Before the creation of synthetic dyes in the mid-1800s, natural dyes were used globally to create beautiful, vividly coloured clothing and textiles. As the industrial revolution took over the fashion industry, natural dyes were superseded by synthetic dyes, as they were cheaper and quicker to produce at scale.
Recently, however, the world is waking up to the harmful social and ecological impacts of synthetic dyes due to the toxic by-products they produce. But could naturally dyed clothing be a sustainable solution, and what exactly are natural dyes?
In this blog piece, we will shed some light on the social and ecological impact of naturally dyed clothing - including what makes a natural dye, the types of plants used to create different natural dyes, as well as the communities this process benefits.
We'll also discuss both the benefits and drawbacks of using natural dyes and even include some handy tips if you want to have a go at using your own at home.
Let's get going!
The Types of Dyes Used in Fabric Production
Natural dyes are dyes or colourants which are derived from animals, plants or minerals. The majority of organic dye production is sourced from biological sources - such as trees, flowers, vegetables and fungi.
Before the creation of synthetic dyes, people had to use whatever was available to them in the natural world if they wanted to create dye for fabrics, textiles or even ink. There is even evidence to suggest that the natural dyeing of textiles using plant dyes dates back as early as the Neolithic period.
Natural dyes are biodegradable, non-toxic and non-allergenic, making them generally better for the environment and for use around humans, as they don't have any carcinogenic components which are found in many synthetic dyes.
Synthetic dyes were first created in the 1850s, and unlike plant dyes, they are made up of chemical compounds and not naturally acquired components.
Some of the chemicals found in synthetic dye include mercury, copper, lead, benzene, and sodium chloride. These dyes are easily mass-produced, and you can achieve a wide range of vibrant colours using these chemicals.
Unfortunately, synthetic dye produces harmful chemicals which are toxic to humans and can result in dangerous working conditions in clothing manufacturing factories, as well as toxic pollution to the surrounding environment.
A low-impact dye is essentially a type of dye that has been classified by the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 (which is an international certification process) as eco-friendly.
In order to classify as eco-friendly, they must not contain any toxic chemicals or mordants (which are used to fix the dye to the fabric) and have a high absorption rate of over 70%. Having a high absorption rate means that there is less water wastage from rinse water.
Low-impact dyes are eco-friendly but are not totally free from environmental harm, as they aren't made from entirely natural sources. Nevertheless, they can offer a more sustainable alternative to synthetically dyed clothing.
Some Main Plants Used in Natural Dyeing
Plants that are harvested for the extraction of plant dyes have a variety of other uses within the local community. This often means that natural dyeing creates zero waste, as the local community utilises all parts of the plant for use in cooking and medicine as well as extracting dye, which is a win-win!
Indigo is one of the most commonly used natural dyes and is extracted from the leaves of the true indigo plant, otherwise known as Indigofera Tinctoria. Some key reasons for its popularity include the fact that it is light-fast, so it is unlikely to fade, and it doesn't require the dye material to be treated beforehand.
This plant grows well in tropical environments and is often found in warm and humid climates such as India and South-East Asia. To extract the dye from the plant, the leaves must be left to ferment in jars for around 10-days, and the remainder is turned into an intense indigo powder.
Other uses for the indigo plant within local communities include making indigo tea from the leaves and stems, creating edible indigo powder for use in sauces and spices, as well as using the plant in herbal medicine as it has anti-inflammatory qualities.
Myrobalan, otherwise known as Terminalia Chebula, is a deciduous tree that grows in Asia and is often found in the Himalayan regions. The dye which can be extracted from this tree is found in the dried fruits, which can be ground into a powder and used to produce a buttery yellow dye.
This dye is rich in tannin and can also be used as a mordant to treat the fabric to absorb colour well in the dye bath. Like most natural dyes, it works best on organic fabrics made from natural fibres such as organic cotton.
The myrobalan plant is also used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to promote a healthy digestive system due to its emollient properties.
Tree barks can be a fantastic source of brown hues for dyed clothing and can be extracted from a large number of plants and trees: particularly those rich in flavonoids and tannins.
Coconut bark can be used in botanical dyeing and produces a pinkish-brown dyed fabric. In order to extract the colour, the plant fibres are washed, soaked and boiled for 2-3 hours. As it is a plant dye, it works best on natural fabrics such as organic cotton.
