Natural dyes – the color of nature

natural dyes for dyeing hand spun eri silk yarn

We all wear clothes; it’s one of the basic necessities to mankind. We all have our own style and color choice, different colors that capture our senses of sight, but did you ever ask yourself how did the colors get into the clothes you’re wearing? How are they made? It’s pretty fascinating isn’t it, how the colors of the rainbow, the sky, the ocean, grass, the sun, flowers come to live into the clothes we wear.

Today with industrialization and expansion of the textiles industries in the world, colors are factory made and its commonly called synthetic or chemical dyes. But colorful clothes have been worn for generations even before industrialization happened!

How did our forefathers create natural dye colors?

Natural dyes have been used pretty much since the existence of mankind. Dyes that we know of today as natural dyes are discovered by accident with berries and fruits. But how did complex colors get created a century ago?

Natural dyes or organic dyes are colors that are extracted from natural resources surrounding our environment; they are extracted from insects, mineral components such as iron ore, plant or parts of a plant that can be the form of roots, leaves, flowers, fruits and even seeds.

gooseberry bark used as a mordant and dyegooseberry bark used as a mordant and dye color fixative

What is mordanting?

If you’re wondering what mordanting is, it’s the most important step when your experimenting with natural dyes because without this step the colors will not stick to the fabric.

The mordant or dye fixative in powdered or liquid form is added to the dye mix or to the fabric for making colors stick to the fabric. The mordanting process differs from a different type of fibers and from colors to colors.

4 ways of mordanting natural dye color

  1. For some colors the mordant is applied on the fiber before the dyeing process this is called pre-mordanting.
  2. Post mordanting is a process where the mordant is added after the dyeing process.
  3. For some colors, the mordant has to be applied before as well as after the dyeing process.
  4. There are other colors where the mordant is mixed simultaneously with the dyes during the dye bath.

A mordant sometimes acts as a color enhancer, and it sometimes changes the color of the dye itself. There are varieties of mordants, the most commonly used bio-degradable mordants are salt, baking soda, and vinegar. There are other types of mordants such as alum, iron, copper, tin, and chrome are called metallic mordant. Alum is relatively safer as compared to copper and chrome, these mordants are hazardous and its advisable not to use them.

Muezart team dives into natural dyes

This is one of the most exciting projects our team has taken on because we are in alignment with our revive and regenerate business model. We were practicing something without harming the environment as well as partnering with the villages to continue and preserve the traditional art of dyeing with natural dyes.

We took up several journeys to discover and learn more about natural dyes. The team then experimented with what we have learned so far. We were all eager to discover how each color turned out from the experiments done with the plants and fruits we got.

The list of natural dyestuffs we experimented with and the colors they produced

Dyestuffs is a term used for anything that can be used as a dye. We had fun and we haven't stopped learning since that day!

  1. Turmeric produces a bright yellow color
  2. Onion skin produces nutmeg brown color
  3. Beetroot produces a reddish brown color
  4. Sohiong (Blackberry from Meghalaya) produces peach color
  5. Sapphire-berries produced Indigo color

Dark green natural color from onion skin - Natural dyes Muezart wine color from naturally dyeing with sohiong berries - Muezart

onion skin creates olive green  ~  sohiong fruit of Meghalaya creates mauveYellow color from turmeric - Natural dye - Muezart
turmeric yellow creates tie dye fun

 

Natural dyes and Umden: Silk village

Our designing team took an intentional journey to Umden which is known as the Silk Village of Meghalaya which is 70 km away from Shillong, located in Ri-Bhoi District of Meghalaya, to learn more about natural dyes. The team was enthralled with the discovery they made on this journey, they learned and discovered new knowledge about natural dyes and the practices of dyeing followed by the locals of Umden.

The women folks of the village carry out this traditional art of natural dyeing and weaving. The weavers of this village have been continuing this tradition since time unknown that has been passed down for generations through their teachings with no written record what so ever.

The natural dyestuffs that the villagers use are Iron Ore, Lac, onion skin, turmeric, and tea leaves. The weavers of the village of Umden use natural dyes only for dying Eri Silk. The village is now on the map for the traditional art of natural dying and weaving which have made the village famous for people who know and are curious of this art form.

