Are Natural Dyes Better For The Environment?

Updated: Jun 20

Are traditional dyestuffs capable of reducing our dependency on petrochemicals? Are natural dyes a thing of the past, or is this past part of our future? Let's examine the history and late 20th-century resurrection of natural dyes and where we sit today.

An oh, so brief history of natural dyes

Evidence of natural dyeing exists in many ancient cultures worldwide. Dye and pigments were found as early as the 3rd millennium BCE. Textile fragments dyed red from madder roots (Rubia tinctoria) in Pakistan and Egypt, dating around 2500 BC.

The Pazyryk

The Park carpet is over 2,500 years old

Archaeological digs in central Asia's Pazyryk Valley in the 1920s unearthed a wealth of historical items from a little-known ancient nomadic tribe of the Pazyryk. Including the world's oldest surviving carpet, the mostly intact Pazaryk rug from the 5th century BCE. While much is not known or is conjectured about the Pazryk rug, clearly, by the 5th-century BCE, rug weaving and dying were well-established art forms.

The use of natural dyes in pre-recorded history isn't limited to Europe, the middle east, or central Asia. We know by 1,000 BC, elaborate dyed textiles were being made with natural dyes in the Americas; many examples survive due to the preservative effects of the dry coastal area of Puru. So far, it's impossible to tell how long humans have used dyes for textiles, and like the existence of human activity in the Americas, an incomplete picture exists.

Silhuas Vally, Puru weaving 500 BC

Where do natural dyes come from?

Natural dyes are derived from plants or insects such as cochineal and Kermies

A surprising number of plants have dye properties, and the most common natural plant colors are yellows, browns, pale tones, olive green tones, and a large variety of pants containing dye compounds. Much rarer are deep reds, blues, and purples color.

To dye with the most natural dyes, a series of steps or processes must be performed or the dye will not take. You cannot get a good deep color with natural dyes that is not reasonable colorfast, but this is not true with synthetic dyes where you can get a well-saturated color that

bleeds or fades easily.

Madder-dyed wool, for example, must be mordanted. Mordanting is a process where the wool is soaked in a metal salt such as alum or copper sulfate that allows the dye and wool to bond together in a chromophore.

Failure to properly mordant the wool or dye results in poor color

In contrast, a synthetic dye is engendered with the dye and mordant together as one compound. Often the issue is driven by a lack of understanding of the proper working temperature or pH of the dye. In some cases, dyes not intended for wool a used and the dye initially looks good but fades or bleeds when washed.

Indigo is a reduction dye. Traditional Indigo is fermentation in this process, the oxygen is reduced from the dye vat by fermentation. Indigo is not water-soluble, so to be dissolved, Indigo must undergo a chemical or fermentation reduction of oxygen atoms that converts Indigo into "white indigo" or leuco-indigo, allowing the Indigo to penetrate fibers. When the Indigo is exposed to air, it oxidizes and forms larger and very stable chemical compounds.

The Rise of Synthetic Dyes

In 1856, chemist William Perkins invented the first synthetic dye before that; all dyes were derived from plants, animals, or minerals. William's invention of mauvine (purple) and subsequent aniline dyes from coal tar changed the course of dyes, design, and dyeing for future generations.

From the 1860s on, most of the world eagerly adopted these new dyes. While many had issues fading in sunlight and colors bleeding during cleaning, these dyes were relatively easy to use and increasingly cheap. Ultimately syntactic dyes became much more affordable and less labor-intensive than natural dyes.

In 1865 the German chemist Adolf von Baeyer began working on the synthesis of Indigo. It wasn't until 1897 that Bayer and BASF developed a commercially feasible manufacturing process for synthetic Indigo. In the same year, 1897 19,000 tons of natural Indigo were being produced mainly in India from plant sources; by 1914, natural indigo production dropped to 1,000 tons.