Other uses for the coconut tree in local communities include using the dried husk as fuel for burning and weaving husk into ropes and carpets. The fruit of the coconut tree is commonly eaten, and old coconut shells can even be used as compost.
Another tree bark that can be used for natural dyeing is the velvet tamarind tree, otherwise known as Dialium Guineense. This tree is a large, long-lived evergreen that is common in South-East Asia, which produces a dyed fabric that has earthy tones, such as burnt sienna or muted brown.
In fact, we use dye extracted from velvet tamarind bark in our own plant-dyed clothing. Tamarind seedpods also have a naturally high tannin content – up to 20% in some cases – which make them another great source to extract dye from.
Additionally, the velvet tamarind bark and leaves have medicinal properties and are used locally against many diseases: for example, in reducing body pains and inflammation.
Our Burnt Sienna Dress created from bark from the Velvet Tamarind Tree
The Oroxylum Incindium is a small to medium-sized tree commonly found in tropical Asia, as well as southern China. It is commonly nicknamed the 'Midnight Horror' and 'Broken Bones Plant' due to the way the branches and pods shed from the tree.
As well as being able to obtain dye from the bark of this tree, various parts of the tree are used in local traditional medicine. It also has large leaves and yellow and red flowers, which are edible and are often used in cooking in Thailand and Laos.
Pomegranate Skins and Berries
Pomegranate rind has been used as a traditional method for dyeing fabrics and textiles for many millennia: it is one of the oldest fruits in cultivation. Its dye is high in tannin, which means it works well with organic cotton and other organic fibres, but you can also use it to dye wool and silk.
If you use pomegranate dye without a mordant, it will produce a creamy yellow colour, but if you add a mordant, the colour shifts to produce a more golden tone. You can even over-dye it with indigo to get beautiful dark greens as your final colour.
As well as this, the flesh of pomegranate is often made into juice and can even be turned into grenadine syrup, making this a zero-waste fruit with multiple uses.
The Garcinia Dulcis is a tropical fruit tree, commonly known in Thailand as 'maphuut' or 'ma phut'. The tree is harvested locally from the wild as a source of medicine, dyeing material, and food.
The bark of the tree can be used to create a gorgeous green dye that works well on organic fabrics such as silk. It's also a versatile ingredient: when mixed with indigo, the colour shifts to produce brown stained clothing.
A New Golden Age Dawns for Natural Plant Dyes
Before 1856, if you wanted to dye fabric or clothing, you would have to use dyes with natural ingredients such as plant or animal dyes. Some of the most common include:
- Tyrian purple (from snail glands)
- Cochineal red (from female cochineal insects)
- Indigo blue (from the indigo plant)
The use of natural dyes gradually fell out of favour once synthetic dye was created in the mid-1800s. The industrial revolution led to the mass growth of the fashion industry, which led to an increase in demand for methods of dyeing clothing that were more cost-effective, readily available and easy to produce at scale.
The economic limitations of producing plant-dyed clothing were revealed due to the large amount of land needed for the production of natural dyes. It just wasn't possible for the fashion industry and supply chains to keep up with global demand whilst using natural dyeing methods.
However, as people have become more aware of the ecological and social consequences of using artificial dyes (in part due to eye-opening documentaries such as True Cost), natural dyeing methods are rising in popularity once again, especially in the slow fashion industry.
The workers who are regularly exposed to artificial dyes without appropriate equipment or ventilation often suffer dire health consequences. As well as this, the toxic by-products from these chemicals are damaging local environments: contaminating water supplies and producing toxic air.
Alternatively, natural dyes are non-toxic and non-allergenic and can also produce beautifully vibrant colours when mixed correctly. The plants used to create the dyes also create no waste, as the rest of the plant is used by the local community in a variety of other ways: such as for medicinal qualities or for cooking and food scraps.
What’s more, their production can really benefit local communities who work with textiles, helping to preserve the local environment as well as the health of their community and workers – and create stable jobs for local people. People are starting to recognise the benefits of using plant dyes once again: leading to a new golden age for dyes with natural ingredients.
