That brilliant, fire-engine red colour of your favourite dress, the royal purple of your favourite shirt and even the earthy brown of your fluffy bath towel has been achieved in one of two ways; the use of natural dyes or the use of synthetic dyes.
As you become more aware of the process that goes into creating the clothes you wear and the fabrics you use, it’s important to take a moment to consider where they get their colour.
Natural dyes are widely considered more eco-friendly than synthetic ones, an important quality in today’s world. However, there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye.
By definition; natural dyes refer to pigments that exist organically and are produced from plants, animals or naturally-occurring minerals without the involvement of any chemicals in the process.
Natural dyes produced from plants include:
Indigo - a blue dye sourced from indigofera, woad and other plants.
Madder - a red dye sourced from the madder plant. Other natural sources of red dye include brazilwood and St. John’s wort.
Weld - a yellow dye sourced from the weld plant. Other plants like dyers greenweed produce rich hues of yellow.
Cutch - a brown dye produced from the cutch tree, which is a type of acacia
Natural dyes produced from animals include:
Cochineal - a purple hue which is produced from insects that live on cactus.
Kermes - a red dye which is produced from insects that live on the kermes oak tree.
Tyrian purple - a purplish pigment produced from a sea mollusc.
Are natural dyes with chemicals still considered natural?
It’s common for chemicals to be added to natural dyes in order to make them consistent and suitable for industrial textile production. When this happens, the dyes are no longer ‘natural,’ because they have synthetic characteristics.
Chemicals can also be added during growing and harvesting of plants making the dye ‘inorganic’. For example,
Using pesticides, herbicides, and defoliants to treat plants
Extraction methods involving chemicals, such as when sulphuric acid is used to extract madder from plant roots.
Why aren’t natural dyes widely used?
Typically, natural dyes are preferred when producing textiles because they occur naturally in nature, have a pleasant natural smell and a rich appearance. In an environmental context, 100% natural dyes don’t contain non-biodegradable chemical additives which kill plant and aquatic life; Natural dyes are also safer in the home environment.
However, many large textile producers shy away from using natural dye, citing reasons like:
Inconsistencies in Quality
Due to differences in soil pH values and unpredictable weather patterns, the quality of dye extracted from plants is inconsistent. To achieve consistency, the plants need to be grown in a controlled environment. This approach is impractical, given the high amount of dye required for mass production of textile. There simply isn’t enough space to grow enough plants to produce enough dye for large scale textile dying. As such, today, 100% natural dyes are used for handicraft production of textiles in small scale.
Naturally Occurring Poisonous Substances
Extra caution should be exercised when using natural dyes especially at home, because even if they are natural, they may not necessarily be safe and can irritate the eyes and respiratory system or even cause more adverse effects in the case of hematin and hematoxlyn, which are extremely poisonous.
More water is required when using natural dyes
Dyeing with natural dyes uses more energy as the dye baths have to be kept very hot for long periods. Synthetic dyes are optimised to overcome these challenges.
Natural dyes fade when exposed to light and also wash off easily
To make the dyes less wash-fastness, they are treated with mordants. Though natural mordants such as salt and pomegranate can and have been used, these do not attain complete fastness. Even natural mordants such as alum (aluminium), though considered safe, are still toxic.
You cannot attain a wide range of hues and shades using natural dyes
Synthetic dyes on the other hand, can result in endless hues, including mimicking those of natural dyes. Since it’s important to replicate a wide array of colours in manufacturing, synthetic dyes are more acceptable in the process.
Textiles dyed with natural dyes are more expensive
This is because of three predominant reasons. One, it takes a large quantity of dye stuff to colour a fabric to satisfaction. Secondly, it takes a lot of time to grow the plants from which natural dyes are extracted. And lastly, it also takes a long time to get good results- using natural dyes takes two times longer than when using synthetic dyes.
It takes a lot more natural dye to colour a fabric
This calls to question the ecological soundness of natural dye. If used for commercial dyeing, it would mean the depletion of natural resources as the trees, plants, animals and minerals from which the dyes are sourced cannot be replenished faster than they are harvested.
Encouraging The Use of Natural Dye
To promote the use of natural dyes, research needs to be performed to make their production more efficient and sustainable for large scale fabric dying. Some producers of dyestuffs are already spearheading these efforts and have made some breakthroughs.
In 2008, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which approves dyes and fabrics that are completely organic, approved natural dye extracted from madder, which is colour-fast and is efficient to use without adding any chemicals.
However, there’s a long way to go to ensure that the use of natural dye becomes mainstream. Until then, as consumers, we can become better aware of the effects of manufacturing and using synthetic dyes.