Synthetic Indigo dye production
BASF synthetic Indigo circa production 1890

Synthetic dye use exploded in the early 20th century, yet; there were some holdouts. In Persia (Iran), laws were enacted banning the use of synthetic dyes in oriental rugs, although the use of synthetic dyes did find its way into some Persian rugs.

Dye purity laws existed in Iran /Persia until the the1940s when rescinded, ushering in the wholesale use of synthetic dyes in the Iranian rug market.

In less than a hundred years, a dye industry with ancient roots, methods, and processes that had existed for thousands of years was gone. In many weaving cultures like Iran, a dyer was skilled apprenticeship trade passed down often in families or guilds. A dyer's recipes and techniques often guarded trade secrets passed from generation to generation, perhaps over hundreds if not thousands of years. These skills were learned trade not written in textbooks or large manuals; many simply ...disappeared. The proverbial carpet was pulled out from under the natural dyer's feet.

Post world war two, economic and technical innovations solidified the use of synthetic dyes and for that matter, synthetic fibers. Rug weaving was on the decline not just in color, but qualitatively weave and materials. The cheaper quick dyes led to cheaper weaving and reduced quality of materials. As well as the emerging competitive market for wall-to-wall broadloom carpets.

An aggregate effect of cheaper alternatives, leads to cheaper synthetic dyes, cheaper wool, and lower knot count for a cheaper rug to compete with much lower price points. ?

By 1970 an emerging interest in antique rugs made with natural dyes was growing in Europe and America. Driven by post ww2 baby boomers and the counterculture movement kindled interest in good Antique rugs with natural dyes.

Natural Dye Renaissance

In 1981 DOBAG project was founded, DOBAG Turkish acronym for "Doğal Boya Araştırma ve Geliştirme Projesi" (the Natural Dye Research and Development Project). The program's goal was to make rugs with dyes and dye processes not used in nearly a hundred years.

The program was a success, and companies followed, such as Woven Legends making new rugs with natural dyes. This natural dye movement flourished in the 1990s in what we called the "Renaissance in Rug weaving" these rugs were much more expensive to make, and much of the rug market was not interested in paying the price.

Are natural dyes more environmentally friendly?

There are many factors to consider; natural dyes are more farm intensive and require water, fertilizers, and energy to harvest and process. In my research, I could find no energy comparison between natural and synthetic dyes.

Most natural dyes are more water-consuming and intensive than synthetic dyes. Wool, for example, must be mordanted in a separate process before dyeing. Yet Indigo can be done in one dye pot process and naturally via fermentation reduction.

Moden synthetic dyes exhaust efficiently and a single dye vat can be used for multiply dye sessions often starting with the lightest color and working to the darkest one. There is no question that well-trained dyer with synthetic dyes are more efficient, use less water, and produce less waste effluent into the environment. Today, synthetic dyes are stable for washing and offer good resistance to sunlight adding when properly used.

Enter clothing giant Patagonia

In 2014, Patagonia was the first major clothing company to remove synthetic Indigo and replace it with natural Indigo for all their jeans. Patagonia approached Stony Creek Colors a grower of natural botanical Indigo Tennesee to provide Patagonia with all their Indigo needs.

In 2021 Stony Creek Colors raised 9 million dollars to expand its natural Indigo production in the USA, signaling that botanical Indigo is back, growing, and seemingly not just a short-term fad. In 2019, More Indigo was traded and worked wide than at any time since 1920.

It's not just Patagonia, Wool, and Prince, Ice Breaker, and other clothing manufacturers are exploring natural dyes for clothing as a greener alternative to petrochemical colors.

It's clear how big of a place natural dyes will play a future in commercial rug and textile production although it's likely to be a hybrid.

It's not accurate to say natural dyes are more environmentally friendly than synthetic dyes. I think the truth as well as the future lies in a hybridization of dyestuffs. As we try to ween ourselves of petrochemicals the future may be a new type of dye compound. Natural dyes enhanced with chemically engineered mordants or hybridized natural dyes with the performance of chemical dyes

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