The team discovered a community of women working passionately with natural dyes. They had so much knowledge that a day or two days visit is not enough to learn from them. The women were eager to teach us and show us what they do for a living, they were proud of the art they have learned and acquired from their forefathers.

turmeric natural dye eri silk yarn

We discovered new colors a black dye which is acquired from iron ore, and pink dye that is extracted from female lac insect. What was different about the natural dying process in this village is that the process is a 100% organic; they still followed the same process that has been followed from time immemorable when the use of alum and vinegar as a mordant was not yet heard off.

They use plants as a mordant or dye fixative, there are two specific plants that they use, the Khasi name is Sla Sohtung (scientific name is Terminalia chebula Retz) which they specifically use for fixing black dyes and Sla Sohkhu (scientific name is Baccaurea Ramiflora Lour) which is used for fixing other colour dyes. Gooseberries bark is also used as a mordant.

Natural dyes versus synthetic dyes

Natural dyes have been used for ages up until synthetic dyes were discovered. Natural dyes are organic and are derived or extracted from resources found in nature.

The extraction of colors varies from plant to plant, insects, and minerals. Some of them are directly boiled for extracting the colors whereas some such as turmeric, lac are finely powdered first and then boiled for extracting the colors.

Characteristics of natural dyes

  1. Natural dyes tend to fade easily, so for making the dyes stick to the fabric dye fixative are used, this can be in the form of starch, seaweed, Alum(hydrated double sulfate salt), table salt, vinegar.
  2. Fabrics dyed with natural dyes are more delicate and have to be handled with care, it should not be dried directly in sunlight.
  3. Compared to synthetic dyes natural dyes are safer and since it does not contain harmful chemicals there is a very low possibility for causing skin allergies. Mostly all plant dyes are safe to be worn.
  4. They are bio-degradable; therefore, it does not harm the water ecosystem when drained into water bodies.

Synthetic Dyes discovered in the mid-19th century are manufactured using chemical. These dyes are made from coal tar and petroleum. The discovery of synthetic dyes has made it easy for manufacturing in larger quantities with a much more wider range of colors some of the colors that we have never seen before.

Characteristics of synthetic dyes

  1. The clothes dyed with synthetic dyes last longer.
  2. Synthetic dyes contain harmful chemicals like acid, mercury, lead to name a few.
  3. These dyes are not only harmful to the people who wear them, but it’s very hazardous for the health of the people working in the factories who are exposed to it.
  4. Synthetic dyes are toxic in nature and when exposed to water resources it causes water pollution.

Natural dyes and the environment

natural dye color from sapphire berries

natural color from sapphire berries

Finding natural dyes is very much an art of discovering colors that are available in abundance in nature. Who could’ve imagined that colors can be extracted from barks of trees, insects, and fruits? These days we have gotten so very much busy with our lives that we don’t have the time to venture out into the forest in search of plants that we could create dyes with.

natural color from gooseberry bark - used in the recipe for charcoal gray natural dye
natural color from gooseberry bark - used in the recipe for charcoal gray natural dye

When we started experimenting with natural dyes, one of our colleague Rosa who was just wandering around our innovation campus came across these tiny blueberries when crushed produced a very beautiful dark blue color, and we discovered that it’s called sapphire-berries. She got so excited to show the team what she discovered.

It wasn’t long until we created dyes with the berries Rosa discovered. It was so easy all we needed to do to find these colors was to venture out, as nature has already made them available. Sometimes we have forgotten nature and the things it has to offer us! Instead, we look for more easy and convenient ways.

3 Reasons why natural dyes are good for the environment

  1. Natural dyes are derived from plants and it’s to be remembered that when making natural dyes the whole plant is not used only some parts of a plant is used, not exploiting the natural resources.
  2. The dyes are bio-degradable, it does not pollute the water resources.
  3. Natural dyes are made from renewable resources that are available in plenty which does not harm the ecosystem.

With the world getting smaller day by day, what happens in a small town can be heard throughout the rest of the world. The change that our environment is going through is very much visible to all. We must wake up and open our eyes and mind to understanding the importance of going back through time and understanding how our ancestors co-existed with nature and not doing things knowing or knowingly that harms the environment. We have to learn to make a wiser choice, we have to be curious about not only what we eat but what we wear as well.

To know how natural dyes look when dyed on shawls see our naturally dyed Eri Silk Collection.