Colouring the nation: Scottish ‘Turkey red’ textiles


A collaborative project between historians and National Museums Scotland highlights the colourful past of the Scottish textile industry.

What was the problem? 

Turkey red is a method of dyeing which originates in the East. Popular with Scottish textile firms in the 19th century, this method was used to create bright plain red cottons as well as elaborately decorated textiles. Companies in Glasgow and the Vale of Leven exported their Turkey red textiles all over the world.

Compared to other famous Scottish textiles like tartan, Turkey red remained relatively unknown. When the United Turkey Red company closed in the 1960s, it donated over 40,000 textile samples to the National Museum of Scotland. For over 50 years, the samples were neglected due to poor conservation, handling difficulties, and missing records. This vast textile collection formed the basis of the research project.

What did we do? 

For the very first time, researchers studied the contents of all 200 Turkey red pattern books. They catalogued each separate textile sample, and recorded detailed descriptions of the many bright and varied patterns.

Working closely with the National Archives in London, the team created online catalogue ‘tags’ which linked their samples with other records and archives. This provided a more accurate date for the pattern books and a better idea of the businesses who supplied them.

Analysing this wealth of new information revealed more about the cultural and global impact of these popular Scottish textiles. The Bombay Pattern Book, for example, provided a unique insight into design exchange between Scotland and India in the mid-19th century.

The collection as a whole gives a detailed overview of this forgotten textile design process from the drawing office to print shop floor. Researchers linked material from the collection to local design education, gender roles, copyright practice and even design espionage.

Parliament applauds the Colouring the Nation Project, which aims to redress the perception of Scotland's industrial past by drawing attention to Scottish industrial heritage based on fashionable and colourful textiles.
Scottish Parliament Business Bulletin S4M-04525
What happened next? 

Colouring the Nation exhibition

The Turkey red collection became available for the first time as a public and academic resource on the website of National Museums Scotland. This featured an online exhibition, an annotated catalogue of over 800 samples, and research essays by the project team. In the three months following its launch, the online exhibition attracted more than 12,000 visitors from all over the world.

Innovation in collections practice

The research influenced technical collections practices at the museum, especially in the use of photography as an analytical tool. The museum photographer documented the challenges of working with the Turkey red collection in a blog, which reached a wide online audience. External organisations also adopted new initiatives: the Society of Dyers and Colourists invited Dr Tuckett to assess their own collection of 19th-century pattern books, one of which was then digitised and made available online. The senior curator of Textiles at the Winterthur Museum of Decorative Arts, in the US, praised the project as a ‘model for research on other collections.’

Enhancing cultural confidence

Local public audiences took part in a series of workshops, which generated awareness of the movement of textiles and design across space and time. Participants engaged with the project through ‘showing and telling’ textile-related objects and stories. A workshop for former United Turkey Red employees and descendants took place at Alexandria (Vale of Leven) Lomond Galleries Shopping Centre. Over 50 participants brought Turkey red artefacts and stories that enhanced the understanding of the industry and its legacy, including previously unknown pattern samples, unique hand tools, wage books and photographs. Stories were recorded from five former workers, the oldest aged 99. Media reports of the event generated a Parliamentary Motion to highlight the project’s community engagement. An exhibition displaying the Turkey red project, and its impact on cultural confidence in disadvantaged communities, was held in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

Contemporary design

The website, catalogue and exhibition have been a source of inspiration for artists, designers and textile entrepreneurs all over the world. Charlotte Linton, a US-based designer who spent summer 2012 in Scotland on a design fellowship, found the Turkey red collection ‘fascinating’ and ‘accessible’. She created a bright red patterned silk scarf inspired by the project.

About the researcher(s)

Personal Chair of Social History and Cultural History

Research unit

Subject area:
  • History


  • The Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • The Scottish Government

Related study programmes