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"How does Union indigo fade?" Topic

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1,127 hits since 16 Dec 2017
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Comments or corrections?

Cleburne186316 Dec 2017 9:43 a.m. PST

How does the true Civil War era indigo dye fade on sack coats, frock coats, and forage caps.

Does it fade into a slightly purple shade, or a lighter blue shade?

So this slightly purple shade

or this light blue shade

I don't own these pictures,and I realize lighting conditions can affect the picture. But I think you get the point.

Or both? However, I thought the process was pretty standardized for the Union. I would think real indigo dye would only fade one way. But I can be wrong.

Personal logo Cacique Caribe Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2017 9:57 a.m. PST

What do the ones in museums look like, specially those of the average battered soldier? Or the blue in weathered Union flags?


Cleburne186316 Dec 2017 10:00 a.m. PST

Difficult to tell sometimes. I should say, I don't have any pictures.

Roderick Robertson Fezian16 Dec 2017 10:00 a.m. PST

I'd guess "both", not only from the original dye used, but also environmental factors (does your land feature red dust or brown? What's your washing water like? Lots of coal or wood smoke in the air?)

Timmo uk16 Dec 2017 10:01 a.m. PST

My view on this is to take either of these images into Photoshop or similar and desaturate the colour. Both will tend towards greyer versions depending on how far you remove the hue. One thing that is impossible is for any coloured wool based uniform to get brighter as it ages.

Personal logo Cacique Caribe Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2017 10:09 a.m. PST

Or you could use green and call them Berdan's sharpshooters. :)


79thPA Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2017 10:13 a.m. PST

I did some research on the colors of Union overcoats and the color spectrum ran from a light blue to an almost black. As long as you are somewhere in that color spectrum, there was too much variation in the manufacturers' process to say that this shade is correct, and that shade is wrong.

attilathepun47 Inactive Member16 Dec 2017 10:19 a.m. PST

I think the real question is, were both of these reproduction uniforms actually dyed with real indigo? If not, then you really could not expect them to fade in the same way.

Personal logo Extra Crispy Sponsoring Member of TMP16 Dec 2017 10:39 a.m. PST

+1 79th PA

True for pretty much any pre-1900 era uniforms.

14Bore16 Dec 2017 10:40 a.m. PST

I have seen up close Gen Sherman's frock coat from Atlanta campaign and not much faiding and was very dark

wakenney16 Dec 2017 10:51 a.m. PST

These were largely dyed with logwood to get that blue color. Indigo was used but was more expensive. Logwood dyed wools, when it starts to age, can change to a variety of colors based on the mordent used and if the fabric was treated afterwards to stop the chemical reaction.

I have seen blue wool coats fade to a variety of colors over the years. One gentleman I reenact with has always worn a greyish brown regimental. Everyone assumed that his impression was a civilian trying to dress as a military man. I was doing a repair for him one day and flipped back his facings to find that the wool underneath was still a nice, dark French blue.

For CW coats, I would stick to fading to a brownish color.

The bigger question for me would be how long does it take to fade?

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2017 11:10 a.m. PST

Remember the old Murphy adage:

All government equipment will be produced by the lowest bidder, insuring its quality will be the same.

Higher ranked Officers would have often paid their own money for better quality uniforms, unlike the enlisted man, so the quality and fade properties would be quite different.

I once read about a Napoleonic British regiment during the Peninsular Campaign who received new uniforms. A few days later then crossed a stream, the water up to their waists. Stepping out the stream, the lower half of their coats were now a pale pink.

How long would it take for the indigo [if that dye was used in the first place] to fade? Roll the dice on that one.

Personal logo jeffreyw3 Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2017 11:17 a.m. PST

About indigo fading… TMP link

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2017 11:48 a.m. PST

Let me throw another couple of questions on to the fire:
1) What was the usual interval at which the US Army issued replacement uniforms? And, depending obviously on local supply factors, at what point could a Union soldier get a special issue because his uniform was no longer satisfactory? Would discoloration be a factor?
2) Did everyone receive a new uniform starting out? (Including 90 day volunteers?) I remember Berdan's complaining once because the "new" issue of green uniforms post-Gettysburg was the old ones they'd had to turn in before. But Berdan's may have been a special case.
Given the high turnover, ACW fade might look very different from Plains Wars fade even if everyone started out with the same fabric and dye.

McLaddie, make it even more fun: remember that some of those officers--more junior ones and higher number regiments especially in a British Army--won't have any money. The cheapest uniform they can get past the Colonel, worn to rags--and worn well past supercession date if they can get away with it. I'll bet money some of the recalled Prussian and Hanoverian officers of 1813 brought 1806 and 1803 uniforms out of the wardrobe.

This sort of thing is more fun in 28mm than in 6mm, of course.

Grelber16 Dec 2017 3:38 p.m. PST

The 1888 US Army regulations asked potential contractors to drop by the supply office and pick up a swatch to match, which I suspect is pretty much what they did during the Civil War.

