Natural Colours

Guest Post: this post was written by Megan, a second year student studying Textile Art, Design and Fashion from the University of Ulster, Belfast. Megan has been on a placement at the Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum preparing a natural dyeing project, experimenting with extracting dyes from various organic matters.

“Dyeing with plants is a kind of botanical alchemy, a process that gives beautiful and sometimes surprising results. It is also a gentle and ecologically sustainable alternative to synthetic dyes, which are often harmful in themselves and in the process used for their manufacture. Literally every plant has some potential for dyeing cloth.” India Flint – Eco Colour

Natural dyes are dyes or colorants derived from plants, invertebrates or minerals. The majority of natural dyes are vegetable dyes from plant sources – roots, berries, bark, leaves and wood – and other organic sources such as fungi and lichens.

There is evidence of dyeing textiles dating back thousands of years. Many natural dyes require the use of chemicals called mordants to bind the dye to the textile fibres. Throughout history people have dyed their textiles using common, locally available materials. Rare dyestuffs that produced brilliant and permanent colours like the natural invertebrate dyes – tyrian purple and crimson kermes became highly prized luxury items in the ancient and medieval world.

The discovery of manmade synthetic dyes in the mid-19th century triggered a long decline in the large-scale market for natural dyes. The industrial revolution allowed synthetic dyes to be produced commercially, and they quickly outsold natural dyes.

In the early 21st century, the market for natural dyes in the fashion industry is experiencing a revival. Western consumers have become more concerned about the health and environmental impact of synthetic dyes in manufacturing and there is a growing demand for products that use natural dyes.

The Tea Test Method

A great way to test if a substance is suitable for dyeing is called The Tea Test Method. Using a range of substances crumble them up into  tea cups and pour hot water over them. If the liquid becomes coloured in a short space of time it has potential for dyeing. Try this method at home with fresh or dry leaves, shredded bark, crushed seeds and squashed berries.