Natural Dyes in Textiles

Over the past 5,000 years, society has been naturally dying textiles.  The early textiles were dyed red, orange and brown colors. As more discoveries were made, new methods for dying and new dyes themselves were created. By the 19th century, beautifully colored textiles were being produced and sold.


Over time, naturally dying textiles turned into an intricate process that requires specific recipes for specific materials. Because so many factors are involved, naturally dyed textiles have a range of hues and vibrancy. Chemical composition of dyed material and the dye itself both affect the recipe to form the desired color. This long string of chemical cause and effect makes natural dying very complex.


The type of material or fibre being dyed affects the type of dye being used. Fibres can be dyed before or after being spun, or in sections after being made into textile. Animal fibres are protein based while plant fibres are cellulose based. Because of the fibres chemical composition, not all dyes will be as successful. Animal fibres, such as wool, need to be dyed with a recipe compatible with protein based materials; while plant fibres, such as cotton, need to be dyed with its compatible recipe. The dyes used are extracted from insects, leaves, bark, roots, flowers and other natural substances.


Mordant, direct, and vat dyes were the most commonly used dye groups on textiles in the 19th century. Plant fibres are compatible with direct and vat dyes while animal fibres use vat and mordant dyes.  Each of these dyes has their own dying process. Mordant dyes require the use of a mordant, a chemical that sets the dye into the textile. Most of these chemicals are a metallic salt which form complexes with the textile to hold the color in place. Using a different mordant with the same dye produces a different shade of color. These dyes are called polygenetic. Other mordant dyes, monogenetic dyes, are not affected by the type of mordant used.


The mordant process involves the adding of dye and textile to hot water and being left to simmer. Mordant can be added before or after dying or be added to the hot dye solution. Direct dyes do not require a heat source instead they produce a vibrant color by being directly put on the textile. Vat dyes are insoluble in water. Before being added to the textile, the dye is converted to its water soluble form by an oxidation- reduction reaction. It is applied to the textile after being reduced with a chemical and the true color is produced after the oxidation and a hot soap treatment.


After the discovery of synthetic dyes by English chemist Sir William Henry Perkin, natural dyes were used less and less. Natural dyes were eventually replaced by synthetic dyes because the new dyes could be mass produced with consistent shades of color.


It’s breathtaking to look at a 19th century textile and think that a long, well thought out process occurred to give the piece the beauty it holds. Just like many ancient textiles, the coverlets in our collection use an array of natural dyes. The most popular pigments include vibrant reds, blues and greens because they were the most accesible during this time.

Hopefully this post has expanded your knowledge of natural dyes and has encouraged you to take a look around and appreciate the beautiful color that surrounds you!

Have you ever experimented with natural dyes? What’s your favorite color? 


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