For over 4000 years, we have been exploring and enjoying the beauty of clothing by adding colours using natural and synthetic dyes techniques. Throughout the ages, colours have been used to show our identity and denote our gender, status, and loyalty.
When we think about the colourful world of the fashion industry, we never ponder the enormous consequences of fashion’s colouring processes. For instance, 21 trillion gallons of vital freshwater waste annually, enough to fill 37 million Olympic swimming pools and 8000 chemicals and heavy metals are used and dumped into rivers and lakes, affecting biodiversity.
Still, while colourful clothing can harm the environment, there are ways we can reduce its impact and still enjoy vibrant fashion choices.
Let’s look at the (concise) history of dye, the process of dyeing and our three-step guide for beginners.
Learning from the ancients used low-impact dyes as standard procedure.
Initially, our clothes were made of linen and cotton, ranging from pale grey to white. When the first civilisations flourished in Egypt and Asia, we developed natural dyes to differentiate gender and class.
Dyes were inspired and taken from nature, with primary sources of animals or plants. Most of these came from roots, berries, bark, leaves, wood, and other organic, naturally occurring substances such as fungi. These were simple yet efficient, often creating ruddy colours like red, brown, and orange that faded over time.
In 1856, William Perkin created Mauveine, a synthetic purple dye. This discovery marked the end of natural pigment dyes: a wide range of colours became available.
The process of dyeing was initially very simple.
- Firstly, the natural pigments were soaked in water to colour it.
- Next, the textile fabrics were added to the resulting solution.
- Finally, the water was brought to a simmer for days or weeks.
The process allowed the dyestuff to be released from the organic material holding it and attached to the textile fabrics.
Archaeologists have concluded that there were three types of natural dyes:
- Mineral dyes: The rocks were scraped to create a powder that could be mixed with water and oil for immediate use. They were inorganic, so they could survive for years without degrading if sheltered. Hematite for red, limonite for yellow and lazurite for blue, to name a few.
- Animal dyes: Dried bodies of insects, lichen, and shellfish produced vibrant dyes. They were collected by hand, dried, and then processed by immersion in hot water or exposure to sunlight, steam, or an oven’s heat. Sepia brown from Octopus or Cuttlefish inks, purple from the Murex snail and red from Cochineal.
- Vegetable dyes: Leaves, bark, and roots of trees or plants were the most accessible ways to dye clothes. Common dyes included madder (red), saffron and safflower (yellow), and indigo (blue/purple).
Dyeing sustainably: Natural techniques for low impact dyes.
It is crucial to understand that the outcome of any natural dye experiment depends on several factors. These include the type of water used, the freshness of the materials, and the type of fibres. Additionally, the dye pot's temperature, the dyeing process's duration, and the order of the materials in the dye pot also affect the result.
Many vegetables and plants can be used to create natural dyes, some of which are likely found in our kitchen. Here are some options for creating different colours of dye:
- Red and pink: Fresh beets or powdered beetroot, pomegranates, red and pink rose petals, avocado pits.
- Orange: Carrots, turmeric, butternut seeds or husk.
- Yellow: Marigolds, sunflower petals, paprika, celery leaves, onion skins.
- Green: Spinach, mint leaves, lilacs, artichokes.
- Indigo: Purple cabbage, blueberries, blackberries, woad, black beans
Making natural dyes is simple, but it is essential to follow at least three simple steps:
Step 1: Collect necessary tools and dyestuff
The first step to creating natural fabric dyes is selecting organic materials. Then, we also need:
- A saucepan and heat source, such as a hotplate or your kitchen stove
- Cheesecloths (coffee filters or fabric scraps work fine, too)
Step 2: Extract our dye.
The process of extracting natural colours from organic materials is called dye extraction. There are a couple of options:
- We can add our ingredients and cool water to a jar and place it on a windowsill for a week or so to let the sun do the work.
- We can let the jar with the materials soak for one night to get some good, usable colour.
- Chop up ingredients and add to a saucepan with water. Simmer over medium heat for an hour, then cool to room temperature.
Step 3: Set natural dye.
To dye fabric, it is essential first to apply a fixative or mordant to set the dye. Salt and vinegar are natural fixatives. The first is best for fruit and berry dyes, while the second is ideal for plant dyes. Here is the process:
- Mix either ½ cup salt with eight cups water or equal parts vinegar and water in a saucepan.
- Then add the fabric and simmer for one hour.
- Once finished, run the fabric under cool water.
- Finally, start applying the dye.
After dyeing the material, let it dry completely before ironing it on high heat to permanently set the colours and design.
Using natural dyes can be a fun and fulfilling experience. Before diving in, it is important to do some research to get the best results possible.