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  • Writer's pictureWilde Irishe

The Saffron Shirt, Part 1: Saffron and Silk, Urine and Grease

Updated: May 11, 2021

The Irish saffron shirt (léine croich) and mantle followed a similar trajectory to that of their lineal descendant, Highland dress. Scorned as badges of barbarity and legislated against, they would be interpreted in their turn as British court fancy dress, once the original wearers were considered safely vanquished. We examine the considerable evidence for the use of actual saffron, as well as documented native substitutes, the use of greased liénte, and the liberal use of coloured silk thread embroidery. Interestingly, the trade data examined confirm the old nationalist position regarding the fate of Ireland’s economy after 1603 under colonial rule: 50% of 16th century Irish exports were manufactured goods, largely freighted on Irish shipping, a proportion not seen again until our own day.


Sixteenth century Irish men of war acquired a new saffron shirt once a year in anticipation of Christmas or Easter, so that the wearer might ‘go gay at a feast.’ We are told that ‘many times five marks’ would be lavished on a single shirt in saffron dye and silk embroidery.(1) Five Elizabethan marks equaled about $1,260 U.S. in 1989.(2) To meet the formidable expense the kern would “rob out of churches or elsewhere . . . so that more robbery and felony is against such feasts committed as all the year following.” For instance, O’Bierne and Kavanaugh “agreed to make a prey [rustle cattle] and with it get silk, saffron and cloth in Kilkenny.” That would be one answer to the often asked question of how simple Irish men of war could have afforded such costly attire.

New clothing might also be acquired when kern were mustered for service. It was customary on such occasions to make a payment of 40 shillings ($800 U.S. 1989) to each man ‘to buy them silk and saffron.’ We see this payment being made to kern mustered by indentured lords for overseas service in 1544 and again in 1586. This is one aspect of a system in which it was a prerogative of Irish lords to collect a fixed number of brogues, jackets and other articles of clothing from a given territory as part of its rents, items which were used to clothe the lord’s men of war.

Newly dyed saffron gives a brilliant dayglow yellow of almost fluorescent intensity. It cannot be matched by weld or any other natural dye. It is also one of the only natural dyes that take readily to linen. This helps explain its popularity at a time when such bright colors were not often met with. It will fade with exposure to sunlight and washing, a fact which may explain why the Irish were said ‘seldom or never’ to wash their shirts. On the other hand, shirts dyed with saffron were said to ‘continue long clean, and lengthen life,’ saffron having then a reputation as a preservative which it still retains, at least as regards food. It is also clear that saffron was thought to prevent “that evil which cometh by much sweating and long wearing of linen,” i.e, lice.

So, having spent so much on his feast day shirt, the kern would proceed to wear it throughout the coming year, relying on the preservative properties of the saffron dye—rather than laundering—to extend its life. At the end of a year’s time it’s not hard to imagine that the shirt would have hung ‘in tatters’ and been ‘too torne.’ The fading of color over time also explains a later writer’s assertion that the gowns of the Irish were ‘yellowish, not yellow.’ Of course, linen garments may be re-dyed much more readily than woollen ones, and it is likely that references to shirts as such being ‘stained’ or ‘washed’ in saffron may indicate re-dying.

Finally, because of its great expense, saffron dye has been adulterated throughout history. Therefore the practice described by Fr. Good in 1566, whereby the dye-bath consisted mostly of poplar leaves with saffron as a lesser additive, need not surprise us. However, it is certain that straight saffron was the ideal, and that it was used straight whenever means permitted.

Irish men and women as they went in the service of King Henry VIII, by Lucas deHeere
Irish men and women as they went in the service of King Henry VIII, by Lucas deHeere

Saffron: A Potted History

Per Nick Sekunda: Persians in saffron and purple (3)
Per Nick Sekunda: Persians in saffron and purple (3)

Next to sea purple, made from murex shells harvested on the Mediterranean coasts, saffron was the most valuable luxury dye of the ancient world. The crocus occurs spontaneously in Iran and prodigious amounts of saffron and sea purple were used to clothe the old Persian armies.(3) It’s interesting therefore to note these two colors were the most popular dyestuffs imported from England into Ireland during the first half of the 16th century, the purple being orchell, the ‘Atlantic purple’ obtained from the lichen orchellus linnatus.(4) Describing the ‘soldier’s woollen mantle’ worn by the Irish, Paolo Giovio (1548) says, “A prince prefers his to be purple, leaving the dark blue or red cloak to the soldier.”(5)

Saffron is the three rusty red pistils or stigmas harvested by hand from within the lavender petals of the Autumn crocus blossom (crocus sativus). The window of opportunity to harvest is a brief two or three weeks in the Autumn, when the corms planted in late summer each produce several flowers. The blossoms are gathered and the stigmas are picked out on tables. The stigmas are packed together and laid on a wire mesh over a drying fire, covered in hair cloth, layers of paper, and weighted, for a couple of hours. The saffron reduces to 1/5 its original weight in the process. Further drying takes a day and a half and the hay saffron is then ready for sale. Properly dried saffron will keep for a century. Estimates vary, but at least 20,000 blossoms must be harvested and stripped to yield one kilogram of dry saffron. In one hour a skilled female worker can separate 60 grams of stigmas from their blossoms.

Victorian view of a Greek woman in saffron dress
Victorian view of a Greek woman in saffron dress

In relation to clothing, saffron is known today primarily as the colouring agent for the robes of Buddhist monks. Saffron was prominent in Minoan culture, where it was particularly associated with women due to its use as a cure for menstrual cramps. This association continued in Greek culture—where saffron robes were used to clothe Athena’s statue—and from there may have passed on to Islam, which explicitly forbids men to wear saffron dyed clothing.

In the middle ages northern European merchants were initially attracted to Italian towns to acquire exotic dyestuffs. Later the fair in Geneva, Switzerland became a clearinghouse for dyestuffs and documents of 1361 describe such goods as saffron, woad, gallnuts, alum and tartar being sold there. The Basle fair expanded on this commerce in dyestuffs, and tariff lists from that town in 1400 include saffron, madder, and indigo among other dyes. The Merchants Guild of Basle called itself ‘The Saffron’ and used the saffron crocus in its coat of arms. The saffron flower is also found in the coats of arms of both Florence in Italy and Saffron Walden in England. Southern Spain was particularly suited to saffron cultivation, and from the 16th century to today, Spain is known for its saffron.

Saffron from England and Spain


After its introduction in the 15th century, saffron was grown in north-west Essex. From that time the town of Walden acquired its prefix of ‘Saffron,’ serving as a centre of the saffron trade. Merchants from all over the country came there to buy saffron at St. Ursula’s fair on 21 October. For about 250 years, until the early 1700s, it was harvested each Autumn, the whole blossoms being picked from the early morning before sunrise until about 10 or 11 am, and carried by the ‘crokers’ (crocus growers, whence that surname) to Walden for preparation. There the stigmas were plucked out of the center of the flower as described above and the petals and the stalk discarded. The gutters of Walden’s streets were clogged with lavender saffron petals each Autumn.

In the late 16th century the rector of Radwinter, a few miles from Saffron Walden, wrote: “Warme nights, sweet dewes, fat ground, and misty mornings are very good for saffron; but frost do kill and keep backe the flower or else shrinke up the chive.”

