A Brief History of Natural Dyes

A Brief History of Natural Dyes

It's nearly impossible to pinpoint the origins of the extraction and use of natural dyes. The current belief is that the art dates back to the early neolithic period, around 12,000 B.C., though there may be some evidence of naturally dyed artifacts in Georgian caves dating back to 30,000 B.C., not to mention hematite being used for cave paintings as far back as 70,000 years ago. Regardless, natural dyes have been extracted and used by humanity for an incredibly long time, making it one of the older human art forms and traditions.

A block printed hemp cloth using pomegranate skins and iron

In ancient cultures all across the world, from China, to Egypt, Africa, Europe, all the way to the indigenous Americans (north and south), dyes have been used in a myriad of applications and for many different reasons such as religious ceremonies, artistic expression, to promote personality, distinguish gender, and maintain classism. Different cultures utilize the dye goods at their immediate disposal - for example, in China and Japan, Safflower and Indigo were the main dye goods to yield vibrant hues of yellow, pink, green, and blue. In Egypt, madder was grown and used locally as well as safflower to create deep reds and oranges. In the Americas, the indigenous used walnut, sumac, and even certain species of lichens for browns, yellows, and hues of purple.

Indigo dyed yarn

There's a famous story of a Byzantine emperor who made the use of a Tyrian purple dye (a dye recipe that, at the time, three times more valuable than gold by weight) by lower class individuals a crime punishable by death. This dye, originating from Tyre, Lebanon, was only worn by emperors, kings, popes, and the like such as Julius Caesar. This dye recipe was lost when the Ottoman Empire attacked the Byzantine city of Constantinople, though recent research also indicates that the industry may have overconsumed the snails that were used to make the dye and caused them to go extinct in the area.

Naturally Dyed Linen Shirt using Tara Root and Iron

Natural Dyes are derived from three main sources:

Plants, Minerals, and Animals.

Plant derived dyes are by far the most widely used and include the well known sources such as indigo, madder, and weld (blue, red, and yellow respectively) as well as a vast array of other trees, fruits, leaves, roots, vegetables, etc. There are also various types of lichens and other fungus that are used for dye extraction.

Mineral dyes are less common today but include lazurite, hematite, and limonite (blue, red, and yellow respectively). Some minerals are, however, still used in the process of natural dyeing for mordants (the most common being Aluminum in Alum)

Animal dyes include insects such as cochineal (there was a big Starbucks campaign one year of red colored drinks that used cochineal as a dye), certain snails (Tyrian Purple) and other animal derived reagents such as cow urine for yellow.

In upcoming blogs, I'll cover the history of synthetic dyes, go more in depth into the different types of natural dyes, and get into the sustainability of natural dyes and synthetic dyes.







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