Natural Dyes Revisited
By Kim Anderson
People have been using insects, leaves, and roots of plants for thousands of years to impart color to textiles. It wasn’t until William Henry Perkin serendipitously discovered a lavender-colored dye artificially produced from coal tar in 1856 that synthetic dyes began to replace natural dyestuffs.
There are three primary sources for natural dyes—plants, animals, and minerals. Regardless of the source, natural dyes can be put into two categories— substantive and adjective. Substantive dyes, also referred to as direct dyes, become chemically fixed to the fiber without the aid of other chemicals or additives. Indigo and some lichens are substantive dyes. Adjective dyes, also referred to as mordant dyes, require an added substance known as a mordant to make the dyes colorfast. Most natural dyes are adjective dyes.
Today, natural dyes are thought to have little economic importance, however, with the consumer’s growing appetite for eco-friendly apparel, some forward thinking companies are exploring natural dyes to produce unique clothing.
Natural Dyes Being Explored Today
Indigo is a blue dye derived from the leaves of a leguminous plant. Natural indigo is probably the oldest dye known to humans. Depending on the dyeing procedure, colors ranging from light blue to deep navy can be obtained. Of the natural dyes, indigo has some of the best fastness properties. It was the original dye of the “Levi’s” blue jeans—becoming the trademark color for durability. Indigo is insoluble in water. During the dyeing process it is made soluble. Once the fabric is dipped into the indigo dye bath, dye is deposited into the fibers. When the fabric is removed, the air oxidizes the indigo and returns it to its original insoluble state—permanently locking it in to the fiber.
Courtesy of Wild Colours
Madder is considered the “Queen of the Reds.” It is one of the oldest and most frequently used natural dyes. Madder is a member of the coffee family. It is an herbaceous plant with an extensive fibrous root system in which the concentrated red colorant is stored. The red coats worn by British soldiers during the American Revolutionary War were dyed using the roots of madder.
Courtesy of Wild Colours
Historically, cochineal dyes were used throughout Mexico and Guatemala where the bug thrived on the nopal or opuntia cactus. As the insect matures, the wingless dye-yielding females are swept off the leaves to which they were attached and plunged into hot water. The dead insects were then laid in the sun or placed in a bag and put in the oven to dry. After the insects were dried, they were ground into a fine powder. Dark burgundy to bright red to soft lilac and pink can be obtained from cochineal.
Pomegranate is a multi-stemmed deciduous shrub or small tree that has long been cultivated for its fruit. A natural dye is extracted from the tough leathery rind of the fruit. Different shades of golden yellows are produced. Iron can be added to the dye bath to produce mossy greens and greys.
Courtesy of Wild Colours
Fustic dye comes from the hardwood of a tree in the mulberry family and therefore is often referred to as mulberry. Fustic dye has been used as early as 1600, mainly because it produced a strong color at low cost. During WW1, fustic dye was one of the main dyes used to produce khaki for army uniforms.
Courtesy of Wild Colours
Weld is an annual or biennial herb that was the most commonly used dye in England until the introduction of synthetic dyes. Traditionally, weld was cultivated throughout Europe for its yellow color. The upper part of the plant, including the leaves and seeds, were used to produce a variety of bright yellow hues.
Chestnut trees, which grow in many parts of the world, produce a warm brown color. This dye is also well known for its ability to dye silk black with the addition of logwood and an iron mordant. Chestnuts contain a high amount of tannin. Tannin-rich dyes bond particularly well with cellulose-based fibers. The more tannins in a dye, the greater the colorfastness.
Companies Exploring Natural Dyes
With the growing interest in environmentally favorable dyeing methods, like minded companies are exploring the unique effects that can be achieved with natural dyes.
Patagonia’s Clean Color Collection, Courtesy of Patagonia
Patagonia has long been on the cusp of innovation with its commitment to protect and preserve the environment. So it is not surprising that in 2017, Patagonia launched the Clean Color collection which incorporates apparel dyed with an array of natural dyes— including mulberry, carmine, pomegranate and indigo.
Maiwa, based in Vancouver British Columbia, was founded by Charlotte Kwon in 1986. For almost thirty years the company has been committed to making “slow clothes” which means utilizing hand spinners, hand weavers, natural dyers, block printers and embroiderers.
At Maiwa, they offer an array of natural dyes. It is their belief that natural dyes are an ecologically smart way to impart color to yarns and cloth.
Tim Mclaughlin, who teaches ink making workshops at the Maiwa school of textiles, says some of the best natural dyes are the “classic” ones that have been used for thousands of years. These include cutch, myrobalan, cochineal, madder, marigold, weld, and indigo.
Mclauhglin believes that one of the challenges with natural dyes is fastness, which can be categorized as washfastness, rubfastness and lightfastness. A dye may be fast to one type but not to another.
He goes on to say that the fastness of dyes depends on proper dyeing procedures. Some dyes attain higher lightfastness when used in combination with other dyes or when combined with an iron shift. Other issues affecting the fastness of the dye include time of harvest, how it was dried, the mordant, and how the colorant was extracted from the host matter.
Organic Tunic Mini Dyed with Chestnuts, Courtesy of California Cloth Foundry
California Cloth Foundry
California Cloth Foundry (CCF), based in Los Angelos, California, was founded by Lydia Wendt in 2014. Wendt is a consummate apparel professional with an impressive list of work experience with leading labels. After more than twenty-five years in the fast paced apparel industry, Wendt wanted to positively change the industry.
The company produces high quality apparel in timeless designs dyed and printed with madder root, weld and chestnut. Wendt points out that everything they do is “scalable” —whether they dye two or 20,000 pounds. They also make sure they can replenish on a small or large scale.
Some of the challenges Wendt has encountered include color fastness. She says that natural dyes do fade to varying degrees, but points out that you can envision the garment as living, breathing and natural—changing with you as you wear it. Wendt is also aware that mordants can be seen as environmentally unfriendly, but says the ones they use are all from the food and skincare industry. The company is currently pursuing other natural dyes with their suppliers.
Danu Organic was founded by Sarah Danu in 2019. Danu’s mission is lofty: Get naturally colored, organic clothes in the awareness, and eventually the closet, of every person. Danu Organics specializes in timeless basics that are meant to become staples.
Danu uses madder root but will soon introduce naturally dyed garments in black and green. Danu explains that the black, green and madder dyes are all created in conjunction with Sally Fox’s Colorganic® fabric which holds natural dyes better than white cotton due to its tannin content.
When asked about challenges she has encountered with natural dyes, Danu says she could see the limited color palette feeling restrictive—although she feels she is nowhere close to exhausting the beautiful color potential of natural dyes.
Today, the vast majority of dyes are produced synthetically. Colors produced from synthetic dyes are more consistent from batch to batch than colors produced by natural colorants. However, natural dyes are an eco-friendly way to impart almost any color to a textile product. With the recent interest in environmental concerns, natural dyes might be a good way to produce unique products with a green slant.
Bio: Kim Anderson
Kim Anderson received a Ph.D. in Textile Apparel Management from the Wilson College of Textiles at North Carolina State University. She has worked in the textile industry for over 25 years as a designer, product developer, educator, and researcher.