Saffron in the 15th/16th centuries was the most expensive of spices, as it is today. It was used liberally in 15th century English upper class cooking, and was reputed to have the following medicinal properties: stimulant, cure for headaches, heart palpitations, fainting fits, dropsy and gastric ulcers. Besides cooking or medicine, saffron was used as a dyestuff in medieval times.(6) Significantly, in 1437 the Italian painter Cennino Cennini wrote; “A color that is made from an herb called saffron is yellow . . . This makes a fine colour for dyeing linen or cloth.” (7)

Since saffron’s appearance in Walden roughly coincides with the first notices of its use in Irish clothing, we might suggest that a large part of the export crop found its way to Ireland, especially considering the quantities of saffron shown being exported from England to Ireland in Ada Longfield’s Anglo-Irish Trade in the 16th Century.(8) As McClintock notes on page 110 of Old Irish and Highland Dress: “Apparently the Irish crop of saffron was not sufficient for local needs, as it frequently figures among exports to Ireland in the Bristol books for 1504 and 1518 and—significantly—in much smaller quantities in 1586 and 1591.”(9) Susan Flavin’s more recent research allows us to pinpoint the decline in saffron importation. She has shown that England remained Ireland’s main trade partner throughout the period, with Bristol having 73% of the trade, Chester, Bridgewater and Liverpool the rest. From 1500 to c.1563 the chief imports were English broadcloth (‘cloth of assize’), worked silk, and saffron, traded into Dublin, Cork and Waterford, and upriver to Kilkenny. Her chart (below) shows the drop off in saffron after 1563, part of an apparent overall decline in trade that actually preceded the major upheavals of the Desmond Revolts.

Percentage of gross value of imports comprised by cloth of assize, saffron and silk

(with actual poundage of saffron imports added

(As a side note, might there have been an increase in off-the-books smuggling responsible for some of the decline seen in the port books? After the apparent collapse of trade in the 1560s, an ever-increasing variety of consumer goods is actually seen [from buttons to mirrors, spectacles, cards, and combs], and the trade fully recovers by the 1590s with a huge diversity of manufactured goods coming in and a correspondingly high percentage of manufactured goods going out. Consistently throughout the 16th century Irish exports were 50% manufactured goods, i.e., principally textiles, either prepared as mantles, coverlets and caddows, or whole cloth frieze, checkers, rugg and linen, diversifying by the 1590s to include canvas, fustian, etc. These ups and downs in trade were independent of the disastrous wars during the century, and the overall picture is one of consistent economic health in the main region of Ireland’s trade activity, the south east.)

Finally, we should note this English trade with Ireland’s South East reflects to a large degree the popularity of saffron with the ‘Middle Nation,’ or Anglo-Irish, who enjoyed it nearly as much as the Gaelic Irish. Henry VIII’s first act against saffron was directed at the Anglo-Irish townsmen of Galway, before being extended to the country at large (see Appendix of quotes under 1536). As late as 1578, Lord Chancellor Gerrarde writes in the State Papers (29 March 1578), “All English . . . even in Dublin, speak Irish, and greatly are spotted in manners, habit, and condition with Irish stains.” Under the influences of Renaissance Humanism and Puritanism, early modern English society lauded ‘sad’ colours, while Fynes Moryson and others noted that both the Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Irish favoured “red or such light colour.” Indeed, the preference for saffron yellow extended to the interiors of Anglo-Irish homes; the Earl of Kildare’s castle of Maynooth, when taken in 1575, had ‘chaires of velvet yellow’ in the great chamber, and there was a ‘yellow chamber’ and a ‘little yellow chamber’ while the lady's wardrobe contained a ‘canapie of yellow sarsenet’. And the will of Thomas, 10th Earl of Ormonde includes ‘a quilt of yellow taffety’, to go to his daughter.(10)


While significant quantities of saffron were clearly being imported into Ireland from the English ports, we know that saffron also found its way in via Spain. Throughout the Tudor era, the commerce of the western Irish ports such as Limerick and Galway was directed to Spain and the continent rather than England, and Spain was and continues to be one of the world’s chief producers of saffron. In fact, Edmund Spencer stated that the use of saffroned linen had been introduced into Ireland from Spain. Around 1503 two merchants from Bilbao and one from inland Vitoria loaded a ship with wine, saffron, sword blades and other goods which they took to ‘St Michael’ [Ballinskelligs, County Kerry] bringing back to Bilbao mainly fish and hides.(11) This is a reflection of a very significant trade carried on by Basque fishing fleets that had visited the hake fisheries off the Gaelic-held south and west coasts of Ireland since the 14th century, working the fisheries as far north as Killybegs. From Bilbao and Corunna, it was a mere five day’s voyage up the coast to Brittany and across to Cork or Waterford. Merchants might stay for a week or two, while fishing fleets would remain for four or five months, and they did this every year. The Basques, Spaniards and Bretons knew that Irish coast like the back of their hands, and established personal links with Irish lords. They would occupy, for instance, Valentia island while processing their catch, and had to negotiate for the rights. There are instances in the 1530’s of Basque captains being kidnapped by the Irish and held for ransom, presumably after negotiations broke down.(12)

Paolo Giovio (1548) says of the Irish merchants’ overseas trade, “they bring back armour, helmets, spears and swords from France and Spain, as well as wine, olive oil and saffron.”(13) While there are no Spanish port books comparable to Bristol’s that we can examine, the presence of this trade is reflected in a story from the early life of the famous Counter-Reformation Archbishop of Armagh, Richard Creagh, martyred in 1586. He was an Irish-speaker born at Limerick in 1523, and during the 1540s, Creagh was apprenticed to a merchant of Limerick who dealt in herbs and spices. According to the early biographers, the young man was ill-at-ease in the commercial world. His dismay at the practice of adulterating saffron to increase its weight provoked a career change to the priesthood.(14)

From 1500 to 1550, the presence of saffron among the goods being traded is consistent, if moderate, in surviving Spanish records, with perhaps two dozen mentions known. In 1544, the lists of export duties record two Basque merchants transporting saffron, cordovan, cloth, money and mules over the border to France. And a 1556 debtor’s note exists from a coastal townsman in favour of an inland merchant who sold him saffron, soap and oil. By the 1550s the Basque had shifted from the Irish fisheries across the Atlantic to Terra Nova. The cod found in Newfoundland when salted would keep longer than the Irish hake, making the extended voyage worthwhile. It may be significant that this coincides with the sharp reduction in saffron imports from England after 1563. Father Good of Limerick wrote in 1566; “they dye their loose shirts of a saffron color (which are now much out of use),” and Edmund Campion in 1571 says “They have now left their saffron . . .”(15) John Derricke, published in 1581 but describing events of c. 1575, makes no mention of saffron in his rather detailed description of Irish dress in Image of Ireland with a Discoverie of Woodkarne.

CAPTION: The author’s impression of Hugh O’Byrne and Cahir MacArte Kavanagh shopping “to get silk, saffron and cloth” in Kilkenny after a cattle raid, 1548. The shop sign bears the arms of the Croke family, whom geneologist McLysaght places in Kilkenny in the 14th century. It is a “herald maunch”—an arm in full medieval sleeve holding a lily. The sleeve is coloured bright yellow. Croke, (Ir. Cróc), is from crocus, and it means saffron. I suggest that these arms may well have been the sign of the family business in medieval times. Old soldier Barnaby Rich actually wrote of “deep smock sleeves like herald maunches” in describing the large sleeves of the Irish léine croich. Likewise, Edmund Spencer (1596) spoke of “the deep smock sleeves hanging to the ground . . . in armoury the fashion of the manche which is given in arms by many, being indeed nothing else but a sleeve, is fashioned much like to that sleeve.”

Saffron Grown in Ireland

It is also clear that saffron was grown in Ireland itself. A 14th century poem called Mayster Ion Gardener listing ‘All the herbys of Ierlond,’ included ‘safferowne.’ The times given for planting and gathering prove it was the Autumn crocus. Castle Saffron in Co. Cork is said to take its name from the quantity of saffron formerly grown there.(16) “About a mile E. of Doneraile, is Castle-saffron, so called from large quantities of it formerly planted here, being greatly used by the Irish, for dying their shirts, &c.; adjoining to which is is a well built house of John Love, esq. agreeably situated on the banks of the Mulla.”(17) Likewise, poem 47 in the Leabhar Branach (Poem Book of the O’Byrnes) praises the home of Feilim O Bierne at Carraig an Chróich (Carrickroe, near Ballinacor, Co.Wicklow). The final element of the name, chróich is the genitive form of cróch, the Irish word for saffron. As McClintock noted, it is clear that the inhabitants could grow as much of it as they cared to have, and as late as 1732 a pamphlet advocating its cultivation in Ireland was published by the Dublin Society (An account of Saffron; the manner of its culture and saving for use, with the advantages it will be of to this Kingdom, by James Douglas, Dublin, 1732.)

