Natural Dyes : dying to know?

What are natural dyes?
Natural dyes are textile colorants that are derived from plants, insects and other natural materials. Prior to the mid-19th century, all the colors that were applied to fabrics were from the natural world. Blue came from indigo, yellow from a variety of plants, including mignonette and dyers greenwood, red from madder roots and cochineal insects, and brown from walnut. These plants were gathered or harvested then chopped or crushed and soaked in water. Recipes on how to achieve brilliant colors were closely held secrets and passed from generation to generation.

Are they safe?
Natural dyes are non-toxic but they are not edible.

What about mordants? Aren’t those toxic?
Natural dye mordants are mineral salts or tannic acid whose purpose is to bind the natural dye to the fabric. Some of these are toxic and not recommended, such as copper sulfate, chrome and tin. We never use these mordants, nor do we support their use. We only use the safest mordants and auxiliaries including alum, cream of tartar, iron and tannins. However, we strongly recommend the use of personal protective wear when handling all dyes, mordants and auxiliaries to avoid breathing dust or any vapors.

Don’t natural dyes run and fade?
Any dye, either synthetic or natural that is improperly applied will run, streak, rub off or fade. Natural dyes perform comparably to synthetic dyes in washing and lightfast tests. Irregularities in the dyeing are not a defect but an integral part of the process of Natural dyed fabrics, and part of their charm.

What about color repeatability?
Natural dyes are derived from plants and follow nature’s variations. However, it is possible to minimize the dyelot variations by purchasing enough dyes for the season so that the colors are all coming from the same batch of dye.

If you grow natural dyes, are you displacing food crops?
Natural dyes are often grown or gathered on marginal land that does not support food crops.

What is the impact of natural dyes?
Natural dyes are derived from plants and agricultural byproducts. They are a renewable resource which is markedly different than synthetic dyes which come from petrochemical sources. Growing natural dyes provides a cash crop for farmers and communities and some of the dyes can be used as cover crops to enrich the soil before harvesting. Other natural dyes are derived from pomegranate peels, walnut hulls, from manufacturing shellac and breath fresheners, downed trees and other agricultural products.