My character has a book of research bound in leather. To make the cover of her book distinguishable, she has the leather dyed a rare color. Which color might that be? Assume money is no object. The story takes place in a medieval setting and I know some colors were rarer than others (purple, royal blue) but I'm unsure if they were used for leather specifically.

Edited to add: this is a fantasy world that takes place in a time period similar to the Renaissance. My character lives in a country I've loosely based on the Mediterranean (as a general region, not a specific country) and it borders the sea.

I don't know if this adds or takes away from my question but for those wanting more specificity, that's the larger context.

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    $\begingroup$ The color royal blue was not "rare" in the Middle Ages; it just did not exist at all. It was invented in the 18th century. And before modern times the word purple meant some sort of deep dark red. It still has this meaning in Romance languages; for example, the original French title of Mathieu Kassovitz's film The Crimsom Rivers (2000) is Les rivières pourpres, where the word refers to the color of blood. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 26 at 9:04
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    $\begingroup$ Suggest that this may get a better response on HistorySE. Both there and here it will get a better reception with a more specific time period ("medieval" is very long) and geographic area. (British Isles? China? Somewhere specific between those two locations?) Note that the presence or absence of long distance trade may be the difference between a colour being expensive vs completely unavailable. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26 at 9:24
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    $\begingroup$ Purple used to be a very expensive color to produce. This eas because i think it was extracted from a sea snail or something. And you needed lots of them for even a little bit of dye. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26 at 9:52
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    $\begingroup$ I seem to recall that that some cultures there were laws against possessing blue or purple clothing. Romans? witch would make it rare for a novel reason. $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Commented Mar 26 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Escapeddentalpatient. beware the "Q is better suited elsewhere" trap. The choice of which Stack a question is posted tells us what kind of specialists the OP wants answers from. I believe OP doesn't need historical accurate facts. Only believable ones to put in his story. Therefore, the specialists here on WB.SE are the ones he asked for help. - - - - - A Q can fit more than one Stack. That's fine. Migrating questions is a big headache most of the time. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27 at 10:57

2 Answers 2


The classic example might be Tyrian purple which is somewhat inconvenient to produce. There were other purple colors, but the best kind was much more robust to things like sunlight which would fade and discolor the cheaper kinds over time. This slightly suggests to me that a purple book in itself is not necessarily unusual unless it is also an old purple book.

If you want your book to stand out, and money is no object, merely making it purple might not be enough. You'll be wanting metal, preferably the precious kind. Enter: treasure binding!

A book, bounding in leather, with golden embossed corner pieces and gold crosses inlaid which gemstones

(Armenian gospels, 1262, with metal elements over leather, image credit "Bequest of Mrs. Henry Walters [formerly part of the Walters Collection], 1935" via wikimedia)

Now that is a distinctive book.

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    $\begingroup$ Aluminum bound book. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 26 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen very fancy. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 26 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Aluminum was not discovered until 1825. From about 1825-1886, yes, it was more precious than gold, but that does not line up with the medieval time frame. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 26 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Which makes it rare to the extreme! Could only be acknowledged as a little wizard's book. It could work if the character is a wizard or alchemist or something of the like. It is a research diary after all. It'd be like finding a book bound in one of the synthetic elements in modern times. Probably as close as you can get to the Silmarils in the real world. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 26 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ "Somewhat inconvenient to produce" is really understating it for Tyrian purple! $\endgroup$
    – Paul Z
    Commented Mar 28 at 3:53

The important aspect here is the word "dyed"

Tanned leather has color, and as anyone who's tried to re-stain a deck with a new color will tell you, that pre-existing color is the problem. Because of that pre-existing color, there is a set of common colors that are almost always what we see.

The further outside that color range (a light tan or "natural" to black, ranging through shades of red to produce browns) the more remarkable and rare the coloring process must be.

From a medieval standpoint, your answer must not only be an uncommon color to obtain, but also a color that would be a sincere pain in the rumpus to stain leather with. This is because the stain must overcome the pre-existing color, likely by absorbing significant quantities of solids into the leather, especially near (and yet below) its surface.

That's the difference between dying and painting. A dye must be absorbed into the surface of the object. A paint merely coats the surface to hide it.

While historically yellows were available during the medieval period, they were often dull or brownish. However...

Weld is the most common yellow dyestuff, producing a vivid, almost unbelievably electric yellow colour. Unfortunately, it is not a very fast colour and the intensity fades quickly. (Ibid.)

So the question is how to protect the vivid "electric yellow" of the stain? From our sister site Skeptics.SE (of all places...) we learn:

Salt has been used as a mordant (dye-fixer) for ages. Packs of RIT brand dye suggest adding salt (or vinegar, for synthetics) to the dye bath to help the color set.


OTOH, they are also using the hottest water possible, which is hard on clothes, so not for frequent use. Note also that this is for when you are dying cloth and may not be any help when washing same. (Source)


A vivid, bright (electric) yellow, which can be set in the leather using salt and hot water. A (admittedly very rapid) Google search suggests it would be unique.


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