In the mid-20th century, folklorist Brid Mahon actually discovered an old Donegal woman, Anna Nic a Luan, who lived at the foot of the Bluestacks; “She showed me autumn crocus (crocus sativius), in Irish cróch an fhomhair, which gave the yellow dye she used for her wool and which was in addition a cure for measles.”(18)

CAPTION: The author and colleague in saffron-dyed linen shirts by Jessica Finley, at left freshly completed, and at right a few years later. Jessica advocates the use of actual saffron for reconstruction. Her research indicates that the expense was not quite prohibitive, given the power of the dyestuff. She found prices for a pound of saffron in London in 1475 were the same as for a yard of average quality velvet, or 2/3 the cost of fine velvet. She used one ounce of saffron to dye a léine. An ounce of saffron would cost 1.875 days work for a medieval carpenter, or 11.42 d. This is the equivalent cost of one yard of Flemish linen at the time. For today’s 1.875 days for work at a minimum wage salary you could buy two playstation games. ($86.25). However, compare to the high costs cited in the first two paragraphs of this article. You can see Jessica's source here: Consumption of Spices and Their Costs in Late-Medieval and Early-Modern Europe

The Saffron Shirt on the Tudor Stage

There are indications that even in the preparation of properties for the Tudor stage, saffron was understood to be an essential element in portraying Irish dress. In the accounts of the Revels of Edward VI, we find that a masque presented before the king at Shrovetide, 1551, featured Irishmen and Irishwomen. Included among charges for this masque is the following; “Iohn Whitehorne for xxxvj elles yellow sarcenet at vs the ell for yrishe womens smockes girdles & rolles”(19)

And the the Christmas Revels of Edward VI, 1552/3, included The Lord of Misrule, a play which called for “Irish apparell for a man and woman,” including; “a smock of yellow buckeram conteyning vj yardes. iiijs.” Finally, William Baldwin’s lost Irish Play of the State of Ireland, slated for performance in 1553, required ‘vj Irish keryrens’ to be provided with “vj shertes of yellow sarcenet frenged with whighte and greene Caddas ffrenge.”(20)

These same account books record purchases of dyestuffs used in the production of the costumes, and it is interesting to see that these included: “Groceres percelles, Iohn Lyon ffor dyvers and sundry cullers vs Saffron iij oz—iiijs vjd.”(21) “Anthony Tote for saffron and gum Arabeck by him at sondry tymes provided and brought.”(22)

Was the Saffron Really Saffron?

Doubt has occasionally been cast on the recorded use of saffron as a dye stuff by the 16th century Irish, apparently because of its notorious expense. I have assembled in an appendix a collection of over thirty references which cite specifically the use of saffron to dye the great Irish shirt, or léine. They were collected from casual reading, and the list is in no way complete. To paraphrase McClintock, when we find contemporary writers referring specifically to saffron, in no less than five languages (cróch, saffron, saffrane, zafferanata, crocotus) we better be quite sure of ourselves before we dismiss them as deluded.

The idea that what the Irish really used was a lichen scraped off of the rocks which dyes to a brown color seems to have its genesis in a letter by Lady Moira, giving rise to the saffron-brown of the 20th century Irish kilt. The letter is given in Walker’s Dress of the Ancient and Modern Irish, published in 1789, with Lady Moira saying: “The saffron colour linen in which Camden mentions Neil and his followers to have paid their visit to the court of Elizabeth of England, were not dyed with saffron but with a kind of lichen which grows on rocks and is prepared by the Irish as archil. I have seen of this dye and it resembles in the mass, that shade of yellow which borders upon on dark brown.” (Archaeologica, Vol. VII, p. 107)

Walker agreed with Lady Moira, but made the more probable suggestion that it was weld (which he said the Irish knew as Buídhe Mór) that was used a substitute for saffron, and that they fixed the colour with urine. Brid Mahon, the 20th century folklorist, noted some suggestions of weld from the archives of the Irish Folklore Commission; “Farney, Co. Monaghan, Buí Mór, a tall green plant formerly used as saffron. Kilbeg, Co. Meath, Usual colour saffron, a dye made from Buí Mór, a herb or weed, and the droppings of sheep. . . it was the dye of the gallowglass uniform.” Interestingly, Mahon notes that sheeps’ faeces, called in Irish cróch na mbánta—in addition to being used to fix weld as a ‘saffron’ dye—was known as a cure for measles, much like the true crocus sativus itself.(23) ( Note: the use of sheep droppings and human urine to bring out the colour of, respectively, weld and poplar as substitutes for saffron seems to give rise to a measure of scorn cast upon the use of saffron itself in 16th century accounts—see The Surviving Recipe below.)

McClintock conducted experiments with a competent dyer (since duplicated) and found that saffron gave a bright yellow color with no trace of brown, exactly confirming the colour seen in DeHeere’s 16th century watercolor pictures of Irishmen in saffron shirts.

The Surviving Recipe

We actually have a surviving recipe explaining how the Irish dyed the léine, or saffron shirt, when for reasons of economy, the saffron had to be stretched. Rather than weld, it relies upon poplar. It is provided by Fr. Good, an English priest serving at Limerick, who wrote the following (original in Latin) in 1566:

“With the boughs, bark and leaves of poplar trees beaten together they dye their loose shirts of a saffron color (which are now much out of use) mixing the bark of the wild Arbut-tree and salt and saffron. In dyeing, their way is not to boil the thing long, but to let it soak for some days together in urine that the color may be deeper and more durable.”

Note that a little saffron is still included, for as Sir Francis Bacon says in Novum Organum (1605) “Some few grains of saffron will give a tincture to a tun of water.”(24) According to John Sobeiski-Stuart (Costume of the Clans, 1845, p.72), “Gibson translated this passage (of Fr. Good) in a manner which indicated that the article was saturated in the lye; but there is no doubt that the observation referred to the preparation of the dye, and not of the cloth dyed, for such is still the universal method of extracting the native solutions, though the cloth is never subjected to the immersion. From the misconception of the process, however, arose the opprobrious opinion that the Irish stained their fallium [i.e., liénte] in the urine itself, an error propagated by Camden in the assertion ‘camisiis flauis croco vel humana urina infectis;’ [i.e., ‘shirts dyed with saffron or infected with human urine;’] from which assertion has been devised an imputation of the foulest barbarism.” William Camden’s quote was from his History of 1562, which describes the galloglass body-guards of Shane O’Neill: “shirts dyed with saffron or infected with man’s stale [vel humana urina infectis], long sleeves. . .”

(Sobieski-Stuart, always refreshingly favourable towards the Irish, makes a further pointed comment: “Various elegant manufactures of the most refined modern nations, pass through stages and mediums which would disgust their wearers if their preparation was known. The most beautiful productions of the modern hatter and clothier—the gossamer ‘beaver’ which covers the head of the courtier, and the superfine Saxony habit which clothes the most delicate form in Windsor or Hyde Park often passes through the same solution charged against the manufactures of the Irish; and frequently, although the cause is unknown, retains reminiscences never to be overcome by Otta or Millefleurs.”)