The Social Benefits of Natural Dyes
Bringing the Community Together
The use of natural dyes allows workers to avoid exposure to harsh chemicals and avoid the severe health implications that working with such toxins over long periods can cause. This allows textile production to once again become a healthy community trade, providing local people with ethical jobs.
Slow fashion allows communities to create their own circular production system, growing their own sustainable fabric, using local plants for natural dyes and weaving the fabrics by hand. For example, communities such as those living and working within the Tohsang Cotton Village come together over a joint philosophy of production based on the Earth’s own natural cycle.
Wide Community Use for Natural Dye Plants
Not only can the plants outlined earlier be used to extract the dye, but there is also zero wastage as local communities can use the other parts in a variety of ways.
For example, velvet tamarind pods can be used in natural medicine as an anti-inflammatory treatment, and the indigo plant can be used in tea or as a herbal remedy to improve immune function.
So it’s a zero-waste method of textile dyeing, and it simultaneously benefits the communities who produce naturally dyed clothing. What's not to like?
The Use of Locally-grown Dyes Provides Economic Stability
Using locally-grown dyes, such as those harvested at Tohsang, provides a local market and sustainable income for local people in the region.
This allows them economic stability without having to move far away to look for work or be exposed to unethical and unsafe working conditions through factory work – such as used in the mainstream textile industry.
Buying clothing that has been produced with local dyes through local supply chains contributes to this healthy eco-system and helps to sustain local jobs, in turn providing economic stability for an entire community.
The Environmental Benefits and Impacts of Natural Dyes
Biodegradable, Non-toxic, and Hypoallergenic
Some of the key environmental benefits of natural dyes include:
- They are fully biodegradable, which means that they will eventually degrade naturally when your use with them has finished, without releasing any nasty toxins into the soil/environment.
- They are made without any nasty toxins. Natural dyes are made fully from sources such as plants and insects, which makes them non-toxic to those who are exposed, and they don’t release harmful by-products into the environment like other dyes.
- They are hypoallergenic, which means they are less likely to cause any allergic reactions when skin is exposed to them. This is ideal for those with sensitive skin conditions such as eczema, as well as babies and children.
Lowering our Dependence on Harmful Synthetics
If natural dyes are embraced by a larger part of the textile industry, fewer companies will be so heavily reliant upon harmful synthetically dyed fabrics.
If consumers become acquainted with them and accept the different sort of tones and shades of colour they can create, there will be less global demand for harmful synthetic dye.
In turn, the fashion industry could become less dependent on this method of textile production and instead embrace more sustainable methods of clothing production.
Lower Carbon Footprint
Another benefit of embracing plant-dyed clothing is that it helps to reduce your own carbon footprint. This is because many natural dyes tend to be made from fully renewable materials – plants or insects are good examples.
Plants bypass the entire production process it takes to create synthetic colours and the communities that farm these materials use the plants for a range of different uses other than just dye. They also require a lot less water to produce, due to less rinsing being needed. The water used can also be recycled back in to the next crop, as the water is rich in nutrients and low in toxins.
If you’re looking for ways to reduce your carbon footprint, buying clothing that is naturally dyed can be a great, ethical option for you.
The Story of Tohsang Cotton Village
Tohsang Cotton Village is located in Khong Chiam, Ubon Ratchathani and is a small (slow fashion) producer of sustainable organic cotton textiles. Their focus is on creating jobs and fair economic opportunity for farmers and low-income families in the surrounding areas.
They have their own circular production system – growing their own cotton alongside the Mekong River, harvesting local plants for their dye and hand-weaving the fabrics to create bespoke organic cotton clothing: such as our Cherrada dress in Olive Green.
How Have Natural Dyes Benefitted Tohsang?
Natural dyes have provided the local people in Khong Chiam with jobs and opportunities for work, in turn providing economic stability to many people in the region whilst boosting the local economy.
This method of fashion production also provides workers with safe working conditions, as they are not exposed to harmful chemicals in factories with little protective equipment or ventilation. It also helps to protect the environment in the area, as the water supply isn’t contaminated from the use of harmful toxins.
The 'Indigo Grandmas' in Sakon Nakhon
The ‘Indigo Grandmas’ in Sakon Nakhon are another example of a Thai community that has been formed over the cultivation and provision of plant dye. Located in the Far North of Thailand, the 'Indigo Grandmas' are a community which have practised traditional indigo dyeing for generations.
