Sneak peak at the historical corset we feature next monthIf you read historical fashion magazines looking for corset ads, you'll see these words over and over again: "Available in white or drab coutil, or fast black sateen".

White, unbleached and black coutil are easy enough to find for sale today. But what color is "drab" exactly? And where can you get that coutil that color today?

The answer is that you can dye it yourself using a very easy process. No toxic chemicals are involved, just a very cheap material from the health food store.


Drab - Defined

Drab is not just a single color, but rather a range of colors in the grey-brown family. It is originally thought to refer to the natural color of linen cloth.

Spiers and Surenne's French and English pronouncing dictionary - 1886, p. 168 defines Drab as "gris-american" (American grey). Heath's French and English dictionary, 1903, p141 defines drab as "gris brun" (grey brown) and A textbook on retail selling By Helen Rich Norton, 1919, p.272 in the section entitled "French Terms Salespeople should know" says beige equals drab.

Drab is easier to understand by seeing than to understand by reading, so I've included here several pictures of drab colored corsets, including a white and natural colored cotton corset for comparison.

Lara Corsets, Corset #0010 Lara Corsets, Corset #0199, Drab nursing corset Antique Drab corset, Jema Hewitt

Drab: Thomson's Glove Fitting corset by Langdon & Batchellors 1880-1890

Courtesy of

Drab: Victorian Nursing Corset, Dr Strong's Tricora by the Bridgeport Corset Co.

Courtesy of

Antique Drab corset, Jema Hewitt (detailed in next month's issue!)
For comparison: Two white corsets
Lara Corsets, #108, white corset Late Victorian  Corset (circa 1890s) Inventory # 0103

Further Examples of Drab Corsets

Antique Corset Gallery Olive coutil S bend corset - 1908-1909

Corset, third quarter 18th century, American

Embroidered drab corset, Corset, 1820-1839 American (This one is a wonderful example of embroidery!)

Corset, ca. 1893 American

Corset, ca. 1907 American [label] "S.L. The Charmant Corsets-B. Litke, 287 Grand Street"

Victorian/Early Edwardian Corset Inventory #0108

Courtesy of

Late Victorian Corset (circa 1890s) Inventory # 0103

Was white, now discolored with rust.

Courtesy of



Historical Dye Recipes

Black Walnut, nuts in hulls on the tree

Dr. Chase's receipt book and household physician ( link) gives several recipes for drab dyes. Nearly all of them call for toxic chemicals such as "blue vitrol" (copper sulfate) or "copperas" (Iron sulfate) to act as a mordant (dye fixative). The dye stuffs range from nut galls or cutch tree bark to cheap green tea or sumac.

Since I wanted to stay away from chemicals, I experimented with ground black walnut hulls from the health food store and received a good fast drab color on cotton coutil. Black walnut hulls have long been used to dye wool brown, but not cotton, historically.

Black walnut hulls are the green husk on the outside of the walnut. You can purchase the prepared powder online, or at a health food store that sells bulk herbs and spices. Medicinally, they are recommended for internal parasites and skin conditions.

Dyeing a Test Piece

If you can, always dye a sample before dyeing the whole piece. I did mine in a glass measure cup, using the microwave. I used 1 cup (240 ml) water and 1 teaspoon of black walnut hulls. The key to getting consistent results is to follow the same process. If you are very concerned about matching dye lots, water temperature matters aswell, but that wasn't a concern of mine.


How to dye a sample

Cut a square piece of pre-washed coutil and gather the rest of the materials you'll need.

  • Measuring cup
  • Water
  • Black walnut powder
  • Spoon for stirring
Sample materials
Microwave a cup of water in the for 1 minute until boiling.
Stir in ground walnut hulls
Adding dye powder
Microwave again for 1 min 30 seconds. Watch to make sure it doesn't boil over. Basically you are making black walnut hull tea and you want it to be as strong as possible. Microwaving dye

Rinse sample piece of coutil under the water faucet [tap] and squeeze out most of the water. The fabric needs to be throughly wet for the dye to take evenly.

Add the fabric to the black walnut hull dye, and stir with a spoon.

Adding sample to dye
Let it sit for 30 mins to an hour, stirring occassionally. Stirring the Sample
Remove from the dye bath and rinse. Wash with soap and water (dish soap [washing-up liquid] is fine). Lay out and let dry.

The finished color is approximently what your results will be if you use the same ratio of black walnut hull powder to water for the large batch.

Finished sample


Dyeing a Yard of Coutil

Materials Needed

  • 1 yard (1m) unbleached coutil (weighing 16 oz/ 450gr) I purchased mine from Richard the Thread.
  • Very large stainless steel pot (I believe mine is a 5 Gallon/19 litre pot )
  • 1/2 cup (120 ml) black walnut hull powder
  • 3 gallons (13.5 litres) water

1 - Wash the Coutil in hot water with laundry detergent to remove the sizing.

You can do this right before dyeing or several days before, it doesn't matter.

Washed coutil

2 - Add 3 gallons (13.5 litres) water to pot and bring to boil. This will probably take 25-30 minutes.

While this is coming to a boil, get the coutil throughly wet so the dye will take evenly. I usually put the fabric through a rinse cycle in the washing machine.

Boiling water
3 - When the water is boiling.... Put 1 cup (240 ml) warm water in a measuring cup and add 1/2 cup (120 ml) black walnut hull powder. Stir it, mixing well and breaking up any clumps. Mixing the black walnut powder

4 - Add the walnut powder slurry to the boiling water and stir.

Let simmer for 1 hour.

Boiling dye
5 - Add the wet coutil to the dye bath Adding wet fabric to dye bath
6 - Stir the fabric in the pot for several minutes to get the dye to take evenly into the fabric. Push any fabric below the surface of the water. Pushing the fabric under
7 - Bring the dye bath back to a simmer and let it cook for 1 hour, stirring the fabric every 10-15 mins. I usually set a timer to help me remember to stir. Stirring
Here is the fabric after 30 mins Fabric after 30 mins in dye

8 - After an hour, take your sample that you prepared before and get it wet. Compare it to the fabric in the dye pot to see if the fabric is getting close to the right shade. You'll want the fabric in the dye pot to be several shades darker since it has the dye material on it.

When the fabric is dyed to the desired amount, turn off stove and let it cool down in the pot with the lid off. This will probably take about 1-2 hours.

Wet sample compared to fabric

9 - Wearing gloves, carefully remove the hot fabric from the dye bath and put into a bucket.

Put fabric in washing machine and run through a rinse cycle to remove the walnut hull powder.

Add laundry detergent and run through a regular wash cycle. Dry as normal.

Wet dyed fabric

10 - When its dry, spray with starch and iron. Here's the finished, drab dyed coutil with a snippet of the original fabric


Finished fabric with original

The finished fabric is on the left, sample on the right.

It came out a bit lighter and not so brown as the sample. The sample was dyed with double the amount of walnut hull powder than the fabric.

Finished fabric, compared to sample


And the colour will stay? You don't need anything to fix the colour?
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