This association between Irish saffron shirts and bodily waste shows up, of all places, in Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais (see under 1548 in appendix of quotes)! Of course, urine has no value as a coloring agent. However, the frequently made assertion that the urine served as a mordant is equally incorrect. Professor Jim Lyles, a modern expert in the dyeing of linen textiles, has commented on Fr. Good’s recipe. Professor Lyles suggests that the alkaline urine may have served to bring out a more saffron-like orangey-yellow tint from the poplar leaves, which usually give a clear bright yellow. This supports Sobeiski-Stuart’s claim that the urine was an agent to extract the color from the dye. Saffron itself is a substantive dye—meaning it will take without mordant—it is also fugitive to light and water soluble, so that it too must be mordanted if it is to last. The salt which is mentioned by Goode is almost certainly Alum salts (which were sometimes called simply salts and which were much imported into Ireland in the 16th century for mordanting.)

arbutus unedo
arbutus unedo

The wild arbut-tree is the arbutus unedo, or strawberry-tree, whose natural habitat is the Mediterranean and, notably, South-West Ireland, where it was seen in abundance around Killarney c. 1840. Its bark may have been included in the dye bath for the value of its tannins as a mordant. It is an evergreen with rough reddish bark and glossy, waxy leaves. In Autumn its small, white, bell-shaped flowers appear while its strawberry-like fruit is still on the tree.

The poplar, whose boughs, bark and leaves beaten together formed the main ingredient of the dye bath, is listed among the native trees of the British Isles under the name populus nigra, black poplar. Fast growing and tall, its natural distribution was Eastern and Central England, and it is native

Lombardy Poplar
Lombardy Poplar

to most of Western Europe. The Lombardy Poplar is a columnar form of the tree, also native to Europe. Its serrated triangular leaves have long been known to give a good, clear yellow dye, but one would think the inclusion of the bark would make for a duller color. Typically, the chopped leaves are soaked overnight. Afterwards, they are brought to a boil, which is maintained for an hour. The liquid is strained into a dyebath and the alum-mordanted cloth is entered into the lukewarm dyebath, which is brought to a boil and simmered until the color is right.

The saffron, or crocus sativus, has been discussed already, and we have seen that it was grown in Ireland as well as being imported. It has always been expensive, but it is interesting to see that even if the dyebath contained mostly poplar leaves, the saffron was considered important enough that it could not be left out altogether. The saffron is gently boiled for half an hour, until the color is gone from the stigmas, and the liquid is strained into the dyebath. The wetted, mordanted cloth is immersed in the bath and simmered until the desired shade is obtained. We noted above that Edmund Spencer felt that saffron had been introduced by the Spanish, saying:

“From them [the Spanish] also, I think, came saffron shirts and smocks, which were devised by them in those hot countries where saffron is very common and rife. . .”

Indeed, today Spain, India and Iran are the primary producers of saffron, with the best quality being supplied by Spain. Spencer suggested the saffron was used to discourage lice, but that use appears unknown in Indian medicine today. However, in the appendix of 16th century quotes about the use of saffron shirts in Ireland, no less than eight mention saffron discouraging lice or facilitating long term wear of shirts without washing or changing. This does raise the question . . .

Did Saffron Have Hygenic Purposes?

One of the most sensitive areas touched upon by Elizabethan English commentators writing about Ireland was the question of personal hygiene. We must be suspicious of the diatribes against Irish customs which many English colonialists engaged in, since they had a vested interest in painting the worst possible picture of Irish society in order to justify their activities. Others, such as Barnaby Rich, were anxious to distance themselves from their own sometimes common social origins by feigning an exaggerated refinement and consequent horror at ‘Irish barbarity’. Many of the crudities of life in Ireland which they complained of were to be readily found in Elizabethan England as well. But, as noted, eight of the thirty odd writers listed in our appendix of 16th century quotes on the use of saffron by the Irish say the herb was meant to prevent infestation with lice because the shirts were seldom laundered and were worn till they were in tatters. Walker, on page 4 of his Dress of the Ancient Irish, (1788) notes Spencer and Moryson’s unflattering comments about the Irish wearing their shirts till they wore out, and says;

“My devotion to the truth and duty as a historian oblige me to aver that this filthy custom persisted among the heads of some of the old Irish families to well within living memory.”

He then gives a quote from Francis Bacon, the English scientist, dated 1590. Walker says: “Lord Bacon assigns a more delicate and perhaps as sound a reason for the universal use of linen shirts dyed with saffron among the Irish. ‘The Irish wear saffroned-linen shirts dyed with saffron, which continue long clean, and lengthen life; for saffron is a great binder, oily and hot, without sharpness, [and] is very comfortable to the skin.’—Essays, Vol. II, p. 449, oct ed. 1597

Bacon saw saffron as being used in the role of a preservative. Nonetheless, the pastorialist way of life of the Elizabethan Irish meant that they spent a great deal of time living out of doors in close contact with their animals. As McClintock said, “No one...will doubt the existence of the third plague of Egypt in medieval Ireland in abundance.” Writing in 1590, Dr. Thomas Moffet said, “all Ireland is noted for this, that it swarms almost with lice.” Indeed, the Irish louse became a proverbial figure; John Hall in Discovery of a New World (1609) says of a series of insignificant distances, “They all make but a day’s journey for an Irish louse, be she never so speedy.”

The woodcut at right, with accompanying verses describing an Irishwoman delousing a kern, are from Andrew Boorde’s Fyrste Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge (1548). They are echoed by Moryson, writing in 1604: “And let no man wonder that they are lousy, for never any barbarous people were found in all kinds more slovenly than they are. And nothing is more common among them than for the men to lie upon the women’s laps on green hills till they kill their lice, with a strange nimbleness proper to that nation.”

“Pediculus otherwhile

do bite me by the backe,

Wherefore divers times,

I make their bones to crack.”

Spencer repeats this, writing in 1596: “And as for all other good women which love to do but little work, how handsome it is to lie in [their mantles] and sleep or to louse themselves in the sunshine they that have been but a while in Ireland can well witness.”

McClintock did not necessarily doubt this; he only questioned whether the saffron was in fact intended to combat lice, as so many contemporary writers claimed. On page 72 of Old Irish and Highland Dress, he says:

“The whole question of combating lice was dealt with very fully in 1917 and 1918 by Professor G. F. H. Nuttall in the Cambridge Journal, Parasitology. In one of his articles, Prof. Nuttall gives (Vol. X, No. 4, page 516) a long list of heterogeneous substances recommended for the purpose by old writers from Pliny onwards, and amongst them “Oil of wild saffron” figures twice as one ingredient among others in more or less complicated prescriptions; while one thirteenth century writer, Gilbertus Anglicus, says that saffron mixed with lye (plant ash) was used in Iceland and Ireland. This last is very likely true, and is quite enough to have given rise among strangers to the statement referred to; but saffron (as Professor Nuttall says) is nowhere used for this purpose now; and whatever efficacy—if any—it may possess when applied in a pure state, it is quite certain that merely to dye linen with saffron could not give it any immunity. Nor, even supposing that the Irish thought it could, is it clear why they did not dye their woollen garments, such as jacket, trews, etc., in the same way, seeing that these would need protection just as much. . .”

Major McClintock’s point is well taken. Yet it seems a strange habit to dye linen shirts at all in this period. Elsewhere, they are almost always found to be left undyed. Because of its slick surface fibers, linen is difficult to dye, and it is easier to bleach it clean if left white. Indeed, saffron is one of the few dyes that take readily to linen. Yet it is tempting to see the Irish habit of using the expensive saffron herb as something more than a mere liking for the bright yellow color thereby obtained. We know that the 16th century Irish loved bright colors, but why did they use saffron only to dye their linen? Their woollen clothes were dyed a variety of colors.

The fact that the léine was often made of 20 to 30 yards of linen meant that its purchase represented a considerable expense. The desire to preserve it as long as possible may have had something to do with the widespread use of saffron, as suggested in Francis Bacon’s somewhat cryptic remarks about its alleged preservative qualities noted above. The initial investment in a léine, between the saffron, silk thread and 20, 30 or even 40 yards of linen cloth, was therefore quite considerable. New saffron shirts seem to have been procured in anticipation of High Feasts at Christmas and Easter, and then worn all the year following. Considering the expense (“many times five marks”) it is little wonder that they were worn till they were in tatters.

Silk and Saffron:

English cloth, saffron and worked silk were Ireland’s three top imports in the first half of the 16th century, as seen in Susan Flavin’s chart above. Silk and saffron are mentioned in frequent association, appearing together in lists of stolen goods in 1533 and 1537 (see Appendix with 16th century quotes). And we find that the use of the silk and saffron was often for the adornment of the saffron shirt.

