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Colour by nature; natural dyes past, present and future.

Source: Natural-Dye-Yarns from Global Sustainable Travel Council

If ever you have stood over a simmering natural dye bath, you will know the quiet thrill of witnessing the extraction of colour from organic material. Surrounded by steam, colour, and scent, the experience of natural dyeing sits somewhere between cookery, medicine, and art, and feels as primal as any one of those three. For good reason; it is a practice that is 4000 years old (Ferreira, 2004), and if we broaden the definition more widely from the use of dyes to the application of pigment, we are taken back further to prehistoric (Gürses et al., 2016).

Dye colour may be of plant, animal, mineral, or microbial origin (Sujata and Raja, 2014). The most prevalent sources of blue dye are Indigo, associated with warm, humid climates, and Woad which is cultivated in cooler climates. Madder plant has given us the colour red for centuries, most commonly extracted from the roots. Lac and cochineal are derived from insects and give bright purples and reds. Yellow is the most readily found; Turmeric and Weld are common sources, along with Berberis shrubs, Kamala trees, and Tessu flowers (Gulrajani, 2001). Within the abundant and diverse ecology we live in, there are thousands of dye sources, varying in character across the globe.

The virtues of these organic materials as a dye source are instinctive to understand, but their ecological merit is also dependent on the way they are cultivated, harvested and applied. Dye materials that are waste products of other industries are arguably ideal. Avocado skins and stones are just one example of waste material from the food industry that can be utilized; they give a dusty pink colour. Another consideration is the choice of mordants that help fix the dye to the fibre, which is metallic or tannin-based. Some of the former can be harmful and therefore require careful management. Natural dye systems currently seem to be more operable in smaller enterprises whose size allows for easier handling of these concerns.

In the long history of humanity’s use of natural dyes, only the tail end features synthetics. It was in the early to mid-nineteenth century that the chemical investigation of dyes took hold through the work of Griebe, Liebermann, and Perkin (Ferreira, 2014). This new class of dyes came from compounds of coal tar and were known as such, or as aniline dyes (Dharmsinh, 2016). Then and now, synthetic dyes pose health threats. Some early aniline dyes were made fugitive by sweat and body heat, causing swelling, rashes, and sickness (Erdman, 2018).

Today, azo dyes have been identified as having carcinogenic and mutagenic effects. These dyes can both pollute water systems in the production process and also become a toxin to the human body after the garment is worn. Our skin is permeable and is, therefore, a gateway to our internal health. The full extent of the health implications of covering our largest organ in these synthetic dyes is not yet exhaustively researched (White, 2019).

Brands and designers that wish now to switch from synthetic to natural dye sources may find a lack in the facilities and infrastructure. It is often said that natural dye techniques are not conducive to industrialization due to issues with fixation, fastness, consistency, and cost. Scaling for the industry is a common hurdle when using more ecologically and socially sensitive techniques.

So perhaps the answer is not to try to adapt these techniques to the current production model, but to adapt the models to suit these techniques. Having said that, there have been efforts made internationally by institutions to explore scaling natural dye systems (Gulrajani, 2001) and companies are finding technological solutions to do so. As the natural dye market was forecast to grow by 11% between 2019 and 2024 (Arizton Market Reports, 2019), its practice is set to regain prevalence by various means.

Natural dyeing is still well-practised, though it is estimated to account for only 1% of the dyed textile sector (Sujata and Raja, 2014). This share represents small-scale artisanal groups continuing traditional wisdom along with designers, conservationists, and academic institutions. Just a few examples of traditional practitioners include the Kuba in the DRC, dyeing the woven fibres of the Raphia Vinifera Palm; the people of Solola Guatemala, dyeing the yarns for their woven cotton or wool quilip, and the dyed woven wool of the Zapotec in the central valley of Oaxaca, Mexico (Gulrajani, 2001). Some places have gained a special association with particular dyes, such as Kyoto and Tokushima in Japan with Indigo.

Natural dyes are an expression of the environment; climate, geology, and geography. They tell a story of their place of creation and the temporal shifts year to year, even day to day. Natural dyeing gives humans an opportunity to connect intimately with the state and condition of natural resources around them and consequently be even more integrated into the local community. The dye colours become a symbolic flag, reflecting the place and people that created them. Coloured by them, our garments can make us a mirror of the places we call home.


1. Ester S. B. Ferreira, Alison N. Hulme, Hamish McNab and Anita Quye (2004).The natural constituents of historical textile dyes. The University of Edinburgh and National Museums of Scotland. 2004.

2. Gürses et al. (2016).Dyes and Pigments. Springer Briefs in Green Chemistry for Sustainability.

3. Sujata Saxena and A.S. M. Raja (2014). Natural Dyes: Sources, Chemistry, Application and Sustainability Issues.Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology, Mumbai, India.

4. M L Gulrajani (2001). Present status of natural dyes. Department of Textile Technology, Indian Institute of Technology.

5. Dr. P. A. Joshi Dharmsinh. (2016). Dyes and Intermediates. Desai University.

6. Edwina Erdman. (2018). Fashioned From Nature. Edited by V&A Publishing.

7. Rebecca Burgess with Courtney White. 2019. Fibershed.

8. Arizton Market Reports. 2019. Natural Dyes Market Analysis.

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