson or scarlet-orange tinge is alluded to in an early rabbinic source, Pesikta Rabbati , where tola'at shani is said to be "neither red, nor green," but of an intermediate color. [25] Biblical exegete Saadia Gaon (882–942) wrote that the scarlet colored fabric was qirmiz (Arabic : قرمز), derived from the kermes insect [26] [27] and which produced a color ranging from Venetian scarlet to crimson. According to Saadia, the dye was applied to silk yarns. A rare 10th-century Arabic document was retrieved by Zohar Amar, from which he was able to reproduce the dye extract, using antique methods. [28]

Dye production

Out of the four kermes scale insects tested in Israel, the wingless female Kermes echinatus with her unhatched eggs still in her body yielded the brightest red colorant. [1] [29] The scale insect is first dried and ground to a powder. The dyestuff is then placed in a pot of water and cooked on a low heat, which turns the water red. [30] The water is then strained and is ready for use. [30] Those familiar with the dyeing technique have noted that before inserting the fabric into the bath containing the dye solution, the fabric is first dipped into a bath of dissolved alum, which, when added to the dye solution, gives to the fabric its bright reddish-orange color, besides serving as a mordant. [31] [32] Darker shades are achieved by repeating the dyeing process several times, having the fabric dry, and re-dyed. [33]

According to field research conducted by Amar and colleagues, the female K. echinatus insect, which has a camouflage color of grey to reddish-brown, "produces the dye pigment in both her body and in her eggs, only at the peak of her adulthood, which continues for no more than one month, around July and August." [34] [1] A delay in harvesting the scale insect with eggs may result in a significant reduction in dye production. [29] After collecting, the insects are first dried in the shade for a period of one week, ground to a powder, and then steeped in water for 45 minutes and which maintains a low-heated temperature of 60 degrees Celsius to 80°C (140° Fahrenheit to 176°F). To this hot bath is added the fabric to absorb the dye. Heating the dye solution to a temperature more than this is liable to destroy the pigment or to cause fading. [29] When alum is added to the dye substance as a mordant, a bright red-orange hue is obtained, which color is then made color-fast.

Wool dyed with the scale insect kermes Kermes - Neve Tzuf.jpg
Wool dyed with the scale insect kermes

Chemical analysis of the dye extract shows a high percentage of kermesic acid (C16H10O8) (Ka; maximum at 480 nanometers [nm]) and flavokermesic acid (Fk; maximum at 432 nm). Wool dyed in an acid bath solution with kermes produced a red-orange hue, but without the acidic addition the color remained a brick red or dark red. [35] Other acid bath solutions produced a golden-yellow hue. [35]

Amar found that the host trees in the Land of Israel (viz. Quercus calliprinos) produced varied sizes of the scale insect Kermes echinatus, the largest of which being found in Israel's north, particularly in the Upper Galilee region and in the northern parts of the Golan Heights, which reached a mean size of 6.4–5 millimeters. [29] However, the scale insect's distribution was not uniform. Some trees were effected by the parasites, while others were not. [29] 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of freshly harvested kermes scale insects loses about two-thirds of its weight when dried. [36] [29] The dried dyestuff is sold either in its raw form as kernels, as powder, or as briquettes. [36] Approximately 50,000 to 60,000 scale insects are needed to produce one kilogram of the dried dyestuff. [36] [29]

In literature

In the Hebrew Bible, scarlet was considered a striking and lively color, [37] and was used in priestly garments and other ritual items, [38] but could also symbolize sin. [39]

Scarlet was one of the chief colors used to decorate the bridal chamber in Jewish weddings, in which large colored sheets of scarlet overlaid with gold were hung. [40] [29]

As part of the Yom Kippur Temple service, a man would lead away the scapegoat and, when he reached a precipitous ravine some distance away, he would tie scarlet thread to its horns, before pushing it down to its death. [41] [42]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dye</span> Soluble chemical substance or natural material which can impart color to other materials

A dye is a colored substance that chemically bonds to the substrate to which it is being applied. This distinguishes dyes from pigments which do not chemically bind to the material they color. Dye is generally applied in an aqueous solution and may require a mordant to improve the fastness of the dye on the fiber.

