A Brief History of Natural Dyes

There are two types of dyes. Natural, those that come from animal or plant sources and synthetic, those that are manmade. If you were trying to dye clothing before synthetic dyes were discovered in 1856, you would have had to use natural dyes which were made from animals and plants. Some of the most common are the animal dyes tyrian purple and cochineal and the plant dyes madder and indigo.

Tyrian purple was one of the most important natural dyes to have ever been found. As legend has it, a sheep dog belonging to Hercules was walking along the beach in Tyre. He bit into a small mollusk which turned his mouth the color of coagulated blood. This became known as royal or tyrian purple. It brought great prosperity to Tyre around 1500 BC and for centuries it was the most expensive animal dye money could buy. It was the color of high achievement, ostentatious wealth, symbolized sovereignty, and the highest offices in the legal system. Purple was the color of Cleopatra’s barge and Julius Caesar decreed that the color could only be worn by the emperor and his household. It was also prohibitively expensive.

Cochineal is a crimson dye made from cactus insects. It was introduced to Europe from Mexico by the Spanish. It was used as a cloth dye, artists’ pigment, and much later as a food dye. This also required a huge seasonal harvest seeing as 17,000 dried insects produced a single ounce of dye.

On the other hand, plant dyes are generally cheaper and in greater supply. The most common being madder, red, and indigo, blue. Madder came from the roots of 35 species of plants found in Europe and Asia. It has been found in the cloth of mummies and was the first dye to be used as camouflage.

Indigo was mainly used as a dye and pigment. It was derived from a shrub-like plant that was soaked in water and then beaten with bamboo to quicken oxidation. During this process the liquid changes from green to dark blue. It is then heated, filtered, and formed into a paste.  Although this form of indigo is still in use, there is a synthetic version that is used today primarily to dye blue jeans.

There are other plant and animal dyes, but their range of colors is narrow and produce shades that have little color value. This leaves the top natural dyes of tyrian purple, cochineal, madder, and indigo. If you’re interested in learning more about natural dyes, click the picture below!

By |November 14th, 2017|Blog|0 Comments

About the Author:

James P. Bernard is Vice President of Colorants at First Source Worldwide. His skill at problem solving has led him through 48 years in the dye industry across virtually all areas of dye use. Once, he advised a university how to dye a bee population destroying crops. Now that’s strategic color management.