The Science and Art of Natural Dyes

Humans are exceptionally visual organisms. We are rare among mammals to have retinas more specialized for distinguishing color than for light and dark, and the limited band of the electromagnetic spectrum called visible light yields us an ability to discern our surroundings through color, texture, and shadow.

Top: yarn dyed with avocado skins and pits.
Bottom: bare yarn, yarn dyed with toyon leaves, yarn dyed with fennel.

It is little surprise, then, that when given the opportunity, humans have modified their surroundings with color. Cave paintings with natural ochres and charcoals date back tens of thousands of years, and dyed textiles have been documented from the Neolithic era. These pigments are extracted from plant leaves, bark, roots, and fruits, and even some animals, lichens, and fungi. Sometimes the extraction process was as simple as steeping the material in hot water; other times, vinegar, natural alum, or even stale urine was used.

Pigments command a certain respect. It is a dense domain of knowledge to know which part of which organisms harvested at which time and processed in which manner produce which colors upon which fibers. This is the stuff of witches and wealthy elite.

Murex snail shell
Murex snail shell

The royal purple of the Phoenicians required the contribution of tens of thousands of Murex sea snails (Bolinus brandaris) for one small garment. Indigo was valued for thousands of years for its special ability to dye plant-based textiles (cotton, linen), but certainly became more famous with the advent of blue jeans in the 1800s. Pigments were coveted and traded, used to decorate and depict scenes of the Earth and the heavens, and colored textiles have a long history of uniting groups of humans (think of family crests and national flags) against outsiders.

But the trajectory of textiles took a different turn in 1856, when, in search for a malaria cure, 18-year-old William Henry Perkin famously created the first synthetic dye, mauve. Synthetic dyes quickly became the norm in the following decades—they were more reliable and offered a greater range of colors. Textile manufacturing boomed from the late 19th century onward, along with other industrial inventions. This changed our relationship to color, with commercial fashion now accessible not just to the elite.

Google doodle honoring William Henry Perkin
Google honored William Henry Perkin on his 180th birthday.

But the knowledge of natural pigments has not been lost. From grade-school crafts to professional knitters, mycological enthusiasts, gardeners, and beyond, there is a strong desire to make use of all the lively color the environment has to offer. Science and art collide to encourage experimentation, observation, and appreciation of the natural world. The colors produced have so much dimension to them, revealing different color elements in different lights, and seeming to glow from within.

Horsetail plant and pink yarn
Horsetail and its dye yield

Natural dyeing is a rabbit hole of discovery. So many plants, including a number of invasive species that could use some human intervention, harbor precious pigments in soft, rich tones.

For more information on natural dyes, refer to:

  • Harvesting Color, by Rebecca Burgess, shares specific insight into many dye plant species, including how and when to harvest and process each plant for an optimal dye experience, and focuses primarily on wool and protein fibers.
  • The Modern Natural Dyer, by Kristine Vejar, nicely showcases the range of colors achieved from different plant and animal substances on a variety of protein and plant textiles. It also features many sewing, knitting, and shibori projects.
  • Natural Color, by Sasha Duerr, features seasonal projects and dye instructions to take advantage of nature’s bounty.

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