There’s a Snail in Here? A Look at Natural Dyes

What are natural dyes? The easy answer: colorants derived from plants, invertebrates, or minerals. But it gets a little more complex. Most natural dyes are vegetable dyes sourced from plants’ roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood. Fungi and lichens are also natural dye sources. The general idea is they are not man-made and exist in nature.

Natural dyes are organic dyes, but not all organic dyes are natural. Organic dyes can include other materials that come straight from the earth. When we talk about natural dyes, these are colorants sourced from plant and animal life.


The First Uses of Dyes

Early use goes as far back as the Neolithic period (10,200 – 2,000 B.C.). In China, dyeing with plants, bark, and insects can trace back more than 5,000 years. During this time, people dyed items like animal skins or other natural fibers.

We can produce a whole spectrum of colors from these natural dyes. It’s common to combine them with other chemicals found in nature, known as mordants. These help the dyeing of fabric as it fixes the dye to the fibers. Common mordants from the early dyeing periods are salt, vinegar from fermenting fruit, natural alum, and stale urine. It’s still a mystery how early dyers learned these materials helped fix and enhance the colors of these dyes to fibers. For centuries these common mordant substances allowed early dyers to create the colors most desired in Neolithic fashion.

Mordants helped fix the natural dye color to the material. These naturally-occurring chemicals are the precursors to the more sophisticated chemicals used in modern dyeing processes today.

natural dye sources organic

Natural Dye Use Hasn’t Faded

As modern as our dyeing technology is today, the fashion industry still uses many of the same natural dyes in fabrics that they used thousands of years ago. Take for example these natural sources:

Colors from Animals:

  • Red from Cochineal insect
  • Yellow from Cow urine
  • Red or Red violet from Lac insect
  • Purple from the Murex snail
  • Sepia brown from Octopus or Cuttlefish inks

Colors from Plants:

  • Browns from the Catechu or Cutch tree
  • Dark, mustardy yellow from the Camboge tree resin (dark mustard yellow)
  • Yellow of the Himalayan rubhada root
  • Red of the Kamala tree
  • Yellow from the Larkspur plant
  • Red, pink, and oranges from Madder root
  • Yellow, green, and black from the Myrabolan fruit
  • Yellow of the Pomegranate peel
  • Yellow of Weld herb

You may recognize a few of these sources. It’s amazing what we still use to create color in our textiles, even octopus ink! Often, these colorants are still bound by the same mordants used from the early periods. Sometimes, you can’t beat solutions direct from nature. Let’s look deeper at two specific natural dyes.


Blue Jean Indigo

There are over 750 known species of indigo-producing plants in the world. Indigo first came to the market by colonial settlers who transplanted it in North and South Carolina. Not long after, indigo became the second most important cash crop in the colonies before the American Revolution. It comprised more than one-third of all exports in value.

Today you might recognize indigo as the blue in “blue jeans.” It didn’t take long for the demand for this hue outstripped the availability of naturally-occurring indigo. Plus, it became clear manufacturers needed a more permanent color with better economics and technical specifications. Due to these factors, a man-made version of indigo came to the market that we still use today.

A Snail Tale: Tyrian Purple, Royal Purple

This premier luxury dye of the ancient world is actually extracted from sea snails (Murex brandaris, known today as Bolinus brandaris). Dyers prized murex dye because when exposed to the sun instead of fading, the color became brighter and more intense. The classic dye known as Phoenician red also came from murex snails. The deep purple of royal robes from the Roman to Byzantine empires is the most well-known place you’ll find this hue.

Murex dyes were very expensive; and no wonder – one snail yields but a single drop of dye. Papermakers also used the dye to create the purple parchment used for imperial manuscripts; then inscribed with text in silver or gold. The color also aligned with the increasingly rare purple rock porphyry, another association to the imperial family.


Natural dyes have an important place in history and are still used in the fashion world today. Back then, their use was limited to dyeing natural fibers like wool, cotton, and silk. Their range was somewhat restricted by their vibrancy and ability to withstand exposure to sunlight and continued washing. This prompted the manufacturing of man-made dyes in the industry in the mid-18th century. Here we began to see advances to the technical qualities of dyes that dominate today’s market. But still, the uniqueness of natural dyes still plays its role in how we select and feature color in fashion.

Dye Meme


Looking for natural dyes sources? Our color specialists can help find a natural dye that fits your process, contact us!

By |May 3rd, 2016|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.