Natural Dyeing Techniques

Natural Dyeing Techniques
August 24, 2016 Caroline Seaworth

Dyeing of fibers and fabrics dates back to the beginnings of civilization. It was aimed at enlivening everyday garments, as well as decorating ceremonial robes. Primitive men thoroughly observed nature and wanted to preserve its colors. They found them in roots, berries, branches, bark, leaves and minerals.

The craft of making plant dyes and, especially, the ability to use subsidiary chemicals in the process, constituted an art that has been kept in secret for ages. The cradle of the art of dyeing is South Asia. 4000 years ago in China, the methods of dyeing indigo and Kermes – a red hue – have already been known…

Substances of plant and animal origin were almost the sole source of dyes used by man until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1820 the ‘Persos’ publication occurred. It contained hundreds of recipes and regulations for plant and animal dyes applicable to the textile industry. Until then, the ways of using natural dyes were kept in secret as an ancestral property of the dyers and passed on from generation to generation. The people adapted Alizarin red, indigo blue and yellows with mignonette and applied them to the patterns of the most sophisticated and refined fabrics.


Dyeing of wool

The quality of dyed wool depends on various actions concerning washing, mortaring and varnishing. The wool itself has a significant effect on the shade of the color of the fabric. To obtain bright colors, one should choose bright wool. Wool in gray mélange staining gives extinguished, subdued tones. It is up to the dyer to decide which color is the most needed and what kind of raw materials should be used. Wool is not primarily soaked for washing. First, it must be put into a lukewarm bath wash, where only soap flakes or light detergents (liquid or paste) can be used. It should be laundered at low temperatures, since high ones may cause felting. After washing it twice, there is rinsing. When all of that is finished, here comes the process of dressing. The majority of pigments are mordant dyes, or such that require a special process to facilitate the connection of the dye with the fiber, yarn or primed materials. The dressing of yarn involves heating up leaves of sumac, oak bark or some other material in water and inserting the yarn into the prepared solution. It should be left there for a few hours, in order for the fibers to link up. Alum is the most famous mortar. It can be used for the treatment of a variety of natural fibers, both of vegetable(flax, hemp, sisal) and animal (wool and silk) origin. By using various mortars with the same natural pigment one can get a variety of colors. These compounds not only consolidate the color, but also have a significant impact on the color and shade change.

Below are the most famous natural dyes, that have been used for centuries:

• Sandalwood (Pterocarpus samtalinus) – yellow coloring ore

• Catechu Acacia (catechu Willd) – red dye imported from India

• Brazilian Caesalpina (brasiliensis tree) – red dye

• Tree blue (logwood Haemotoxylon campechianum) – a source of blue dye, dark blue and violet

• Orleans Bix Orel – source of yellow and orange dye

• Tree yellow (Morus tinctoria) – yellow dye

• Turmeric (Curcuma longa) – yellow dye

• Perukowiac Sumac (Rhus cortinus) – the source of yellow dye

• Gallas – growths on oak Quercus infectoria – a source of dye black, gray, also used as an additive to dye dark blue

• Indigo (Indygofera tinctoria, Polygonium tinctoria)- the most famous blue dye

• Madder (Rubia tinctorium) – red dye

• Isatis tinctoria (Isatis tinctoria) – blue dye

• Safflower (Carthamus tinctoria) – red dye and yellow

• Rezeda (Reseda luteola) – yellow dye

• June Polish (Porophyropora polonica) – red dye

• Cochineal (Coccus cacti) – red dye

• Laka (Coccus laccae) – black dye

Coloring in yellow:

The perception of the color yellow differed depending on the epoch and the region. In ancient Rome it was used for wedding ceremonies. The dye extracted from crocus stamens – saffron – was applied to exquisite costumes in the kingdoms of Babylon and Persia or to the clothing of Greek dignitaries and virgins. China gave it a great importance by limiting its use to only one person – the emperor. Special decrees were issued to reserve that color just for him. Yellow is undoubtedly the most easily achievable natural dye and many plants can be the source of it. Here are some of them:

Dyers Reseda luteola L. – It comes from the Mediterranean, form where it has gradually spread throughout Europe. This plant grows mainly on sands. For staining one can use the entire plant, both fresh and dried. Mignonette is a source of very durable yellow, olive and lemon color. In English it is popularly called Dyer’s rocket, or rocket of the dyer. Its best shades are obtained with mortar and cupric sulphate and alum. The reseda was used both in folk culture and in dyeing factories.