They are women who care for vats of colour-inducing microorganisms, which they even believe to have souls of their own. The community is called Baan Doy Kloy and consists of around 20 women, many of whom have been handling the dye since they were very young.
They call themselves caretakers of the dye – many believe that the dye is biologically alive, with micro life which is ‘fed’ daily in the dye pot. Because it’s all-natural, it is also edible – some of them even taste test their batches!
The group was formed by Au-Pree 10 years ago in order to provide these artisans with market power. Together they can share design ideas and skills, feel a sense of community, and teach the next generation. They export around half of the fabric of the collective, and this industry has provided a valuable source of ethical income to these women.
What’s the Catch? - The Drawbacks of Natural Dyes
Unfortunately, due to the massive size of the global fashion industry, it would be impossible for all fabrics to be produced using natural dyeing methods.
If you are farming plants to be used, you need a large amount of land to grow the amount of crop needed, and it’s a much slower process than creating synthetic colour – which means it can’t keep up with the demands of fast fashion.
The availability of these can also vary from season to season, and climate to climate, which means that at certain times of the year, some colours may not be available, or they may be a lot more expensive. Organic dyeing methods are therefore best suited to the slow fashion industry and are not easily scalable.
Dye Extractions can be Complex
The methods of extraction needed for plant dyes can vary greatly depending on the source and organic matter. It can be an extremely timely process that requires patience and skilled knowledge of the method.
Each local community understands how best to extract the colour from their local plants, but this can be hard to teach. Furthermore, it is often a timely and complex process – for example, the Indigo Grandmas who spend vast amounts of time cultivating their indigo.
Can be More Expensive than Synthetic Dyes
The timely extraction process combined with a general scarcity of product means that organic, plant-based dye can be a lot more expensive than its synthetic alternative.
Several other factors also increase the cost, for example:
- The large quantity of dye needed to colour a piece of fabric in comparison to synthetic dye.
- The amount of time taken to grow the plants involved.
- The time needed to create stained clothing from the plant dye, as it must be soaked for longer.
How do Natural Dyes Fit into the Future of Sustainable Fabric Production?
These statistics are shocking - it is critical that we address the problems caused by the use of synthetic dye if we are serious about sustainable fabric production.
As well as having significant eco-benefits such as protecting the environment, using plant or animal dye also helps to support local communities and local industries, providing healthy jobs for local workers and offering them a safe option to gain economic stability.
The textile industry, as it is now, would be unable to fully convert to the use of natural dye. We need to move towards more sustainable methods of fashion production, seen in the slow fashion space, in order to be able to fully embrace these production methods.
Consumers also need to accept that clothing that is naturally dyed may not be exactly like synthetically dyed counterparts, but this doesn’t mean they can't be beautiful, vivid, and bold.
Using natural or organic dye plays a large part in the sustainable fabric production process. Any textiles company which is invested in sustainable production should seriously consider switching to natural dyeing methods for the sake of both workers and the planet.
Consumers also have a role to play in the future of sustainable fashion production. If customers demonstrate an interest in clothing that is dyed naturally, brands will be more likely to invest in the process fully. It is an investment, but I think you will agree that it is worth it.
How to Get Started with Natural Dyes at Home
It’s possible to use plant dyes yourself at home, regardless of where you are in the world! It's worth noting that not all fabrics can be dyed easily with plant and animal dye – the best ones to start with are natural materials, such as cotton, silk, wool and linen. Remember to test the process on some scrap material first - just in case!
Some good, easily-found plant materials to try include:
- Carrots and onion skins for orange tones
- Berries, cherries, and red onion skins for pink colours
- Pomegranates, beets, or bamboo for red-brown hues
Interested in testing your hand at using organic dye yourself? Here are a few easy tips to help get you started:
- Get your fabric ready with a mordant – this includes soaking it in a water mixture with salt and vinegar.
- Prepare your dye by simmering it in a large pot with twice as much water as plant material for about an hour until you get a nice dark colour.
- Strain out the plant material, and then place the fabric in the dye bath and bring it to a slow boil – simmer it for about an hour.
- Once you get the desired colour, take your garment out and wash the fabric in cold water until the water runs clear. If you want to make the dye darker, you can repeat this process.
- Leave to dry, and you're done!