What Are Natural Dyes?
We all wear clothes; it’s one of the basic necessities to mankind. We all have our own style and colour choice, different colours that capture our senses of sight, but did you ever ask yourself how did the colours get into the clothes you’re wearing? How are they made? It’s pretty fascinating isn’t it, how the colours 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, colours are factory made, and its commonly called synthetic or chemical dyes. But colourful clothes have been worn for generations even before industrialization happened!
How did our forefathers create these colours?
Natural dyes has been used pretty much since the existence of mankind. These dyes that we know of today as natural dyes were discovered by accident with berries and fruits.
Natural dyes or organic dyes are colours 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.
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 colours 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 colours stick to the fabric. Mordanting process differs from different type of fibers and from colours to colours.
Ways of mordanting
- For some colours the mordant is applied on the fiber before the dyeing process this is called pre-mordanting.
- Post mordanting is a process where the mordant is added after the dyeing process.
- Whereas for some colours the mordant has to be applied before as well as after dyeing process.
- There are other colours where the mordant is mixed simultaneously with the dyes during the dye bath.
A mordant sometimes acts as a colour enhancer, and it sometimes changes the colour of the dye itself. There are varieties of mordants, the most commonly used bio-degradable mordants is 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.
Zizira’s Experiment with 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 colour turned out from the experiments done with the plants and fruits we got. After the successful experimentation we launched our new product made out of natural dyes for children.
The List of Natural Dyestuffs We Experimented With and The Colours They Produced
Dyestuffs is term used for anything that can be used as a dye.
- Turmeric produces a bright yellow colour
- Onion skin produces nutmeg brown colour
- Beetroot produces reddish brown colour
- Sohiong (Blackberry from Meghalaya) produces peach colour
- Sapphire-berries produced Indigo colour
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 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.
We discovered new colours 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. Goose berries bark is also use as a mordant.
Natural Dyes Vs 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 colours varies from plant to plant, insects and minerals. Some of them are directly boiled for extracting the colours whereas some such as turmeric, lac are finely powdered first and then boiled for extracting the colours.
Characteristics of Natural Dyes
- 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 sulphate salt), table salt, vinegar.
- Fabrics dyed with natural dyes are more delicate and have to be handled with care, it should not be dried directly in sunlight.
- 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.
- 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 colours some of the colours that we have never seen before.
Characteristics of Synthetic Dyes
- The clothes dyed with synthetic dyes lasts longer.
- Synthetic dyes contain harmful chemicals like acid, mercury, lead to name a few.
- These dyes are not only harmful for the people who wear them, but it’s very hazardous for the health of the people working in the factories who are expose to it.
- Synthetic dyes are toxic in nature and when exposed to water resources it causes water pollution.
Natural Dyes and the Environment
Finding natural dyes is very much an art of discovering colours that is available in abundance in the nature. Who could’ve imagined that colours 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 for plants that we could create dyes with.
When we started experimenting with natural dyes, one of our colleague Rosa who was just wandering around our innovation campus came across these tiny blue berries when crushed produced a very beautiful dark blue colour, 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 colours was to venture out, as the 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
- 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.
- The dyes are bio-degradable, it does not pollute the water resources.
- 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 wiser choice, we have to be curious of not only what we eat but what we wear as well.
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