Reach 07 - Colouring the Past

Dress & Textiles | Aodach & Obair-aodaich

We often think of history in black and white – even the textiles that survive have lost their original shades. But how would our understanding of the past change if we could see it in colour?

The research of PhD student Jing Han aims to do just this. By analysing tiny samples of historic textiles, she can find out what colours and shades were used in a piece of cloth. She studies the dyes of Chinese communities and, besides discovering the original colour of the fabric, her work reveals the different plants and dyeing techniques that people used.

One such fragment was from a late 14th century quilt fragment from the Shandong Museum embroidered with florals and peacocks. The original colours were totally lost, but Jing Han found that it would have originally been apricot yellow. Mr Junping Xu, Head of Textile Conservation at the museum, says “[Jing Han’s] dye analysis results help reveal part of the original colours of the quilt and dyeing techniques in the early Ming Dynasty. This is very helpful for the exhibition of this piece of textile”.

Jing Han was a student in Beijing before moving to the University of Glasgow, and admits that she was drawn here in particular by the expertise of Dr Anita Quye and the international reputation of the Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History. “This is the best place to do this research”, she says, because being situated in History of Art in the College of Arts has also allowed her to study the historical side of the dyeing handicraft and build up a picture of the social background to these fabrics and the people making them.

The textiles that she has been studying come from a huge range of sources, including four archaeological institutes in China, the V&A Museum in London and National Museums Scotland. These collaborations with curators are especially important for Jing Han and bring more than just samples for analysis: “They also share with me their insights into the style, pattern and dating of the textiles”.

Jing Han has also been active in sharing her knowledge with the wider public, giving talks and workshops at the Burrell Collection, Strathclyde University, the Glasgow Science Festival and the British Science Festival in Bradford. She is hoping to continue her work through postdoctoral research, and would be interested to discuss her work with museums or individuals with an interest in Chinese dyeing techniques. Contact the College of Arts ( for more details.



If you wish to find out more about this article or about how you can progress your ideas (i) as an academic wishing to engage with a non-academic organisation or (ii) as a non-academic organisation interested in engaging with the academic knowledge base, please email the College of Arts KE Team.


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