National Geographic has done articles on the Tuareg people of North Africa, who were also fond of an indigo based dye. This faded to a lighter, sky blue, with just a slight greenish tinge. However, they used a different mordant, which probably made a difference.


Yellow Admiral Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2017 9:34 p.m. PST

I thought it faded to violet and then lavender. Are you saying my teeming purple Union hordes are the wrong color?

- Ix

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP16 Dec 2017 10:15 p.m. PST

I remember reading that the Iron Brigade blue was as close to black as you could get and still be blue. That's how I painted them.

GildasFacit Sponsoring Member of TMP17 Dec 2017 3:54 a.m. PST

The colouring agent in Indigo is Indigotin and this is present in quite a lot of plants across the world. The differences in colour often come from other colourants in those plants.

Yellow dyes are quite often present and give a greenish blue cast to weak dye but not enough to change the appearance of a strong dye. If these dyes are more permanent than Indigotin the 'washed out' colour can be affected too.

As stated above, the mordant and fixative used can affect how permanent the dye is and how it fades – either by washing out or by chemical action. Logwood is particularly sensitive to chemical action after dyeing.

Personal logo Flashman14 Supporting Member of TMP17 Dec 2017 5:06 a.m. PST

I don't know about ACW era dye processes, but if you want to follow the older Napoleonic French model where indigo was in widespread use, the important distinction is that, if they fade at all, it's to something closer to purple gray not to anything approaching sky blue.

These are changes in saturation not of hue. Wool articles won't become brighter with use but duller.

I get it; people have invested a lot of time and regal, royal or ultramarine (shudders) blue jackets with bright sky blue highlights are predominant because 1) the colors are widely available 2) the good alternative ones are not and 3) people struggle with colors that are very dark and closer to black, where highlights seemingly don't give a satisfactory contrast.

The answer, to capture that dynamic range of highlights, is to go to a dark gray.

See my further comments with examples here: TMP link. A taste (these aren't mine):


Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP17 Dec 2017 10:15 a.m. PST

The 1888 US Army regulations asked potential contractors to drop by the supply office and pick up a swatch to match, which I suspect is pretty much what they did during the Civil War.

The actual formula for the blue was not uniform among all the contractors, part of the reason that the contractor would come in to get a swatch of cloth with the desired color from supply. If it was a universal dye formula, there would have been no need for the swatch.

GildasFacit Sponsoring Member of TMP17 Dec 2017 3:25 p.m. PST

McL : In 1860 a 'universal dye formula' was unachievable. That only began to be possible when the chemical industry started to produce dyes of consistent strength and hue. Even then no absolute guarantee of a consistent colour result was achievable because of the number of variables in the dying process that were only gradually brought under control.

Even in the 1950's dyed natural cloth was tested for colour consistency in most of the industry, failure to meet acceptable standards wasn't common – but it did happen.

Flashman : usually it is true that hue remains consistent but, in the case of a dye using more than one component, or multiple dyeings, one may fade faster than another and a hue shift will occur. Chemical changes in poorly fixed dyes (rare by 1850) can also cause colour changes.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP18 Dec 2017 3:38 p.m. PST


Yes, that is a fascinating part of color developments. The artillery had a 'universal' color formula during the Napoleonic wars, but those colors were for wood and varnish.

I was simply pointing out why the swatches were necessary and that it was hard to match on a mass scale, so lots of variation would be seen.

the cadmium and cobalt colors weren't seen until after the Civil War. That and paint that could be stored in cans. It was one catalyst for the Impressionist period: New, vibrant colors.

Before that dyes and paints had to be made and used immediately--no way to store them. And the number of colors were far more limited. One reason so many houses were painted red or white was that those lead-based paints were cheap--and was a defense against wood-boring insects. With new colors, primers were used to get the benefits from lead paint.

Personal logo capncarp Supporting Member of TMP21 Dec 2017 12:09 a.m. PST

79thPA +2.
Colors varied _within dye lots_ for contract uniforms. Thety also weathered however the hell they wanted to. Make your best guess, weather it appropriately, and be proud of your work.
(this I know from helping Mrs. Carp in her business having period fabrics manufactured for the reenactment market. Union "sky blue" is a story all by itself.)

"the cadmium and cobalt colors weren't seen until after the Civil War. That and paint that could be stored in cans. It was one catalyst for the Impressionist period: New, vibrant colors."

That and aniline dyes (from coal tar extracts) came into use in the late 1850's as an accidental result of trying to synthesize quinine. "Vibrant" is an understatement for the colors now producible. Mrs. Carp said she would have loved to sew a ball gown in perfectly period-correct "traffic-cone orange", but the Civil War fashion "experts" would have shredded her, after they had gotten over their "vapors".

Clays Russians27 Dec 2017 9:11 a.m. PST

The indigo blue was one of the most fade stable fabric hues of the time. The Smithsonian has a collection of material clothes from federal issue garments that was a subject of research by a publication from a Mr Scott Cross from the mich historical society. There were variances in hue yes, but it wasn't from fading, it was from the dieing process.

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