Coffee Talk / Health

To Dye For

You’ve probably been wearing clothes for years, unless you live in a nudist colony, but have ever thought about how your garments get to be every color under the sun?

Most commercial clothing is colored today by synthetic dyes which are chemically derived;  however, there is a new trend among our socially and environmentally conscious population that is now bringing back an age-old tradition  –  natural dying.

Photo:Anne Lowe
CC0 License Public Domain

Natural Dying is the process of coloring fabric by extracting pigment from the use of plants, insects, trees and lichens.

Humans have been dying fabric naturally for centuries.  Even the ancient Egyptians used natural substances to dye their clothing;  many examples have been found in the remains of tombs that date back some 5,000 years.    Before the creation of synthetic dyes in the 1850’s people had to use what was in nature to color fabric:  roots, berries, insects, leaves and bark.

Even the Bible makes reference, as early as Exodus, to the fact that naturally dyed fabrics existed;   “Material for the Tabernacle is described as “blue and purple and scarlet stuff” (Exod 26:1, 31). Josephus described the Temple materials as “woven of four stuffs, byssus as a symbol of the earth, whence the flax grows; purple, the sea which was dyed with the blood of fishes; hyacinth, the air; and scarlet, the fire” (Antiq. III. vii. 7), (Bible Gateway, Encyclopedia of the Bible).

Photo: George Hoden
CC0 License Public Domain

In ancient times, the color purple was often reserved for Royalty especially during the Byzantine era.  It was also highly regarded by Roman Emperors, some actually outlawed the commoners from wearing it in order to elevate it’s status.   It was so difficult to naturally produce, that only the rich and famous could actually afford it anyway.  The Phoenicians, who lived in modern day Lebanon, use to collect a special kind of snail in order to extract the color.  It took about 250,000 mollusks to get just a few drops of the coveted dye stuff.  But what came out in the wash was a vibrant and colorfast dye which did not seem to fade.

Photo: George Hoden
CC0 License Public Domain

The color pink and red where often derived from a family of insects that attach themselves to the cactus plant called the Cochineal.  The spice tumeric and safflower were used to create the color yellow.  Blue was extracted from the Indigo plant or the woad.

With so much pollution from synthetic dyes being washed into our water supply, it is inherently good that there is a new movement toward sustainability.  God has provided everything we need on Earth, including all the resources for naturally dying fabric.  Hopefully as we become more aware of the problems in our society, especially those which threaten our water supply, air and soil, we will begin to make better choices.   We have been given one planet on which to live;  let us be good stewards of it.







References:  The History of Fabric Dye
Juliette Donatello, Wikipedia, Bible Gateway