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by Fiona Ellis

Color is a powerful thing, triggering emotional responses in all of us. And red is perhaps the most powerful color of all, evoking everything from passion and power to rage and romance. In some cultures it’s symbolic of purity or joy and happiness—one of the reasons it’s a traditional wedding color for brides in China, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam. Shift the cultural lens to the west and the red has a very different meaning: seduction, questionable morals, and even danger.


Some of red’s associations can be traced back to the physical responses it induces. Viewing red increases blood pressure, pulse and heart rates, and even stimulates appetite. These physical reactions may be why we associate red with activity, power, passion, and even aggression. But red is also considered seductive; the reds of both lipstick and blush, for example, mimic the flush seen when blood floods the lips and cheeks during arousal. And being the shortest wavelength on the spectrum, red is the first color the eye sees, making it attention-grabbing— the reason that it is used for warning signs.


Red can be seductive.


Our learned emotional responses to red are equally varied. Red can signify everything from a mark of honor (think red carpet) to a special occasion (red letter days are called such because important festivals, holidays, and saints’ days were inked in red on medieval church calendars) to something in need of correction (an association with school essays returned covered with comments in red ink).  We “see red” when we’re angry, are “in the red” when business is bad, and are “caught red handed” (originally a reference to blood on the hands) when guilty.  “Red herrings” divert our attention and we “paint the town red” when we let loose after a long workweek (the origins of that particular phrase are a source of debate).


Our view of red is also colored by its historical association with power. Roman senators wore red bands on their togas; the Catholic church dressed its cardinals in red robes. In Italy and Japan, only nobles were allowed to wear the color (in the latter country more common folk got around this rule by lining their kimonos in red). Louis XIV had a penchant for red-heeled shoes and soon had nobles all over Europe following in his footsteps.


What made red so special? Part of the allure was the color’s expense. Up until the mid-19th century, red was incredibly costly and time consuming to produce. 


Where Does Color Come From?

Many of the present day associations with red can be traced back to ancient civilizations, from the very first days when humans used pigments for decoration. The sources for red are varied, ranging from beetles and botanicals to minerals and manmade chemicals.


Some of the earliest red pigments were obtained from the female cochineal, a Mexican beetle that lives its entire life attached to the prickly pear cactus. Carmine, the color produced by this tiny insect, is the most vibrant of natural red colorants and is made by extracting carminic acid from the bodies of the beetles. It’s a pricy and labor-intensive process. Thousands of  insects must be harvested to produce the pigment in usable quantities and they’re then powdered to produce the color. Cochineal rely on the prickly pear for survival so their cultivation is geographically limited to areas that can sustain that particular plant. 


The female cochineal beetle is the source of a pigment known as carmine.
Image copyright Andie Luijk.


Cochineal was the treasure of the Incas and Aztecs long before the Spanish arrived in the region. It then became a closely guarded, highly prized secret, transported back to Europe (in the form of dried cochineal) by the conquistadors where it was traded as a commodity like gold and silver. Cochineal is still being produced today in Mexico, Chile, Peru, and the Canary Islands, touted as a non-toxic (although not vegan, kosher, or non-allergenic) alternative to modern chemical dyes.


Less costly to produce were red colorants made from plant matter. The perennial flowering plants of the Rubiaceae family, commonly known as madder or rose madder were the most common. Madder yields a red-orange pigment known in the 18th and 19th centuries as Turkey red. Pigment can be found throughout the plant but the color is most plentiful in the extensive root system. The roots are dried and then crushed to make the dye. This ancient process can be traced back to Roman times and even earlier; bandages of Egyptian mummies dyed red with madder have been found, and some experts traces its use back to the Neolithic era.


Rose madder pigment is used in lake form, meaning that the colored material requires a mordant (binder) for it to be usable in dying cloth. The mordants used in the past were noxious and unpleasant to handle—rancid fats, urine, oils, and even excrement—but this doesn’t seem to have prevented madder’s widespread use throughout Europe, India, and Japan. Rose madder remained a popular source for red pigment until 1868, when its chemical component was identified and synthesized. The new synthetic version, although not totally lightfast, was a great improvement upon the highly fugitive natural form.


Madder's pigment is most plentiful in the root.
Image copyright Andie Luijk.


Minerals are also a source of red pigment. Red ocher, derived from iron oxide, provides a brownish shade of red and, as evidenced by early cave paintings and textiles, is thought to be the one of the first pigments used by humankind. Early civilizations blended ocher with animal fats or oils to make body paint for rituals and battle. Our modern-day perception of red being the color of conflict, anger and passion may spring from this use. Similarly red’s connotation of seduction may come from the use of red ocher in fertility ceremonies. Today it is produced from synthetic forms of iron oxide.


Another toxic but plentiful mineral source for red was white lead, which when heated produces an orange-red hue known as minium. It fell from favor due to its highly poisonous nature and because it quickly darkens when exposed to light.


Synthetic Shades

Very few natural dyes—no more than a dozen or so—are stable enough to produce consistent, longwearing color. Cue the scientific advances of the mid-1800s when aniline dyes introduced a broader spectrum to the world.


Red was one of the first colors to be produced by chemical means. (Mauve was the very first, you can learn more about that here.) In 1826 two French chemists isolated the coloring agent in madder. Then in 1868 German scientists Carl Graebe and Carl Theodore Liebermann figured out how to synthetically create one of those agents, alizarin, creating a dye they called Alizarin crimson. The synthetic color could be produced at about half the cost of its natural form; a boon to the rapidly expanding mechanized fabric and garment industry. As red became cheaper, easier, and more reliable, the market for rose madder all but collapsed.


Flame Out?

Red is always in fashion even though it is often more prone to fading than other colors. The reasons for this are varied, including both the way the color absorbs color spectrum wavelengths and its chemical makeup. But since it’s such a strong shade, many knitters shy away from wearing it on its own (a practice I don’t encourage—red is one of my go-to shades when it comes to knit designs, as evidenced here, here, and here.) That said, there are wonderful ways to pair it with other hues. 


Farthingale is fabulous in a fiery red.


Red is a primary color, warm in temperature. Because of how the human eye perceives it, it’s known as an advancing color. When combining red with other colors remember it is attention-grabbing and the eye is always drawn to the point where the most change is taking place. If you want to make a strong statement and cause motifs and stripes to really pop, pair your red with the colors opposite from it on the color wheel (green, for example). For a palette that is more harmonious, pair red with the colors that sit next to it on the wheel: oranges and yellows. And no matter how you wear it, revel in its power. Red is strong, sexy, pure, romantic, dangerous, adventurous—all in all downright fun. Enjoy it!


Fiona Ellis is the author of Inspired Cable KnitsKnitspiration Journal, and Inspired Fair Isle Knits. She is an on-line instructor at Craftsy and you can find out what she is currently working on at