Roots, nuts and flowers that grow in the backyard are all sources of colouring pigments known as Natural Dyes. These are dyes obtained from natural sources – plant, animal or mineral. Long before the alchemists became chemists who created dyes in laboratories, there were dyers who extracted colors from flowers, leafs, roots, the outer and inner bark of trees as well as their heartwood. The earliest record of the use of natural dyes is from China, way back in 2600 BC.
Dyes were a significant part of medieval culture. They were considered so important that ships carrying dyes were actually allowed to pass through enemy lines. The story goes that in the Middle Ages, one of the finest red dyes came from a tree called Sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan). The dye was the lustrous red of burning coal and early Portuguese traders called it bresil or brasil. So when they discovered and claimed a land on the Atlantic side of South America, where sappanwood trees abounded, they called it terra de brasil, and later Brazil.
 Why should I be aware of them?
Today, with the growing awareness of the pitfalls of using certain chemical dyes, there is a resurgence of interest in Natural Dyes. Also, when conscious consumers choose naturally dyed products over those with cheaper, stronger chemical dyes, they ensure the survival of natural dyes which represent centuries of wisdom, art and craftsmanship.
Unlike Chemical Dyes, which result in environmental degradation, river pollution, toxicity etc, natural dyes are in sync with the environment. Chemical colours are much sharper, harder, while natural colours have a unique aesthetic that can not be replicated in the lab. They are more mellow, and fade evenly unlike their chemical cousins. Folk paintings and Handicraft created with natural dyes, for example, Kalamkari, Block Prints and Madhubani Paintings often support impoverished and under-developed communities of craftsmen.
 All about natural dyes
There are three types of Natural Dyes.
- Plant-based dyes: Examples of these are Madder and Indigo. Analyses of red fabrics found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb show that they were dyed with madder, a plant-based dye. Till the early 1900s, indigo was commonly made from a family of flowering plants called indigofera. It was cheap and plentiful, and so favoured by the working class (hence the term blue collar worker).
- Animal-based dyes: The purple robes of royalty, in Ancient Rome were dyed using using a substance extracted from a rare crustacean called a Trumpet Shell (Purple Fish) which was found near Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. An estimated 8,500 shellfish were crushed to produce one gram of the dye, which made it so expensive that only kings could afford to use it.Deep red or crimson was produced from a species of scaled insects, Cochineal, and was probably first used by the Aztec and the Maya.
- Dyes made with minerals, colored clays and earth oxides. For example, Ochre, made from iron ore, is one of the oldest pigments and has been in use since pre-historic times.
 Process of Natural Dyeing
Certain fabrics like silk can be colored simply by being dipped in the dye for a specified period of time. Others, like cotton, need a Mordant. A mordant can be simply defined as a substance that aids and hastens the chemical reaction between the dye and the fiber so that the dye is absorbed. Often, traditional dye-makers used brass, copper or iron pots to dye yarn in, for these metals are known mordants. Not all dyes need mordants though -- some dyes (like the brown hues from walnut hulls and the yellow from turmeric) do not need mordants, and yet the colour achieved is fast to washing and sunlight. They are called Substantive Dyes.
Unlike chemical dyes, Natural Dyes are often more time-consuming to manufacture and use. For example, in one traditional process of Indigo dyeing, Indigo is first dissolved in stale urine, producing a yellow-green solution. Fabric dyed in that solution turns blue after the yellow-green solution oxidizes. Which is why in the early 1900s, cheaper, easier and equally effective chemical dyes began to gain popularity (spearheaded by the creation of synthetic indigo by the German chemist Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf von Baeyer in 1865), and natural dyes became less popular.
Many natural dyes can be easily created and used at home .
 Natural Dyed Textiles in India
Wisdom is as enduring as the dyes of India...
(St Jerome, Fourth century)
Over the centuries, Indian craftsmen have used natural dyes on mulmul (muslin), cotton, wool and silk textiles which are known all over the world today. Indian natural dyed fabrics fall into three categories - yarn dyed in natural colours and woven; materials block printed with natural dyes and Kalamkari where the "Kalam" or pen is used to draw beautiful designs on the cloth. Today the most popular vegetable dyed fabrics are from Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Orissa.
Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh is famous for Kalamkari textiles. Machilipatnam is known for its fine vegetable dye block printed textiles. Bagh in Madhra Pradesh, Bagru and Sanganer in Rajasthan make beautiful, block printed fabrics. Craftsmen in Kutch and Sindh practice Ajrakh printing on cotton fabric using indigo blue, madder red, and a yellow derived from pomegranate rinds.
The Crafts Council of India, Dastakar and the Madras Craft Foundation (MCF) are among the organisations that help artisans keep the tradition of Natural Dyes alive in the country.
- The earliest written record of the use of natural dyes was found in China dated 2600BC!
- In 1856, while trying to synthesize artificial quinine, 18-year-old chemistry student William Perkin instead produced a strangely beautiful color. Perkin had stumbled across the world's first aniline dye, a color that became known as mauve!
- Prior to 1856, the only textile dyes available were those that could be found in nature.
- Tyrian purple, a natural dye, was so expensive that its use was restricted to royalty. It was obtained from a small Mediterranean shellfish and produced in the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre. The shellfish were small both in size and in numbers. It was estimated that it took 8,500 shellfish to produce one gramme of dye.
 Additional Information
- For a listing of links to Natural Dyes, go to Natural Dyeing Information
- To buy Naturally Dyed products, go to People Tree
- To learn how to use Natural Dyes at home, visit Natural Dying at Home
- The earliest dyes
- Making Natural Dyes From Plants
- Ancient Civilisations