What is natural dyeing?

Kathryn Davey

March 10, 2023

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natural dyeing
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I’m a author, self-taught designer & natural dyer sharing the beauty of natural dyes and plant based colour with anyone that's interested :) 

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natural dyes from twigs held in hand in front of neutral backdrop

Natural dyeing is the ancient practice of extracting colour from natural materials to naturally dye cloth or pure fibres. Dyes can be found in a variety of natural sources such as; plants, invertebrates, lichen, fungi or minerals.

Natural dyes can be found in roots, bark, branches, leaves, seeds, nuts or the petals of delicate flowers. With each part taking more or less time to surrender its colour or natural dye!

While we do not know exactly when our ancestors discovered that natural materials held forms of pigment, ink or dye. We see examples of natural pigments used as sources of natural colour in our earliest cave paintings. Before the discovery of synthetic dyes in 1856, natural dyes & pigments were our sole source of colour throughout history.

The history of natural dyes

Natural dyes coloured textiles for at least 6,000 years with many vibrant examples of preserved textiles surviving. From the ancient world of colour, we have learnt much about previous civilisations and their relationship to the natural world. The Stockholm Papyrus, a manuscript compiled in Egypt & written in Greek, dates back to c.300AD. It illustrates the importance of the dyeing industry in ancient times & shows the development of our early dyeing history. Containing 154 recipes, it details how to create & apply dyes to textiles.

With the growth of our population, trade routes opened up & brought many new resources to far-off corners of the globe. With the expansion of these trade routes, natural dyes, once exclusive to geographical locations, became shared around the world. Practiced throughout Europe, Egypt, South America, Africa and Asia & amongst the native people of North America.

Synthetic dyes

Discovered by accident in 1856, synthetic dyes quickly replaced natural dyeing. Synthetic dyes were cheaper to develop and considerably less labour-intensive to produce. Because of this, synthetic quickly became the main source of commercial dye. As these chemical dyes grew in popularity, the natural dyeing industry began to shrink and eventually collapse.

Naturally wool socks on old milking stool in front of neutral stone background

Where to find natural colour?

With the environmental impact of mass industrialisation/fast fashion becoming a reality, natural dyeing has become more important than ever. Natural colour is everywhere, the practice of applying these to the fibres of your life can soothe even the weariest soul. Dyes are present in certain plants, fruits, insects or minerals. Colour is present in an unlimited source of petals, twigs, branches, leaves, roots, bark, nuts and seeds. You can dye with everyday ingredients found in your kitchen. Tea, coffee, turmeric, avocado stones, yellow & red onion skins, pomegranate rinds or carrot tops are great for novice dyers. Dyes are growing in your garden, throughout your neighbourhood, in the fields, the forests the mountains and beyond.

Once you start looking for sources of natural colour, the abundance and choice will surprise & delight you. Even in the depths of winter when the branches are bare, you can find sources of natural colour. If you would like to learn more about this meditative process take a look at some of our popular posts. In particular, how to naturally dye with avocado stones, dye with onion skins or learn how to create inks from plants. If you give any of these a go, be sure to let me know how you get on & have fun experimenting. x Kathryn

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