Crimson is a rich, deep red color, inclining to purple. It originally meant the color of the kermes dye produced from a scale insect, Kermes vermilio, but the name is now sometimes also used as a generic term for slightly bluish-red colors that are between red and rose. It is the national color of Nepal.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mordant</span> Substance used for binding dyes to fabrics

A mordant or dye fixative is a substance used to set dyes on fabrics. It does this by forming a coordination complex with the dye, which then attaches to the fabric. It may be used for dyeing fabrics or for intensifying stains in cell or tissue preparations. Although mordants are still used, especially by small batch dyers, it has been largely displaced in industry by directs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carmine</span> Pigment, aluminum salt of caminic acid

Carmine – also called cochineal, cochineal extract, crimson lake, or carmine lake – is a pigment of a bright-red color obtained from the aluminium complex derived from carminic acid. Specific code names for the pigment include natural red 4, C.I. 75470, or E120. Carmine is also a general term for a particularly deep-red color.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Scarlet (cloth)</span>

Scarlet was a type of fine and expensive woollen cloth common in Medieval Europe. In the assessment of John Munro, 'the medieval scarlet was therefore a very high-priced, luxury, woollen broadcloth, invariably woven from the finest English wools, and always dyed with kermes, even if mixed with woad, and other dyestuffs. There is no evidence for the use of the term scarlet for any other textile, even though other textiles, especially silks, were also dyed with kermes.'

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Scale insect</span> Superfamily of insects

Scale insects are small insects of the order Hemiptera, suborder Sternorrhyncha. Of dramatically variable appearance and extreme sexual dimorphism, they comprise the infraorder Coccomorpha which is considered a more convenient grouping than the superfamily Coccoidea due to taxonomic uncertainties. Adult females typically have soft bodies and no limbs, and are concealed underneath domed scales, extruding quantities of wax for protection. Some species are hermaphroditic, with a combined ovotestis instead of separate ovaries and testes. Males, in the species where they occur, have legs and sometimes wings, and resemble small flies. Scale insects are herbivores, piercing plant tissues with their mouthparts and remaining in one place, feeding on sap. The excess fluid they imbibe is secreted as honeydew on which sooty mold tends to grow. The insects often have a mutualistic relationship with ants, which feed on the honeydew and protect them from predators. There are about 8,000 described species.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dyeing</span> Process of adding color to textile products like fibers, yarns, and fabrics

Dyeing is the application of dyes or pigments on textile materials such as fibers, yarns, and fabrics with the goal of achieving color with desired color fastness. Dyeing is normally done in a special solution containing dyes and particular chemical material. Dye molecules are fixed to the fiber by absorption, diffusion, or bonding with temperature and time being key controlling factors. The bond between dye molecule and fiber may be strong or weak, depending on the dye used. Dyeing and printing are different applications; in printing, color is applied to a localized area with desired patterns. In dyeing, it is applied to the entire textile.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Scarlet (color)</span> Color shade of bright red

Scarlet is a bright red color, sometimes with a slightly orange tinge. In the spectrum of visible light, and on the traditional color wheel, it is one-quarter of the way between red and orange, slightly less orange than vermilion.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Textile printing</span> Method for applying patterns to cloth using printing techniques

Textile printing is the process of applying color to fabric in definite patterns or designs. In properly printed fabrics the colour is bonded with the fibre, so as to resist washing and friction. Textile printing is related to dyeing but in dyeing properly the whole fabric is uniformly covered with one colour, whereas in printing one or more colours are applied to it in certain parts only, and in sharply defined patterns.

<i>Kermes</i> (insect) Genus of true bugs

Kermes is a genus of scale insects in the order Hemiptera. They feed on the sap of evergreen oaks; the females produce a red dye, also called "kermes", that is the source of natural crimson. The word "kermes" is derived from Turkish qirmiz or kirmizi, "crimson", deriving itself from Persian *کرمست (*kermest) via Proto-Indo-Iranian *kŕ̥miš, from Proto-Indo-European *kʷŕ̥mis (“worm”).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Polish cochineal</span> Species of true bug

Polish cochineal, also known as Polish carmine scales, is a scale insect formerly used to produce a crimson dye of the same name, colloquially known as "Saint John's blood". The larvae of P. polonica are sessile parasites living on the roots of various herbs – especially those of the perennial knawel – growing on the sandy soils of Central Europe and other parts of Eurasia. Before the development of aniline, alizarin, and other synthetic dyes, the insect was of great economic importance, although its use was in decline after the introduction of Mexican cochineal to Europe in the 16th century.

