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Undyed and Natural Dyes

UNDYED AND NATURAL DYESPure fibers that either skip the dyes or rely on natural ingredients such as petals, leaves and bark.


By Kristi Cameron

For thousands of years, until the young chemist William Perkin stumbled onto a formula for creating mauve synthetically in 1856, people dyed fabrics with colors extracted from the natural world, primarily petals, leaves, bark, seeds, insects and minerals.

Natural dyes were labor-intensive and sometimes hard to obtain, which made them fairly expensive. Tyrian purple, taken from the gland of a Mediterranean mollusk, was so costly that only ancient royalty wore it (thus the phrase "born to the purple"). Perkin's discovery made it suddenly cheap to mass-produce brilliant colors that didn't fade, and the natural-dye industry all but disappeared overnight.

Today, there is a resurgence of interest in the art of natural dyeing and the palette it creates. However, the techniques from Perkin's day, some of which we are just beginning to uncover again, are difficult to apply at a commercial scale. It would take much of the land we devote to our food supply—two- thirds by one estimate. Even at the artisanal level, crops farmed with pesticides could damage our ecosystems. But in the technological world we live in, color that comes from plants and trees serves as a powerful tie to the earth, as well as human history. Here's a deeper look at natural and synthetic dyes, warts and all.

Natural Dye

Color qualities

  • Rich, varied hues.
  • Not always colorfast.
  • Dye batches don't always match.
  • Certain colors, like fluorescents, cannot be created.
The process

  • It usually takes days to make, fix and dye a color.
  • Fixatives can include heavy metals, but the use of less-toxic alum is on the rise.
  • Large quantities of raw material needed, many of which are renewable and biodegradable.
  • Works best on protein fibers like silk and wool.
  • Expensive to use on a commercial scale.
  • Crops may be grown with harmful pesticides.
  • Wastewater and dyestuffs should be disposed of responsibly.
  • Widespread adoption would lead to the destruction of natural habitats.
  • Commercial production could place competing demands on agricultural resources.

Synthetic Dye

Color qualities

  • Colorfast.
  • Precise matching from one dye batch to the next.
  • Virtually any color is possible, including fluorescents.
The process

  • Dyeing can be accomplished quickly.
  • Works on a wide range of materials.
  • Widely available and inexpensive.
  • Derived from finite fossil resources.
  • Can include toxic substances.
  • Wastewater should be treated and dyestuffs disposed of responsibly.