Natural dyes | Acquiring Colors from Nature Natural dyes | Acquiring Colors from Nature – RESHA

Natural dyes | Acquiring Colors from Nature

Author - Divyashree Thacker

threads of different colors placed on rope surrounding trees

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Imagine a world without colour. A world without the little black dress, colourful sundresses or even the crisp white shirt. It’s hard to fathom our wardrobe without an abundance of shades.

The ancient world was much more colourful than we might imagine. The first recorded mention of fabric dyeing dates back to 2600 BC. Originally, dyes were made with natural pigments mixed with water and oil used to decorate skin, jewellery and clothing.

Today, 90% of clothing is dyed synthetically, and critics say you can tell the next season’s hit hue by the colour of the rivers in China. Tragically, chemical dyeing can cause significant environmental degradation and harm to workers if not handled properly. Increasing interest in sustainable fashion has re-awoken the art of natural dyeing.
The most commonly used dyes in ancient times were found near their source, and so color often differentiated geographic location as well as class and custom. The colors were mixed from exotic plants, insects or sea life. For example, the word “crimson” is derived from kermes, the source of the dye—an insect found on oaks trees in the Mediterranean. Of all the colors in the ancient world, yellow was the most common color achieved from a number of plants. Other ancient colours like blue derived from indigo, a plant found in India and south east Asia. Indigo dyes fabric a rich blue color, and is unique because it doesn’t require a mordant for the color to stay. See, a natural dye needs what is called a “mordant” to stick—mordant meaning bite. Plants like indigo naturally have mordants, but without one, the colour can easily fade over time. It’s the color purple that truly opens up history and provides the perfect insight into the history of fabric dyes—from its stance as a status symbol which intrigued the richest of leaders and often equaled its weight in gold, to opening the doors to synthetic dyeing around the world—purple is fascinating.

Natural fabric with the natural product they are obtained from

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Indians have been considered as forerunners in the art of natural dyeing. Natural dyes find use in the colouring of textiles, drugs, cosmetics, etc. 

Owing to their nontoxic effects, they are also used for coloring various food products. In India, there are more than 450 plants that can yield dyes. In addition to their dye-yielding characteristics, some of these plants also possess medicinal value. Though there is a large plant resource base, little has been exploited so far. Due to lack of availability of precise technical knowledge on the extracting and dyeing technique, it has not commercially succeeded like the synthetic dyes. Although indigenous knowledge system has been practised over the years in the past, the use of natural dyes has diminished over generations due to lack of documentation. Natural dyes are derived from naturally occurring sources. Although natural dyes have been used for centuries, their use was greatly reduced with the development of synthetic dyes in the nineteenth century. 

These natural dyes are experiencing renewed interest because of the importance of green and natural products. While natural dyes are renewable and sustainable, their use can be controversial.

Natural dyes are a great tool for educators because they add interest to many areas of education including history, natural science, math, art, social studies, and family and consumer sciences.

Reds and pinks :

red and pink dye fabric

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A variety of plants produce red dyes, including a number of lichens, henna, alkanet or dyer's bugloss, asafoetida and dyer's madder. Madder and related plants of the genus Rubia are native to many temperate zones around the world, and were already used as sources of good red dye, such as rose madder, in prehistory. Madder has been identified on linen in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and Pliny the Elder records madder growing near Rome. Madder was a dye of commercial importance in Europe, being cultivated in the Netherlands and France to dye the red coats of military uniforms until the market collapsed following the development of synthetic alizarin dye in 1869. Madder was also used to dye the "hunting pinks" of Great Britain. Munjeet or Indian madder is native to the Himalayas and other mountains of Asia and Japan. Munjeet was an important dye for the Asian cotton industry and is still used by craft dyers in Nepal. Puccoon or bloodroot is a popular red dye among Southeastern Native American basketweavers.


Dyes that create reds and yellows can also yield oranges. Native Indians of Southwest America also known as the Navajo dyers create orange dyes from one-seeded juniper, Navajo tea or alder bark.

fabrics with yellow color natural dye with light and dark shade with dye powder in the centerPicture credit :  

Yellows :

Yellow dyes are "about as numerous as red ones”, and can be extracted from saffron, pomegranate rind, turmeric, safflower, onionskins, and a number of weedy flowering plants. Limited evidence suggests the use of weld, also called mignonette or dyer's rocket before the Iron Age, but it was an important dye of the ancient Mediterranean and Europe and is indigenous to England. Two brilliant yellow dyes of commercial importance in Europe from the 18th century are derived from trees of the Americas: quercitron from the inner bark of Eastern Black Oak native to eastern North America and fustic from the dyer's mulberry tree of the West Indies and Mexico.

Greens :

If plants that yield yellow dyes are common, plants that yield green dyes are rare. Both woad and indigo have been used since ancient times in combination with yellow dyes to produce shades of green. Medieval and Early Modern England was especially known for its green dyes.

fabric soaked in green dye in bucket with leafs beside it

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The dyers of Lincoln, a great cloth town in the high Middle Ages, produced the Lincoln green cloth associated with Robin Hood by dyeing wool with woad and then over-dyeing it yellow with weld or dyer's greenweed, also known as dyer's broom. Woollen cloth mordanted with alum and dyed yellow with dyer's greenweed was over-dyed with woad and, later, indigo, to produce the once-famous Kendal green.[40] This in turn fell out of fashion in the 18th century in favour of the brighter Saxon green, dyed with indigo and fustic. Soft olive greens are also achieved when textiles dyed yellow are treated with an iron mordant. The dull green cloth common to the Iron Age Halstatt culture shows traces of iron, and was possibly coloured by boiling yellow-dyed cloth in an iron pot.[43] Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Plateau in North America used lichen to dye corn husk bags a sea green. 

Purples :

In medieval Europe, purple, violet, murrey and similar colours were produced by dyeing wool with woad or indigo in the fleece and then piece-dyeing the woven cloth with red dyes, either the common madder or the luxury dyes kermesand cochineal. Madder could also produce purples when used with alum. Brazil wood also gave purple shades with vitriol (sulfuric acid) or potash.

purple berries placed on a fabric with a few berries smashed


Browns, grey and blacks :

Logwood is the only natural dye that is still being used today. Heartwood extracts coming from logwood yield hematoxylin. Once it oxidizes, it will turn to hematein during isolation. Initially, it is red but the color will transform to charcoal, gray, and black once combined with chromium. Logwood is used to dye silk and leather.

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