By Fiona Ellis


In Greek mythology Helios, the sun god, rode across the heavens on a golden chariot pulled by four fiery horses. Our modern day associations with the color yellow, and its close cousin, orange, are equally positive—if slightly less dramatic or romantic. Both makes us think of bright sunshine, fresh citrus, and the abundance of fields at harvest time. But there’s a harsher side to the shades: in the animal world, yellow (often combined with black) signals the danger of an animal or insect likely to sting or bite. Yellow can also bring to mind dry deserts or withered leaves, which in turn have come to symbolize declining power. In Buddhist and Hindu teachings orange, the midpoint between yellow and red, signifies the point of balance between libido and spirit. But Christianity once took a differing view of the color, associating it with greed or gluttony.



Words to describe the color yellow were first recorded many centuries ago, but there are many other roots in other ancient languages, so it is unclear where the name truly originates. It is hardly surprising that people have long needed to describe the color as its history stretches back to cave painting, on through antiquity, and into the birth of the modern color palette. In Imperial China each compass direction had a color associated with it. Yellow was used to indicate the central point between all of them, springing from the idea that the earth in Northern China is yellow in hue. As the emperor was thought to reign from “the middle of the earth,” yellow became a color reserved for the royalty.


The Old English word for the color we know as orange is geoluhread, meaining yellow-red. The word “orange” was adopted after the Spanish word for the orange fruit, naranja, which in turn came from the Sanskrit word nāraṅga. In India, orange is the color of the sacral chakra, which represents joy, creativity, relationships, and reproduction.



Natural Beginnings

The natural sources for yellow and orange pigments date back many centuries and include both minerals and plants. Let’s start with the minerals:


The use of the earth pigment yellow ochre stretches back to the Middle Palaeolithic age. Widely used in cave paintings and human adornment it has been found mixed with wax, resin, egg yolk, and sap. It’s still used in Aboriginal paintings today, and a seam found in the Northern Territory Australia is considered sacred. In Egypt, yellow ochre was mixed with acacia gum to produce a “paint” used for depicting skin tones in architectural decorations.


Yellow was an important color to the Egyptians, and in their search for additional yellow pigments they discovered orpiment. Derived from arsenic sulphide, orpiment is highly toxic earth pigment found in the Sinai Desert and Asia. It was highly prized in Ancient Egypt and used for decorating funeral chambers. Its use spread to Greece and Rome where it continued to be used as a pigment for wall decoration. Moving on to India, painters there used it as an undercolor to bring luminosity to other hues. It was so widely used in murals that the Hindu word for yellow is actually derived from that for orpiment. Orpiment was also an integral part of Chinese painters' palettes because of the wide range of shades it could produce, everything from citron yellow to orange. Its use in the West died out during the 19th century when its toxicity became known. Orpiment also had uses that went beyond pigment. It intrigued alchemists, who tried to extract gold from it and was also made into a paste that was rather dubiously used to prevent hair loss. It was also applied to the tips of arrows as a poison.


Plants also provided plentiful sources of yellow pigment. Weld was cultivated for its coloring material from the Neolithic age until synthetic dyes took over in the 19th century. Quercetin, derived from the bark of the black oak tree, was another source but its importance for medicine meant that its use as a colorant was very limited. Saffron, derived from crocus stamens, produces a beautiful orange-yellow and is what colors the robes of Buddhist monks. The cultivation of the flowers is widespread in warm climates such as Iran, Morocco, and Spain.


Grated tumeric root produces a bright yellow pigment and was used throughout Asia to color both cloth and skin and is still especially prized in Polynesia. In India, people often stitch a small piece of cloth dyed with turmeric to their clothes as a good-luck talisman. The yellow, orange and red flowers of the thistle-like safflower plant, cultivated for dye since ancient Egyptian times, were used to color cloth a rich orange hue. Gamboge, sourced from the resin of the evergreen tree, is another source, its name from the Sanskrit name word for Cambodia, where the trees grow.


There are other interesting sources of yellow pigment. Egyptian and Mesopotamian glassblowers developed the yellow pigment known as Naples yellow by mixing lead and antimony, a sulphide mineral. The Romans created their own lead-based yellow by mixing it with tin. Despite its toxicity it was used throughout the West until well after the Renaissance. The sources of the vibrant pigment known as Indian yellow is steeped in myth; the most accepted is that it’s developed from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves. The color has been used since antiquity but its use didn’t become widespread until the 15th century, gaining popularity in Europe in the 17th century. Even more bizarre is the source for the sacred Egyptian color mummy yellow: the desiccated flesh and bitumen-soaked linen bandages from corpses, ground to produce a pigment that produces a color closer to brown. First used as a medicine, it later came into use by painters, especially the Pre-Raphaelites.


Synthetic Sources

Early in 19th century new dyes were introduced as a result of combining chemical compounds with naturally occurring materials. The yellows and oranges at that time are still staples in artists’ palettes. Chrome yellow, which occurs naturally as the mineral crocoite, was first synthesized in the early part of the 19th century. Though a beautiful shade, it was quite toxic and was soon superseded by cadmium yellow.


Compounds mixed from cadmium produced shades ranging from light yellow to deep orange, but use was limited because of the scarcity of the raw material. Lemon yellow was first recorded in 1809, but no commercial production occurred until several years after. Cobalt yellow was made in 1852 as a replacement for gamboge and remained popular to the end of the 19th century. It is sometimes also known as aureolin.


In 1858, the German chemist Johann Griess produced a compound exhibiting yellow dye properties. Then between 1862 and 1887 azo dyes, which included yellow, orange, and brown were discovered. The first azo mordant dye was alizarin yellow GG, created in 1887. Sixty-plus years later, cibalan brilliant yellow 3GL was introduced, heralding the advent of reactive dyes.



Try It, You'll Like It

Yellow and orange are both attention-grabbing colors and sometimes that means they can be a little too hot to handle. So why not introduce them into your knitting palette as highlight or “pop” colors?  The samples shown below show several options for adding orange and yellow to your knits, use them as a jumping off point for your own creative experiments. When you shine the light on special details the effects can be brilliant!

A spot of yellow adds a bit of spice to Fair Isle. 


Put some sizzle in slip stitch. 


Make stripes stand out. 


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