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The History of Fabric Dye

Juliette Donatelli

Imagine a world without color. A world without the little black dress, colorful sundresses or even the crisp white shirt. It’s hard to fathom our wardrobe without a bounty of shades. The ancient world was much more colorful than we might imagine. The first recorded mention of fabric dyeing dates back to 2600 BC. Originally, dyes were made with natural pigments mixed with water and oil used to decorate skin, jewelry and clothing. Those same dyes were also used for painting prehistoric caves, which emerged in places like El Castillo, Spain, some 40,000 years ago.

Today, 90% of clothing is dyed synthetically, and critics say you can tell the next season’s hit hue by the color of the rivers in China. Tragically, chemical dyeing can cause significant environmental degradation and harm to workers if not handled properly. Increasing interest in sustainable fashion has reawoken the art of natural dyeing.

A Look Back

The most commonly used dyes in ancient times were found near their source, and so color often differentiated geographic location as well as class and custom. The colors were mixed from exotic plants, insects or sea life. For example, the word “crimson” is derived from kermes, the source of the dye—an insect found on oaks trees in the Mediterranean. Of all the colors in the ancient world, yellow was the most common color achieved from a number of plants. Other ancient colors like blue derived from indigo, a plant found in India and south east Asia. Indigo dyes fabric a rich blue color, and is unique because it doesn’t require a mordant for the color to stay. See, a natural dye needs what is called a “mordant” to stick—mordant meaning bite. Plants like indigo naturally have mordants, but without one, the color can easily fade over time. It’s the color purple that truly opens up history and provides the perfect insight into the history of fabric dyes—from its stance as a status symbol which intrigued the richest of leaders and often equaled its weight in gold, to opening the doors to synthetic dyeing around the world—purple is fascinating.

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Artisans in India working with indigo dye under safe conditions for Industry of All Nations.

Way way back, Tyranian purple, as it was once called, was achieved only from crushing thousands of shells of a mollusk called Murex, found on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. The color was mixed in what is now Lebanon and still to this day stands as the most expensive color to mix. When Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 331 BC, he first laid eyes upon robes dyed with purple, and due to its rarity and intensive process, purple was only available for the robes of kings and princes.

Enter: Synthetic Dye

An English teenage chemist, William Perkin, was searching for a form of synthetic quinine—then an anti-malaria medicine—that could be derived from coal tar. Quinine was the only medicine to cure malaria at the time, and came from the bark of the cinchona tree, found in South America. The bark was in short supply. English soldiers were dying from malaria in India, so Perkin was on a mission to discover an alternate cure. During one of his experiments, he noticed that his mixture of coal tar turned a rich purple color. He dipped a piece of silk into the mixture. Instantly, he knew he had stumbled upon something miraculous. Perkin called the dye color mauveine, or mauve. Because it didn’t run or fade, he saw marketing potential for the discovery and sent a fabric swatch off to dye houses. His mixture was an immediate success. Perkin left the Royal College of Chemistry in London (losing much of his credibility in the scientific community) and starting manufacturing synthetic dyes.

It is estimated that over 10,000 different dyes and pigments are used industrially and over 7 x 105 tons of synthetic dyes are annually produced worldwide. Once the English began manufacturing mauve, the Germans invested in a state of the art synthetic dye industry that supplied mills throughout Europe and North America. By World War I, Germany had become the world leader in synthetic dyes and supplied 90 percent of America’s textile industry. With Perkin’s discovery, the art of natural dyeing was virtually lost, as all efforts were placed in synthetic dyes.

InTech Science, in an article regarding the environmental dangers of synthetic dyes writes, “The textile industry consumes a substantial amount of water in its manufacturing processes used mainly in the dyeing and finishing operations of the plants. The wastewater from textile plants is classified as the most polluting of all the industrial sectors. The increased demand for textile products and the proportional increase in their production, and the use of synthetic dyes have together contributed to dye wastewater becoming one of the substantial sources of severe pollution problems in current times.”

In addition to the vast environmental dangers involved with working with synthetic dyes, there is also human risk involved. Synthetic dyes are hazardous and very dangerous for workers in the industry who inhale them as they produce product. In short, toxic chemicals are absorbed into the skin of workers when they come into prolonged contact with synthetic dye, and that dye is most easily absorbed into skin when a worker’s body is warm, when pores are open.

The use of natural dyes would solve the problems associated with synthetic dyes, but for the shift to occur, society will need to band together—on behalf of fabric workers and on behalf of our planet—to demand a change in landscape.