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Adrianna Catena
University of Warwick
Early Career Fellowship

The hatters' blues: a microglobal history of new world dyes in Early Modern Spain

Indigofera suffruticosa, Köhler, F.E., Medizinal Pflanzen, vol. 3: t. 36

Indigofera suffruticosa, Köhler, F.E., Medizinal Pflanzen, vol. 3: t. 36 (1890).

The Atlantic trade in dyes, including some of the most valuable goods from the Indies – Mexican cochineal, Caribbean logwood, and Central American indigo – had a large and lasting impact on the European textile industries, stimulating technological development and contributing to broader transformations within the sector. Yet these changes were neither smooth nor immediate. Over the course of the sixteenth century, increasing access to New World dyes generated enthusiasm, but also resistance and conflict. Micro-histories of specific episodes of innovation and resistance can convey the complexities of the reception and integration of new raw materials into production processes.

One key case is that of the Segovian hatters, who clashed with local authorities in a succession of legal disputes, sparked by the introduction of New World indigo. In 1581, two decades after the ‘discovery’ of indigo in the Spanish Americas, the hatters of Segovia were tried before the local magistrate for endangering the population and polluting the city. At the heart of the conflict lay the increasing use of small, indigo dyeing vats that were heated during use (causing frequent fires), and their contents (including urine), emptied onto the streets. When the attempt was made to ban these vats, however, the motion was collectively appealed by the city’s ‘makers of cloth’; with these new materials and techniques, they claimed, ‘now anyone can dye, without having to be a master dyer.’ The availability of indigo made it possible for hat-makers and artisans in the clothing trade to break their dependence on specialist dyers; yet in doing so they would also affect deeply rooted concerns related to urban spaces: medieval Spanish dye works, with their foul odors and contaminating waste, were kept at a distance from towns and cities. 

Before the development of synthetic dyes in the mid-nineteenth century, the European textile industries remained wholly reliant on natural dyestuffs. The importance, in this context, of high quality dyes providing lasting, even, and bright shades cannot be overemphasised. Even so, and in contrast to other Atlantic commodities, the social impact of the diffusion of New World dyes within the Spanish Empire (especially as it was experienced by those who manipulated them), has received limited attention. Focusing on judicial records concerning labour and production in the great textile centres of Spain, I will approach one of the least studied aspects of the history of New World dyes, with two objectives: to identify the immediate, practical effects of their integration into the Spanish dyeing sector, and to explore the broader, social consequences of their diffusion on artisans and artisanal networks. 

Engaging with the relationship of craftsmen to their materials, considering their individual and collective preoccupations, my investigation will complement recent work on early modern guilds and technology. It responds, moreover, to current debates in the field of material culture, the call (broadly described), for a shift in the historical lens from ‘buyers’ to ‘makers’, from an emphasis on finished goods, to a more sustained examination of how they were made and used in daily life. 

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