Rabid Watermelon

I’ve been working on some linen I bought at a thrift store a while ago. When I bought it, it was a color that can only be described as ‘rabid watermelon’ – not a nice 18th century shade. I didn’t take a picture of it before I began working on the color, which I kind of regret. That color was insane.

I’ve been wanting a pink linen dress for a long time, so I decided to remove some of the dye and tone it down to pink. I tried RIT dye remover, then I cautiously used bleach – neither worked. Since the hand of the linen was changing and I was worried that the chemicals were eating the fibers, I stopped.

Plan B: Dye it darker. I’ve been thinking of a brown linen dress as well, so I figured I could dye over the rabid watermelon. It might work better now that I’d used dye remover. WRONG. I used a whole bath of dark red-brown dye and it barely changed the color of the linen.

Plan C: Make a black dye bath, dye the crap out of the linen, and whatever color it comes out as, deal with it because it’ll be better than rabid watermelon. Well, I made a very dark dye bath, and the linen came out a beautiful shade of raspberry-bordeaux-wine-something.


The final color: because I’m not going to try dyeing this stuff again.

The problem is, I can’t find 18th-century linen dresses in this color. Well, let me re-phrase that. I can’t find original 18th-century linen dresses in that color. This color is popular for Halloween costumes (gag) and poor reproduction gowns (“I’ll wear it with a blue petticoat and a white apron and ‘mob’ cap and I will look SO 1776!”) (gag).

I’ve found red, red-brown and red-purple silk dresses – they’re all over the place.


Brown-red silk dress, 1740-60, England. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Miss Ramsay in a Red Dress circa 1760-65 by Allan Ramsay 1713-1784

Allan Ramsay, Miss Ramsay in a Red Dress. 1760-65, The Tate Gallery.

Robe a la Francaise, 1770-80, The Mint Museum.

Robe a la Francaise, 1770-80, The Mint Museum. What an incredible color. Actually, although it’s silk, this color is similar to my linen. And look at that hat. That is an awesome hat.

Red linen dresses seem more difficult to find than red silk. I’ve found red linen used in small things like wallet linings, and for some men’s clothing. I’m not saying they didn’t have red linen – I’ve just never found a solid red linen dress.

I spoke to an acquaintance who is a Jedi at natural dyeing, and showed her a swatch of my wonky linen. She said the color could easily have been made with plants and materials found in the colonies through the 18th century.

What happened? Were there a lot of red linen gowns that didn’t survive? Did they all fade to pink or brown?

I’m beginning to think that shades of solid red were just not very popular for linen gowns. I’m not sure why. It was probably just fashion, because you can’t say they didn’t have red linen. Maybe what I’m seeing is a difference in class fashion: solid red was okay for silk dresses for the rich, but not for lower/middle class linen gowns … ? I’m grasping at straws here.

I don’t know. I want to make a dress out of this linen, but I’m not fully confident in the color. Oyy.


About Amanda Goebel

I'm an Anthropology / Fashion History and Material Culture graduate from The University of Delaware, currently working on a Master's in Museum Studies. I'm a living historian interested in costume and culture from years before. I love researching the mundane and the everyday that has changed or disappeared since. I re-enact the 18th century, and I recreate clothing from that time. This blog is where I'll write about my research and projects. View all posts by Amanda Goebel

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