<i>Sokutai</i> Traditional Japanese outfit worn those in the Japanese imperial court

The sokutai (束帯) is a traditional Japanese outfit worn only by courtiers, aristocrats and the emperor at the Japanese imperial court. The sokutai originated in the Heian period, and consists of a number of parts, including the ho, shaku (笏), a flat ritual baton or sceptre, and the kanmuri (冠), a cap-shaped black lacquered silk hat with a pennon.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lincoln green</span> Green colour of dyed woollen cloth formerly originating in Lincoln, England

Lincoln green is the colour of dyed woollen cloth formerly originating in Lincoln, England, a major cloth town during the high Middle Ages. The dyers of Lincoln, known for colouring wool with woad to give it a strong blue shade, created the eponymous Lincoln green by overdyeing this blue wool with yellow weld or dyers' broom, Genista tinctoria. Other colours like "Coventry blue" and "Kendal green" were linked to the dyers of different English towns.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cochineal</span> Species of insect producing the crimson dye carmine

The cochineal is a scale insect in the suborder Sternorrhyncha, from which the natural dye carmine is derived. A primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America through North America, this insect lives on cacti in the genus Opuntia, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients. The insects are found on the pads of prickly pear cacti, collected by brushing them off the plants, and dried.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Natural dye</span> Dye extracted from plant or animal sources

Natural dyes are dyes or colorants derived from plants, invertebrates, or minerals. The majority of natural dyes are vegetable dyes from plant sources—roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood—and other biological sources such as fungi.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of dyeing terms</span>

Dyeing is the craft of imparting colors to textiles in loose fiber, yarn, cloth or garment form by treatment with a dye. Archaeologists have found evidence of textile dyeing with natural dyes dating back to the Neolithic period. In China, dyeing with plants, barks and insects has been traced back more than 5,000 years. Natural insect dyes such as Tyrian purple and kermes and plant-based dyes such as woad, indigo and madder were important elements of the economies of Asia and Europe until the discovery of man-made synthetic dyes in the mid-19th century. Synthetic dyes quickly superseded natural dyes for the large-scale commercial textile production enabled by the industrial revolution, but natural dyes remained in use by traditional cultures around the world.

Wet Processing Engineering is one of the major streams in Textile Engineering or Textile manufacturing which refers to the engineering of textile chemical processes and associated applied science. The other three streams in textile engineering are yarn engineering, fabric engineering, and apparel engineering. The processes of this stream are involved or carried out in an aqueous stage. Hence, it is called a wet process which usually covers pre-treatment, dyeing, printing, and finishing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Armenian cochineal</span> Species of true bug

The Armenian cochineal, also known as the Ararat cochineal or Ararat scale, is a scale insect indigenous to the Ararat plain and Aras (Araks) River valley in the Armenian Highlands and in Turkey. It was formerly used to produce an eponymous crimson carmine dyestuff known in Armenia as vordan karmir and historically in Persia as kirmiz. The species is critically endangered within Armenia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Red pigments</span> Materials used to make red colors in painting

Red pigments are materials, usually made from minerals, used to create the red colors in painting and other arts. The color of red and other pigments is determined by the way it absorbs certain parts of the spectrum of visible light and reflects the others. The brilliant opaque red of vermillion, for example, results because vermillion reflects the major part of red light, but absorbs the blue, green and yellow parts of white light.