Curcuma longa L. – also known as turmeric or yellows. Rhizomes and roots of plants are used in a dye production process. The spice came from India to the European countries. India ought to be its main producer and exporter, as well as China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, the islands of the Caribbean and South American countries. Turmeric is the source of beautiful shades of yellow. Unfortunately, it was washable and not light-resistant. This effect can be seen in the old tapestries and fabrics. If on the right side of the fabric we can see the color of dark blue, and at the same time we observe green on the left, we can assume that indigo and turmeric were used for coloring of the green space. Also, yellow can simply disappear under the influence of light.

Coloring in red:

Red has a great emotional and aesthetic role which origins can be found in antiquity. Its positive value is derived from the ancient purple as a symbol of imperial power and priesthood. Red is fire, blood, passion and fertility. Tyren purple, the color of emperors, bishops and nobles, led to the almost total extinction of snails being the source of that kind of red.



In Europe, red was acquired from Porophyropora Polonica. Famous in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, cochineal made of dried and powdered Porophyropora polonica was used in Europe and Asia as an excellent red dye. It used to live on the roots of a plant called June Scleranthus perrennis occurring in Northern Europe and in Poland. In the Middle Ages, this tiny maggot was of great importance for the Polish wealth. In the Middle Ages red varied a lot. Lords and nobles wore clothes dyed with cochineal which was red, luminous and durable. Parvenus had to settle for a red from madder, which lasted though did not give such luminous colors as cochineal.


The most famous red dye plant is Madder (Rubia tinctorum). Worldwide, there are about 60 types of this plant. Coloring with Madder took place in many different cultures, but the most famous among all is the Indian madder, Rubia cordifolia. Its richness and dyeing values depend on its roots and rhizomes. The roots of the plants are different compounds. The most valuable of them are alizarin, acid ruberttine, purpurin and pseudopurpurin.


Crocus sativus – the saffron – is the most expensive dye of all. This famous perennial with an underground tuber is also known as a spice. It probably came from south-eastern Europe or Asia Minor. The name ‘saffron’ comes from Arabic word which simply means a flower. Saffron was known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome as a dye, medicine and spice. The first crops in medieval Europe were settled in the south of France and Spain. To obtain 1 kg of dye or spices about 100-130 thousands of flowers should be used, and that’s why the price per kilo exceeds the price of gold. Difficulties with obtaining the dye were caused by a great number of forgeries. Saffron petals were often falsified with turmeric rhizomes. Saffron prefers a sunny environment and light, permeable soils with neutral or slightly acidic pH. Saffron is a source of carotenoid – crocetin giving the red dye.

Coloring in Blue :

Indigo – the king of dyes – is closely related to the human culture. Indigo was cultivated in ancient times in India, Persia and Egypt. The blue color in ancient Egypt was reserved for the daughters of Pharaoh that decorated their breasts only with blue and gold. The British Museum linen fabric dyed in indigo comes from 2400 r. B.C. In many cultures, blue emphasized the social status. Fabrics dyed in blue were particularly appreciated.


The source of natural blue color Indigo is Indigoferia tinctoria. Blue dye is obtained from the plant called Isaits tinctoria. The blue color does not arise in the dye bath during the dyeing process, but during the contact of yarn with air. The effect of the dyeing process is very spectacular. Indigo can stain the fabric from pale blue to midnight blue. It is very durable and resistant to light. Indigo is used to tone intense colors and to obtain mixed colors. On the yellow ground it turns green, on pink it becomes purple and can also turn brown into black.

The secrets of dyeing Indigoferia tinctoria were known to the Greeks and Romans. This plant was grown in Central and South Asia and then in Europe. The extract from Indigoferia tinctoria was applied by Celtic and Germanic tribes during their ritual ceremonies. From the thirteenth century Indigoferia tinctoria was grown on a large scale by farmers and dyers in France and Germany. The discovery of America (1492) and the sea route to India (1498) resulted in imports of cheaper indigo to Europe, and caused a slow displacement of Indigoferia tinctoria by other plants.

Traditional rules of dying

Regardless of the dye, you should note that the intensity of staining depends on the temperature and time which the fibers spend in the liquid dye. The acquisition of different shades is possible by changing the ratio between colorings. An adequate use of mortar, dyes, and treating the fibers with water are very important in the dyeing process. Acid and mortars can offer a great variety of different shades of color. Environmental changes during the dyeing process and fixation have a significant impact on the quality of the colors. It is worth mentioning that in the process of dyeing the pH of water is an important factor. It is better to use soft water.

A return to nature

The multiplication and processing of the colors extorted from nature is like creating works of art. A dialog with nature, gaining more and more new colors and shades, is now (and has always been) a very inspiring and creative experience. It would seem that the world of natural dyes is irretrievably gone, supplanted by chemistry and advanced technology. Fortunately, however, in contemporary culture, more and more often one can observe a return to the old knowledge and skills. So why won’t you take a look at the nearby meadow, get some herbs and try it yourself?

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