Why should I care about natural dye?

The Origin Of Artificial Dyes is (Very) Troubling.

Until about the middle of the 1800s, all clothing and fabrics were dyed with natural dyes, derived from plants, earth, bugs (shudder) and sometimes even shellfish. But with the fervour for industrialization sweeping the western world in that century, artificial colour began to be produced when it was found that it could be made more easily, faster, cheaper and in larger amounts than was possible with natural dyes.

The very first artificial colours were stunningly brilliant, cheaper to make and more consistent than natural dyes and it's easy to see why people were attracted to them. One of the very first colours, called 'Mauvine' was created in a lab and made from a coal tar extract. It's actually a beautiful colour!


Dress from about 1870, part of the collection at the Victoria and Albert museum, dyed with the new aniline dye.


..but they also were sometimes extremely poisonous - the most horrible of those perhaps being a beautiful bright green derived from arsenic..

..which caused sores and even a particularly horrid death to the unfortunate people (usually women) who wore them against their skin or were working in the places manufacturing these things.

Despite these (ah-hem) drawbacks, industrialization and colonization were pounding ahead and with it much of the older ways of creating dyes was increasingly considered out of style, too slow and too primitive for the new world and were largely left behind by the west.

During the intervening centuries, commercial dyes were refined and made somewhat less dangerous on the whole, but as you'll see, they still are taking a toll on the world we call home and on the people working with them.

Modern Artificial Dye is Still Problematic

Today most artificial colour is derived from petrochemicals, with the obvious disadvantages to the environment that using products derived from oil continues to bring. The garment industry in particular is one of the most polluting in the world today, pouring untreated chemicals and dyes into waterways in Bangladesh, Pakistan and China, where many of our clothes and textiles in the west are made.

Some of the chemicals found in synthetic dye include mercury, copper, lead, benzene and sodium chloride (which does not belong in any water table.)

According to this report from the UN


The fashion industry produces between 2 to 8 per cent of global carbon emissions. Textile dyeing is also the second largest polluter of water globally and it takes around 2,000 gallons of water to make a typical pair of jeans.


Also troubling, some artificial dyes derived from oil and carbon-sequestering resources are still used in food and beverages! That bright blue 'energy' drink you're familiar with? That colour comes from coal tar. Yum!


Natural Dye is Kinder to the World and to Your Body.

Natural dye takes a lot more skill and time to produce than the mass-produced chemical colours, but like many labours of love - baking from scratch with high quality ingredients, for instance - it's time worth taking.

Of course my opinion is a little biased.

I found my way to working with natural dyes several years ago when I was working as a floral designer. My work at the time was inspired by the loose, natural forms found in nature and I tried hard to use locally sourced botanicals that were grown without chemicals, because I wanetd to support other small local businesses and the health of the planet as a whole.

But when I went looking for ribbon, much of what I found was harshly coloured, to my eye, and made from synthetic fabrics, so I did a little digging online and found that I could make natural colour from black beans!


That was my gateway colour; I found the process so enchanting that I couldn't stop experimenting to find out what other shades were possible with things already in my kitchen. Eventually I learned to source more reliable natural colour-stuff from natural dye suppliers and to work with the colour in subtle ways to create what's now around 40 different shades in a rainbow of colours in my shop.

Natural dyes are biodegradable, non-toxic and non-allergenic, making them a healthier choice both to wear next to your skin and for the world as a whole.


What Can I Do?

While my focus currently is on ribbon and home goods like table linens, I'd love to encourage readers to seek out education around fast fashion and to throw their support (in the form of their hard-earned cash, which, let's face it, is really the only thing that most manufacturers will pay attention to) behind all companies changing their manufacturing processes for the better.

I'd like to encourage anyone who's read this far (thank you!) also to resist the impulse to indulge in cheap fast fashion, which is taking a terrible toll on so many aspects of our world.

This article by the UN is a great place to start and a list of more environmentally-conscious fashion makers can be found toward the bottom of the page.

If you are White, I'd also like to encourage you to throw your money and support behind indigenous people still working in the old ways as well as other POC-owned businesses out there.

These resources, Conscious Life and Style and Conscious Fashion both have tons of excellent resources for becoming better informed and shopping from brands that are walking the talk when it comes to making better choices for you, our communities and the planet.


Natural Dye Is Just Plain Pretty (and the world needs more of that)

There's one final aspect I'd like to mention, particularly since many of my customers are working in the wedding industry; how beautifully plant-dyed natural fabrics work with botanical aspects of design like bouquets and how well they enhance photography and video work.

Since the dyes themselves are derived mostly from plants, the colours work seamlessly with flowers and leaves, without jarring in the way that some artificial shades may do; it reflects light in a very lovely way.

Silk and bamboo flows gorgeously in the air and adds a beautiful touch of movement to images. And since awareness is growing even among the most mainstream of media that we need to do better in terms of caretaking our world and making a smaller carbon footprint, being able to mention that you support small, eco-friendly makers.


Black bride on a blue sofa with bouquet
Image by Britta Marie. Locally-sourced bouquet and naturally dyed silk ribbon by the author.

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