One of the earliest records we have of the distinctive Irish shirt, the léine, is immediately pre-Tudor. It is found in the wardrobe of Edward IV (r. 1461-1483), which lists ‘one Irish smocke wrought with gold and silver.’(25) Ironically, the Calendar of Ancient Records of Dublin shows the first laws against native Irish dress actually being enacted during this very Edward’s reign; in 1462, a tax on all mantles, and in 1466 a fine of sixpence for anyone found wearing a mantle, and the same fine for any woman wearing saffron in her smock or kerchief. So we have in the late 15th century references for the use of saffron in the shirts, as well as embroidery of gold and silver for the king’s. We will see that red or green silk embroidery was the more typical adornment.

Left, red and green silk embroidery, with green/white caddas trim; right, English shirt embroidery, 1620
Left, red and green silk embroidery, with green/white caddas trim; right, English shirt embroidery, 1620

The records of the government levy of kerne made in 1544-45 for service in France and Scotland show that it was the custom to advance a payment of forty shillings to newly recruited kerne to buy them silk and saffron; “Wise was charged with Lord Power’s kerne, and had delivered to each of them 40s. to buy them silk and saffron. The figure is interesting, as a year later St. Leger remarked that he thought his brother Robert was the only one who supplied troops upon his own costs, ‘for the rest raised upon the country 40s. for every kerne’.” (26)

This traditional payment was still in place when another government levy was made in 1586, for Stanley’s expedition to the Low Countries. According to Deputy Perrot, Stanley’s levy included 500 kerne, so it is interesting to read; “Stanley was paid 40s. as ‘impress’ (an advance payment) per man to carry out the levy,”(27) A print of an Irish soldier by Caspar Rutz, printed at Amsterdam in 1588, and thought to represent one of Stanley’s kerne, has him wearing a leine. It seems possible that even at this late date, the 40s. was intended to buy silk and saffron, just as in Henry VIII’s day.

Saffron and silk are often associated in references, as when a jury in October 1537 found Cahir McMorrough Kavanaugh “. . . did take from one Thomas Roche of ye said town, silk, saffron, and ready money to ye valew of 40s . . . ”(28) This combination of silk and saffron appears also in reports of the activities of Aodh O Bierne of Wicklow, father of the famous Feach Mac Aodh: “In that year (1548) he made a hostile demonstration by ‘eating meat’ together with sixty kerne at Boystown. (J.R.S.A.I. lxiii, p. 234) Shortly afterwards he was reported to have gone to Cahir McArte Kavanagh, with whom he agreed to make a prey, and with it to get silk, saffron and cloth in Kilkenny (ibid.).”(29)

The next reference gives some indication of what the silk was used for. It is a letter from Allen to Henry VIII’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, dated 10 July 1539, and recorded in the State Papers Relating to Ireland: “and that Art Oge O’Tool had sent to Gerald (son of the late Earl of Kildare) before Christmas a saffron shirte, dressed with silke, and a mantell of English cloth fringed with silke.”(30)

The following letter also appears in the State Papers. It is dated 1537 and was by R. Crowley to Thomas Cromwell, advising: “that no silk or saffron be set upon shirts; for especially against High Feasts at Christmas and Easter there is no Irishman of war—horseman, kernagh, nor galloglass—for the most part but will steal, rob out of churches or elsewhere to go gay at a feast; yea, and bestoweth for saffron and silk to one shirt many times five marks, so that more robbery and felony is against such feasts committed as all the year following.”(31) And from Scotland, there is a record of a Highland dress made for James V in 1538, which included two shirts of fine holland linen described thus:

Item for xv elnis of holand claith, to be syde heland sarkis [long highland shirts] to the kinges grace—price of the elne x.s. . . xxxii.s.vj.d.

Item for sewing and making of the said sarkis . . . ix.s.

Item for twa once of silk to sew thame . . . x.s.

Item for iiii elnis of rubenis to the hands of thame . . . ii.s.” (32)

The Inventories of the Royal Wardrobe and Jewel House also record for this same James V, “ane hieland syd serk of yallow lyning, pasmentit with purpour, silk and silver.”(33) This may have been one of the shirts provided above for his hunting expeditions to the Highlands, and is reminiscent of the “Irish smocke wrought with gold and silver” provided for Edward IV, as seen above.

The precise nature of this silk embroidery is even more clearly set out by Bishop Lesly whose De origine, moribus et rebus Scotorum was published in Rome in 1578: “They made also of linen very large shirts, with numerous folds and wide sleeves, which flowed abroad loosely to their knees. These the rich coloured with saffron . . . In the manufacture of these, ornament and a certain attention to taste were not altogether neglected, and they joined the different parts of their shirts very neatly with silk thread, chiefly of a red or green colour.” (34)

Rumanian linen shirt, with green embroidery in seams
Rumanian linen shirt, with green embroidery in seams

Laurent Vital, in his description of a 1518 visit to Kinsale, confirms that silk thread was used in Ireland to decorate the seams of the léine; “Firstly married women wear their finery, and linen head coverings; some yellow and others white. When they are women of status, they have chemises with long sleeves opened around the neck and in the seams silk needlework of different colours.”(35) And again, in 1548 Paolo Giovio writes of the Irish; “they are covered down to the knees with saffron-coloured tunics, the silken edges of which they decorate most skillfully with colours embroidered by needle.”(36)

The Corporation Book of the Irishtown of Kilkenny (printed in Analecta Hibernica, No. 28, 1978) makes several mentions of silk embroidery, such as this one from 1537; “...not taylor or broderer within the said hundreth shall take for setting of an unce of silke or imbrodering in other worcks of an unce of silke noe more butt 1s. 6d. Irish, and whosoever doth the contrary shall forfeyte and pay 10s. Irish....”

Peter Walker has called attention to further documentation of this silk embroidery in a Gaelic song likely composed before 1500, because of an allusion to ‘court’ (the court of the Lord of the Isles ceased to exist in 1495). The poem is in vernacular Scots Gaelic, not Classical Irish. In a couplet the singer recalls sewing with a friend:

“Bha mi bliadhna ’n cùirt an rìgh leat,

’S ged chanainn e, bha mi an trì ann –

Fuaigheal anairt, a’ gearradh shìoda,

'S a’ cur grainn’ air léinidh rìomhaich

“A year I spent with you in the King's court,

Though it seemed like spending three

Sewing silk and linen

And adorning beautiful shirts.”

The word translated as ‘adorning’ is literally ‘putting tiny things, seeds’ onto them. ‘Embroider’ is the likely meaning, as there is an embroidery stitch called the seed stitch.(37)

A Gaelic “Barbour”? The Greased Léine

The Scottish Bishop Lesley described the dress of the Highland Scots when it was still largely the same as that worn by the Gaelic Irish. In his work, De origin, moribus et rebus gestis Scotorum, published in Rome in 1578, Lesley says retrospectively: “Their clothing was made for use (being chiefly suited for war) and not for ornament . . . They also made of linen very large shirts . . . These the rich colored with saffron and others smeared with some grease to preserve them longer clean among the toils and exercises of a camp, which they held it of the highest consequence to practice continually.”(38) This may have been a very archaic practice.

For his part, John Sobieski-Stuart (Costume of the Clans, 1845) thought Lesley’s greased shirt was glazed linen for waterproofing, like 19th century oilskin. He says the shirt linen was dressed with a varnish of oil and turpentine or rosin from the Highland pine forests. In support, he cites Cleland on the Highland Host of 1678;

“How in such stormes they came so farr:

the reason is, They’r smeared with tar,

which doth defend them heel and neck,

Just as it doth their sheep protect:

But least ye doubt that this is true,

They’re just the colour of tar’d wool.”

