We have a fair bit of documentation on the colors of clothing written in wills, inventories, and supply orders. In addition, paintings from the period can be a resource if used judiciously. While there certainly were painters active in England during this period, the English did not have a tradition of genre painting such as we find in the Netherlands. When used carefully, genre paintings from the Netherlands and Flanders, which often portray common people in their daily lives, can be a helpful resource to verify written descriptions found in English sources.
Linen and hemp are normally white or their natural color (greyish or light brownish colored). These fibers bleach white in the sun when wet, and very white linen was highly desirable. There is not much evidence for colored linen, although occasionally we hear of it used for linings. Linen does not take dye particularly well and when dyed would have a tendency to bleach out over time when exposed to light.
Wool and silk, on the other hand, dye very well and can produce rich colors. Using natural dyes and mordants, almost any color available in the modern world can be created (including pink, turquoise, and lime green). The cost of raw materials for natural dyes affects the cost of the fabric and the colors that require extra labor are also more expensive. Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcom-Davies of the Tudor Tailor have created an extensive research database of colors of garments in 16th century English will and probate inventories and the 6 most popular colors are red, tawny, blue, violet, black, and “sheep’s color” (natural colored wool as it comes from the sheep).
Red was often used for kirtles, petticoats, waistcoats, and hat linings. It was believed to be healthful and warming, which made it a favorite for underthings. Red can come from multiple sources; the most common is from madder root. It can come in many shades of red to orange, and can make pink. Cochineal is made from insects and is much more expensive, more of a scarlet color.
Tawny was a popular English color. It is an orangey-tan or golden brownish color.
Blue, made from woad or indigo dye, was a common color for household livery. “Blue coats” was a term that is used to refer to servants. It can come in shades from very pale to deep blue.
Violet is an overdye of madder and woad, or may use lichen, and was closer to what we might call maroon. It is not “purple,” which was an expensive color subject to sumptuary law regulation.
Black was a very fashionable color, but pure, deep black was expensive, as it requires a lot of over-dyeing. It was a color much favored by the middle class as a subtle way of showing status without appearing extravagant. The portrait of Edward Winslow, which no doubt inspired the folk belief that Pilgrims always wore black, is typical of a very prosperous, conservative, middle-class person. Ordinary people had “poor black,” which is more of a very dark brown color.
Yellow, made from weld, was another inexpensive dye. There is a funny popular ballad from the period, “Give me my yellow hose again,” that suggests that wearing yellow hose is a sign you are looking for love. Or at least a good time.
Green generally requires overdyeing with blue and yellow, and is therefore a bit more expensive. It is associated with springtime, festivity, and youth.
High Status Colors – Among the elite, the preferred colors, judging from portraits, were black, white, and red. Deep black and bright white take a lot of work, a subtle sign of affluence.