What is natural dyeing?

Kathryn Davey

March 10, 2023

Dye sources
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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 dye sources

Natural dyeing is the ancient practice of extracting colour, dyes or pigments from plants, invertebrates, lichens or minerals to dye cloth or natural fibres.

While we do not know exactly when our ancestors discovered that natural materials could be used as forms of pigment, ink or dye, natural pigments were used to depict scenes of everyday life in the earliest known cave paintings. When you think about it, before the discovery of synthetic dyes in 1856, natural dyes & pigments were our sole source of colour throughout history.

Natural dyes have been used to colour textiles for at least 6,000 years with many vibrant examples of preserved textiles, garments & rugs 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, dating back to c.300AD, illustrates the importance of the dyeing industry in ancient times. Containing 154 recipes, it details how to create dyes & apply them to textiles and shows the development of our early dyeing history.

As civilisations began to grow and expand, trade routes opened up and dyes were shared around the world. Natural dyeing was practised throughout Greece, Rome, Egypt, South America, Africa and Asia & amongst the native people of North America. When synthetic dyes were discovered in the mid 19th Century, they were quickly adopted as the main source of commercial dye as they were both cheaper to develop & considerably less labour-intensive to produce & so began the demise of the natural dyeing industry.

natura dyes

As we feel the environmental impact of mass industrialisation/fast fashion, and move towards a more sustainable future, natural dyeing has become more important than ever. Natural dyes can be found everywhere & the practice of applying these to the fibres of your life can soothe even the weariest soul. Natural dyes can be found in plants, fruits, certain insects & minerals, colour can be obtained from an unlimited source of petals, twigs, branches, leaves, roots, bark, nuts and seeds. You can dye with everyday ingredients found in your kitchen such as; tea, coffee, turmeric, avocado stones, yellow & red onion skins, pomegranate rinds or carrot tops. Dyes can be found in your garden, from herbs and flowers, trees & weeds, in 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, there is still colour to be found. If you would like to learn more about this meditative process, I have added a few simple tutorials on how to get started. Check out my recent posts on 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!

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