But this would seem to refer to wool clothing, and so could have noting to do with shirts. Apparently on firmer ground when quoting Scottish Gaelic poetry, Sobieski-Stuart speaks of a “brat-uillte” or oil cloth, “anart-chéireach” waxed linen, “srol-céirte” waxed silk, and the tunic itself is “liène-ceirte,” the waxed shirt.

Bha sied’ céirte mu d’ bhroilleach, dlùth,” The waxed shirt on thy breast.

—From the Marbh-Rànn do Mhac ’Ic Ailein.

And; ’Us bhuail’ clambuinn, do léine chéirte.” And drove the hail on thy waxen shirt.

—From Moladh Shin Shéumais Mhic Dhonuill Isla, died in Spain, 1620. (39)

Unfortunately, Sobieski-Stuart is notorious for inserting his own invention among his otherwise sober accounts, and I think I recognize his creativity with these Gaelic quotes, which require verification before we can rely upon them for evidence. But it is curious to see the historical léine dismissed by the Irish Kilt Society, whose members would prefer to wear the kilt. They say of the léine: “As this garb included the tradition of soaking the shirt in goose grease to make it waterproof, fully ‘traditional’ garments are best left to historical societies!” The idea that the old Irish shirts could be “were soaked in goose grease to make them waterproof” appeared for a while on the website of the Scottish kilt makers, House of Argyle, as well as the Wikipedia article on kilt. All three are probably informed by Bishop Lesley, quoted above.

There is a parallel to be found in the Carpathian/Balkan region, where the very archaic traditional clothing had many similarities to that of the 16th century Gaelic Irish (a fact often noted by modern Greeks and Albanians)—shaggy wool cloaks, linen tunics, pampootie-like footwear. In this mountainous region, termed ‘Old Europe’ by archaeologist Maria Gimbutas, some features of dress have been traced back to neolithic times.(40) Strikingly, we find here on the opposite periphery of Europe the very practice of smearing linen tunics with grease, just as described by Lesley. In 1823, Frederic Shoberl described the Hungarian Ciskos, calling to mind the accounts we have seen of the Irish wearing the léine till it fell apart: “The linen garments become extremely dirty from long wearing, for when once on they are never taken off till they drop to pieces and are replaced by new ones. The reader will not be surprised at this, when he knows that these men are obliged to pass three-fourths of the year on the moors, without any other shelter than the firmament of heaven, and therefore cannot possibly be provided with a wardrobe.” (41)

Shoberl goes on to describe “The dress of these cattle-keepers in the county of Schümegh, consisting of a shirt and wide trousers of coarse linen as already described, is rendered stiff and of a dark dirty colour by the grease with which it is purposely imbued. Their object in thus besmearing the clothes is to render them more durable, and to prevent vermin from harbouring in them, as well as defend the person from the bites of gnats: but whatever the object may be, they are seldom changed before they are ready to fall in pieces.”(42) So the grease served the same purposes alleged for saffron, i.e., as a preservative and to discourage lice. Interestingly, he also notes “the women carry shoes to church, and it is well known the same practice prevails among the females in the Highlands of Scotland” and we might add, old Ireland as well.

Irish kern vs. modern Greek: per Sobieski-Stuart
Irish kern vs. modern Greek: per Sobieski-Stuart

This practice was also used with the Greek fustanella, constructed by specialized tailors and measuring up to 40 yards around, “made of white linen panels which were covered with fat for waterproofing.”(43) The whiteness of the fustanella of modern Greeks is a bit misleading.  As a scholar reminds us, “in reality the fustanella was utterly dirty and soiled with pork fat in order to resist water . . . The lads used the pleats of the fustanella as a towel to wipe off their hands or to clean their knives.”(44)

As the modern Greek national dress originates in southern Albania, it is not surprising to learn: “It must be noted, to the shame of the Albanian warriors, that clean, white fustanellas are rare. The warriors are proud of owning only one and they wear them, without ever changing them until they are in rags. With this, they endeavour to show their disdain for femininity and luxury.”(45) And: “The general custom in Albania was to dip the white skirts in melted sheep-fat for the double purpose of making them waterproof and less visible at a distance. Usually, this was done by the men-at-arms (called in Albanian trima). After being removed from the cauldron, the skirts were hung up to dry and then pressed with cold irons so as to create the pleats. They then had a dull gray appearance, but were not dirty by any means.”(46)

(Quite apart from the smearing of linen with grease, the striking similarity of the Greek fustanella to the Irish léine as depicted by John Derricke, remarked upon by Sobieski-Stuart in 1845, was also noted by Major H. F. McClintock in his Handbook on the Traditional Old Irish Dress in 1958. McClintock actually acquired a fustanella and flokati cloak in his attempt to understand the léine and shaggy Irish mantle. He says on p. 25; “The dress worn by well-to-do Irish men in the sixteenth century probably fairly closely resembled that worn by the Greeks in more recent times as shown in Illustrations 31, 32 and 33.” Sobieski-Stuart went further than McClintock, claiming “The mantle, the tunic, the skin brogue, the conical cap, the close truis, and vary-coloured cloth, were the same parts of dress which under other names, formed the objects of a general era of costume among the early nations of Europe.” He says on p. 121 of Costume of the Clans; “we cannot fail to remark the analogous progress of costume in a remote eastern region, where a similar disjunction of the lower or plaited part of the tunic, produced the “fustinella,” or white kilt of the Greeks and Albanians. This garment, and its short “doliman” or braided jacket, still recalls in appearance the “failluinn” and little “peiteag” of the Highlanders and Irish, as they were worn in the seventeenth century, the linen shirt of Pitscottie and the “lana tunicella” of Lesley, and like them is derived from the ancient tunic of Europe, and the universal short jerkin described by Bulver, Straloch and other writers of various countries.” —It is a fascinating question, but the morphology of the léine will have to be treated in a separate paper.)

Greek bandits in 1923, quite grungy compared to the bleached white Evzone guards
Greek bandits in 1923, quite grungy compared to the bleached white Evzone guards seen in Athens today.

Yellow Starch: The Devil’s Bands

An extraordinary development after 1603 is the emergence of saffron-dyed linen as Stuart court fashion in the aftermath of the surrender of Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, and the ascension of James VI of Scotland to the British throne. In an affront to Puritan sensibilities, James’ incoming Scottish courtiers adopted starched saffron linen for their laced neck and wrist bands. This fashion (which went hand-in-hand with the courtier’s appropriation of the ‘bernia’ or ‘Irish mantle,’ a high-fashion interpretation of the Irish frieze cloak), was condemned as a nod to the recently defeated Gaelic Irish and their Spanish allies, and an assertion of a foreign Scottish identity and suspected Catholic sympathies. As we saw above, embroidered liénte had appeared in the wardrobes of Edward IV and James V (Scotland), but what was new here was the socio-political controversy these new fashions were embroiled in.

Stuart Court ladies in their saffron yellow bands and “Irish mantles”: Arabella Stuart, Lady Rich, Lady Tanfield, c1615
Stuart Court ladies in their saffron yellow bands and “Irish mantles”: Arabella Stuart, Lady Rich, Lady Tanfield, c1615

Puritan opposition to the ‘effeminate and foreign’ Stuart regime gained a martyr with the death of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613, widely assumed to have been poisoned for opposing the controversial marriage of crypto-Catholic Frances Howard to the Earl of Somerset, considered a Scottish foreigner by patriots. This incident would remain the centrepiece of Puritan pamphleteers against the Stuart monarchy into the 1640s and 50s. Yellow starch continues as a feature of this literature, even though its use was confined to the 1610s-1620s. Anne Turner, the friend of Frances Howard executed for her role in poisoning Overbury, was also notorious for having introduced the fashion of yellow starch. She was hanged in 1615 in her yellow starch band and cuffs, cementing the link between yellow starch and treason.