  1. 1 2 3 Amar, et al. (2005), p. 1081
  2. Company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing. "The American Heritage Dictionary entry: Kermes". Retrieved 2021-08-16.
  3. Barber (1991), pp. 230–231
  4. Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. Kermes insect and dye
  5. Schoeser (2007), p. 118
  6. 1 2 Munro, John H. "The Anti-Red Shift – To the Dark Side: Colour Changes in Flemish Luxury Woollens, 1300–1500". In Netherton & Owens-Crocker (2007), pp. 56–57.
  7. In Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Pliny, but not Pausanias
  8. 1 2 Munro, John H. "Medieval Woollens: Textiles, Technology, and Organisation". In Jenkins (2003), pp. 214–215.
  9. Amar (2007), pp. 34, 52 (citing Ibn al-Baitar and others).
  10. Schoeser (2007), pp. 121, 248
  11. Barber (1982), p. 55.
  12. 1 2 3 Amar (2007), p. 21
  13. Cf. Exodus 26:31; 2 Chronicles 3:14
  14. Cf. Numbers 4:8
  15. Cf. Exodus 28:5–6; Exodus 39:1
  16. Exodus 26:31; Exodus 28:6
  17. Numbers 4:8
  18. Cf. Numbers 19:6
  19. Cf. Leviticus 14:4
  20. Amar (2007), pp. 15–20
  21. Amar (2007), p. 28, citing Pliny the Elder, Natural History (XXII.3.3.), or coccum rubens granum, "the red kernel kermes" (Pliny, NH IX.141) and which Pliny says was used to dye the military costumes of their generals.
  22. Amar, et al. (2005), p. 1080
  23. Bleich (1967), p. 114. Cf. Exodus 39:29
  24. Cf. Tosefta Menachot 9:6 [16]–7 [17], where it states: "Shani tola'at (scarlet producing worm) comes from the tola'at (worm-like aphid) that is in the mountains. Had it been brought from aught other than the tola'at that is in the mountains, it is invalid." [ Tosefta with the commentary Ḥasdei David, David Pardo (ed.), vol. 6 (Kodashim – I), Vagshal: Jerusalem 1994, p. 331 (s.v. Menachot 9:6)].
  25. Pesikta Rabbati (n.d.). Meir Ish Shalom of Vienna (ed.). Midrash Pesikta Rabbati (in Hebrew). Israel: not identified. p. 98b (chapter 20 – end, section Matan Torah). OCLC   249274973. (reprinted from 1880 edition): "[When Moses went up on high]... he saw a troop of angels that were dressed in clothing that resembled the sea. He (God) said to him: `This is the [color of] techelet ` (i.e. blue). ... He [then] saw men dressed in red clothing... He (God) said to him: `This is [the color of] arğaman` (i.e. purple red). He went backwards and he saw a troop that were dressed in clothes that were neither red, nor green. He (God) said to him: `This is [the color of] tola'at shani` (i.e. crimson). He [again] went backwards and saw before him troops that were dressed in white clothing. `This is [the color of] twined linen` (i.e. that is referred to among the four colors used in the Temple service)."
  26. Amar (2007), pp. 14, 31
  27. Taj (Codex of the First Five Books of Moses), including the Targum of Onkelos and the Judeo-Arabic translation of Rabbi Saadia Gaon (Tafsir) and readings from the prophets ( Hafṭarah ), 2 volumes, Jerusalem 1894–1901 (jointly published with Shalom ben Yosef 'Iraqi Cohen-Tzedek), s.v. Exodus 25:4, Exodus 26:1, et al.
  28. Amar (2007), pp. 32, 51–52; citing The Nabataean Agriculture (Kitāb al-Filāḥa al-Nabaṭiyya), by Ibn Wahshiyya.
  29. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Segal, Arnon (2014). "Orange Riband (סרט כתום)". Maḳor Rishon (מקור ראשון) (in Hebrew) (860): 14. OCLC   1037747901.
  30. 1 2 Amar (2007), p. 51
  31. Amar (2007), p. 52
  32. "Mediterranean Kermes (Kermes vermilio Planchon)". Cultural Heritage Preservation and Natural Dyes Laboratory (DATU). 2021. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
  33. Amar (2007), p. 53
  34. Amar (2007), p. 42
  35. 1 2 Amar, et al. (2005), p. 1082
  36. 1 2 3 Amar (2007), p. 82
  37. Genesis 38:28; Joshua 2:18,21; Jeremiah 4:30
  38. Exodus 25:4
  39. Isaiah 1:18
  40. Tosefta, Sotah 15:9
  41. Mishnah Yoma 6:6)
  42. Amar (2007), pp. 21–22


Further reading