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Published: 31 July 2021

By Andy Ross

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Discovering Textiles - Jean-Henri Fabre

I am reading a fascianting book at the moment: Insect-opedia by Hugh Raffles.

This book was published in 2010 and it is high time I had a copy to read. There are many stories and facts about insects, a subject that has long been a favourite. In my youth I kept a huge nest of small spiders (yes, I know they are not insects!) in the house, much to my mother's annoyance, and I have a collection of ceramics and paintings and textiles relating to the creatures. After all, with their brilliant and ancient colours and amazing shapes, what is not to love?

Jean-Henri Fabre is, of course, part of the tome. He is best-known for his lifetime of work, studying insects. (You can read a short outline of his life here.) But it was not through that study that he first attempted to make a living. 

In 1860 Jean-Henri had successfully isolated the colouring agent, alizarin from the madder plant, registering three patents for the process. For this discovery he was awarded the Legion of Honour and he was also received in Paris by Napoleon III. What should have been a successful and profitable discovery was swiftly overtaken by the discovery two years later of a process to make the dye artificially by two German chemists. As you can see from the alazarin link above, Jean-Henri Fabre is not even mentioned and is not recognised for his contribution to the red trousers of the French Army.