The colour of yellow starch was obtained from saffron (‘Your Saffron yolkie band’), a ‘culturally freighted colour.’(47) Throughout the 16th century saffron was associated above all with the Gaelic Irish, but was also used by the ‘Wild Scotts.’ Yellow starch was condemned by English patriots for extravagance and as a waste of food (starch was made from grain) at a time of food shortages. Like Irish saffron, it was simultaneously linked with luxury and filth. (As we saw above, the use of urine and sheep dung to bring out the colour of the saffron substitutes, poplar and weld, led to an association in the popular mind between bodily waste and saffron itself.)

In The Irish Hubub, or the English Hue and Crie (London, 1618), the Puritan and Irish wars veteran Barnaby Rich connected the yellow starching of neck bands to the singeing of collars by hellfire—“Looking as though they had escaped the Devil in hell / and there had scorched his band.” His fellow Puritan, Thomas Stoughton, considered yellow bands a product of the “common school of all vanitie”—“except only in Ireland, where they saffron all their wearing linnen (as some report) for the avoiding of that vermin, that do most abound in that country.” So, for English defenders of the Protestant Cause, yellow starch was equated with foreigners (Scots, Irish and Spanish), and with women, since they sewed all linens and the inventor of yellow starch was the woman Ann Turner.

The theatrical community offered a bit of mockery to this Puritan screed against yellow starch, notably playwright Ben Johnson, whose The Devil is an Ass (1617) has the character Fitzdottrel fake his own demonic possession. Foaming at the mouth (with the aid of soap), he barks; “Yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, etc.” Sir Poule Either-side, the Puritan investigating the case, knows how to interpret this: “That’s Starch! the Diuells Idoll of that color.”


(1) White, Rev. P., History of Clare and the Dalcassian Clans, M.H. Gill & Sons, Dublin, 1893, p.158. Quoting a letter of Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII, in the State Papers.

(2) McMurtry, Jo, Understanding Shakespeare’s England: a Companion for the American Reader, Archon Books, Hamden Ct. 1989, p. 67.

(3) Sekunda, Nick, The Persian Army 560-330 BC, Osprey Publishing, 1992, p.45

(4) Longfield, Ada, Anglo-Irish Trade in the Sixteenth Century, George Routledge & Sons, London, 1929, p. 181

(5) Ireland in Europe: Paolo Giovio’s Description (1548), Ed. J. Harris, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. XXXV No. 39, 2007, p. 286.

(6) Munro, John H., Consumption of spices and their cost in late-medieval and early-modern Europe, online lecture notes:

(7) Cennini, Cennino, Il Libro dell’ Arte, Trans. Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. Dover, NY, 1933. p.29.

(8) Longfield, Ada, Anglo-Irish Trade in the Sixteenth Century, George Routledge & Sons, London, 1929.

(9) McClintock, Henry Foster 1943: Old Irish and Highland Dress, Dundalk.

(10) Flavin, Susan, Consumption and Material Culture in Sixteenth-Century Ireland, thesis submitted to the University of Bristol in accordance with the requirements of the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts, Department of Historical Studies. p. 121.

(11) Barkham, Michael M., The Spanish Basque Irish Fishery & Trade in the Sixteenth-Century, History Ireland, Vol. 9, Issue 3, 2001

(12) Personal communication, Prof. Michael Barkham.

(13) Ireland in Europe: Paolo Giovio’s Description (1548), Ed. J. Harris, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. XXXV No. 39, 2007, p. 287.

(14) Lennon, Colm, An Irish Prisoner of Conscience in the Tudor Era: Archbishop Richard Creagh, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2000.

(15) McClintock, Henry Foster, Old Irish and Highland Dress, Dundalk, 1943, p. 57.

(16) Ibid, p. 69.

(17) Smith, Dr. Charles, Natural and Civil History of Cork, Book II, Chap VII, probably 1749, reprinted 1774, p. 335.

(18) Mahon, Brid, While Green Grass Grows, Mercier Press, 1998, p. 94-95.

(19) Feuillerat, A. (ed.), Documents relating to the Office of the Revels, 1908, p. 54.

(20) Ibid. p. 120.

(21) Ibid. p. 109.

(22) Ibid. p. 137.

(23) Mahon, Brid, Traditional Dyestuffs in Ireland, in Gold Under the Furze, ed. Alan Gailey, Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, The Glendale Press, Dublin, 1983, p. 119 & p. 122.

(24) The Works of Francis Bacon, Vol. I, ed. James Spedding, 1884, p. 89.

(25) Dunleavy, Mariead, Dress in Ireland, Batsford Books, London, 1989, p. 35.

(26) White, Dean, Henry VIII’s Irish Kerne in France and Scotland, 1544-45, Irish Sword III, no. 13, p.213.

(27) Henry, Grainne, The Irish Military Community in Spanish Flanders, 1586-1621, p.40, p.160.

(28) MS State Paper Office, Jury of 20 Anglo Irish jurors, October, 1537.

(29) Leabhar Branach, ed. Sean Mac Airt, Dublin, 1944, p. 356.

(30) McClintock, H. F., Old Irish and Highland Dress, Dundalk, 1943, p.84

(31) White, P., History of Clare and the Dalcassian Clans, M.H. Gill & Sons, Dublin, 1893, p.158

(32) Sobieski-Stuart, John, The Costume of the Clans, 1845, p. 65.

(33) Ibid. p. 66.

(34) McClintock, H. F., Old Irish and Highland Dress, Dundalk, 1943, part II, p.113

(35) Vital, Laurent, Description of Archduke Ferdinand's visit to Kinsale in Ireland, Ed. Hiram Morgan, 2012, accessed at

(36) Ireland in Europe: Paolo Giovio’s Description (1548), Ed. J. Harris, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. XXXV No. 39, 2007, p. 287.

(37) Duanaire na sracaire: songbook of the pillagers: an anthology of Scotland’s Gaelic verse to 1600, Ed. Wilson McLeod, translated by Meg Bateman, Berlinn, 2019.

(38) McClintock, H. F., Old Irish and Highland Dress, Dundalk, 1943, p.114

(39) Sobieski-Stuart, John, Costume of the Clans, 1845, p. 62

(40) Barber, Elizabeth Wayland, Women’s Work: the First 20,000 Years, W. W. Norton &Co., New York, 1994, p. 56-57.

(41) Shoberl, Frederic, Austria: Containing a Description of the Manners, Customs, Character and Costumes of the People of that Empire. Published by R. Ackermann, 1823, p. 65.

(42) Ibid. p. 67.

(43) Textile Art: Wall Hangings, Folk Clothing of Twelve Countries, ed. Flora Ormsby Smith, University of Lowell, 1989.

(44) Fabric of cultures: fashion, identity, and globalization, The, Eugenia Paulicelli, Hazel Clark, eds. “Fabricating Greekness: from fustanella to the glossy page”, Michael Skafidas, Routledge, 2009, p. 145-163.

(45) Robert, Cyprien, Le monde gréco-slave: les Albanais, published in: Revue des Deux-Mondes, Paris, vol. 31 (1842-1843), p. 85–92. Translated from the French by Robert Elsie. 1843.

(46) Konitza, Faik (1957). Albania: The rock garden of southeastern europe, and other essays, Boston, MA: Vatra.

(47) Yellow Starch: Fabrications of the Jacobean Court, Ann Jones and Peter Stallybrass, ch. 3 in their Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2000, p. 67.

Appendix—16th century quotes:


1466—The Calendar of Ancient Records of Dublin:

“any woman to be fined sixpence if she wear a saffron smock or kerchief in Dublin.”

1503—Barkham, Michael M., The Spanish Basque Irish Fishery & Trade in the Sixteenth-Century, History Ireland, Vol. 9, Issue 3, 2001:

“Around 1503 two merchants from Bilbao and one from inland Vitoria loaded a ship with wine, saffron, sword blades and other goods which they took to ‘St Michael’ [Ballinskelligs, County Kerry] bringing back to Bilbao mainly fish and hides.”

1518—Laurent Vital, description of visit to Kinsale:

“Firstly married women wear their finery, and linen head coverings; some yellow and others white. When they are women of status, they have chemises with long sleeves opened around the neck and in the seams silk needlework of different colours. ”

1531—Ludivico Falier, letter to Venetian Senate:

“They wear a shirt steeped in saffron (zafferanata) on account of lice, and half-hose from the knee downward.”

1533—Presentments of Jury at Waterford, 12th day of October, 24th year of King Henry's reign:

“Item they present that Edmond, Archbishop of Cashel riotously and with a company of malefactors being in a boat on the river of Waterford, at xxiiii R. H. VIII qui nune est, hath spoiled and robbed a boat of Clonmel charged with clothe, sylke and safron and other merchandise to the value by estimation above one hundreth pounds silver.”

1534—Polydore Virgil, Hybernos Sylvestres:

“They wear a linen tunic, and do not change it until it becomes threadbare and, lest it show dirt, they dye it with saffron.” And he mentions the girls “adorning their heads in the Turkish manner with saffron-coloured bands wound around through many twists into a ball.”

1536—Letter of Henry VIII to the Town of Galway, 28 April 1536 [S.P. Hen. VIII (1834), II. 309-11.]:

“Item, that no man, woman, or child, do wear in their shirts or smocks, or any other garments, no saffron, nor have any more cloth in their shirts or smocks, but 5 standard ells of that country cloth.”

1537—An act for the English order, habit, and language (28 Hen. VIII. c. 15). Irish Statues (1786), I. 119-22.

“. . . or use or wear any shirt, smock, kerchief, bendel, neck handkerchief, mocket or linnen cappe, coloured, or dyed with saffron, ne yet use or wear any in their shirts or smockes above seven yards of cloth.”

1537—MS State Paper Office, Jury of 20 Anglo Irish jurors, October, 1537.

“Item, ye same Jury present that (Cahir) McMorrough (Kavanaugh) that now is, contrary to ye King's peace & his laws, did take from one Thomas Roche of ye said town, silk, saffron, and ready money to ye valew of 40s. . . ”

1538—CSPI Ireland—Henry VIII, Vol. VI. p. 39 1538, April 26, Waterford:

“1538 49. I. Alexander Brystow to Edmund Walshe, at Waterford. Has received his letter with a saffron purse. Sends him half a pound of leek-seed for which he paid eightpence.”

1539—An act for the English order, habite, and language, (28 Hen. VIII, Cap. XV)

“or use or wear any shirt, smock, kerchor, bendel, neckerchour, mocket or linnen cappe, coloured, or dyed with Saffron, ne yet use or wear any in any their shirts or smockes above seven yards of cloth, to be measured according to the King’s Standard,”

1539—Allen, letter to Cromwell:

“…a saffron shirte dressed with silke, and a mantle of English cloth fringed with silk.”

1543—“Temporary Constitutions” of Munster, Hibernia Anglicana, i., p. 273, Richard Cox, 1689, London:

“that a nobleman shall have but twenty cubits, or bendles, of linen in his shirt, a horseman eighteen, a footman sixteen, a garson twelve, a clown ten and a shirt not to be dyed with saffron, on pain of twenty shillings.”

1548—Andrew Boorde, Fyrste Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge:

“I loue to weare a saffron shert, all though it be to-torne...

...Pediculus other whyle do byte me by the backe,”


I wear a saffron shirt, and am hasty.”

1548—The Fourth Book-Gargantua and Pantagruel, Chapter 4.LXVII.—How Panurge berayed himself for fear; and of the huge cat Rodilardus, which he took for a puny devil.

Panurge, wearing nothing but his shirt, is frightened by the huge cat Rodilardus, and soils the back of his shirt. Pantagruel tells him to go clean up, to which Panurge replies: “’Tis Hibernian saffron, I protest. Hah, hah, hah! ’tis Irish saffron, by Shaint Pautrick, and so much for this time. Selah. Let’s drink.”

1554—Giacomo Soranzo, letter:

“…clothe themselves in a long linen shirt, dyed in saffron; this garment, which they rarely change wearing it for the most part in tatters, hangs to the ground .... the infantry raise their linen garment up to the waist, fastening their sleeves at the shoulder.”

1562—William Camden, History:

“…bareheaded, with curled hair hanging down, yellow surplices dyed with saffron or infected with man’s stale (vel humana urina infectis), long sleeves…”

1565—Thomas Smythe, Information for Ireland:

“…the harper must have a new saffron shirt, and a mantle, and a hackney…”

1566—Father Good, Limerick:

“Linen shifts they have, very large, with wide sleeves down to their knees; these they dye generally with saffron.


“With the boughs, bark and leaves of poplar trees beaten together they dye their loose shirts of a saffron color (which are now much out of use) mixing the bark of the wild Arbut-tree and salt and saffron. In dyeing, their way is not to boil the thing long, but to let it soak for some days together in urine that the color may be deeper and more durable.”

1571—Edmund Campion, History of Ireland:

“Linen shirts ..., with wide hanging sleeves, pleated; thirty yards are little enough for them. They have now left off their saffron and learned to wash their shirts three or four times a year.”

1584—Richard Stanihurst, De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis:

“… wrapped in a tunic (tunica) reaching to the ankles, often saffron-colored and long sleeved.”

1590—Francis Bacon, Essays:

“The Irish wear saffroned-linen shirts dyed with saffron, which continue long clean, and lengthen life; for saffron is a great binder, oily and hot, without sharpness, is very comfortable to the skin.”

1596—Edmund Spencer, State of Ireland:

“From them [the Spanish] also, I think, came saffron shirts and smocks, which were devised by them in those hot countries where saffron is very common and rife, for avoiding that evil which cometh by much sweating and long wearing of linen.”

1599—Lady Essex, letter to Southampton:

“ him take heed of the saffron smocks. I think he means not to write to any of his friends till he may write in Irish, which is more eloquent than the English.”

1600—Gervase Markham, poem:

These saffron shirts; these parti-pleated jacks.”

1603—Fynes Moryson, Itenerary:

“Their linen is coarse and slovenly. I say slovenly because . . . 


“. . . and of old they had such plenty of linen cloth, as the wild Irish used to wear thirty or forty elles in a shirt, all gathered and wrinkled, and washed in saffron, because they never put them off till they were worn out.”


”…the men wear long and large shirts, colored with saffron, a preservation against lice, they being seldom or never washed.”

1611—John Speed, Description of Ireland:

”The men wore linen shirts, exceedingly large, stained with saffron, the sleeves wide and hanging to their knees …”

1618—Thomas Gainsford, The Glory of England:

“Their smocks are saffroned against vermin, for they wear them three months together, but to be lousy is hereditary with the best of them and no disgrace.”


1521—John Major, History of Greater Britain:

“…clothing themselves with a mantle instead of an upper garment and a shirt dyed with saffron.” (croco tincta)

1534—Polydore Virgil, Hybernos Sylvestres:

“These wear a cloak [sago-blanket] and a saffron-dyed [tincta croco] inner tunic in the Irish style, and go barelegged up to the knee.”

1563—Thomas Randolph, letter:

”As many as are going to Argyl are preparing their Highland apparel…” but he would just as soon go home as wear “…a safferon shyrte or a Hyelande pladde.”

1573—Lindsay of Pitscottie, The Chronicles of Scotland:

“…cloathed with ane mantle, with ane schirt saffroned after the Irisch maner.” 

1578—Bishop Lesly, De origine, moribus et rebus Scotorum:

”They made also of linen very large shirts, with numerous folds and wide sleeves, which flowed abroad loosley to their knees. These the rich colored with saffron.”

1583—Nicolay d’Arfeville, Miscellanea Scotica:

”They wear like the Irish a large and full shirt, colored with saffron…”

1641—Robert Gordon of Straloch, A History of Scots Affairs, 1637-41:

”…next the skin, they wear a short linnen Shirt, which the great men among them sometimnes dye of a saffron color.”

1703—Martin Martin, Description of the Western Isles:

”The first habit wore by persons of distinction in the Islands was the Leni-Croich, from the Irish word Leni, which signifies shirt, and Croch, saffron, because their shirt was dyed with that herb.

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