SALT, 2020 / Photograph by Sinden Studios.

The Case for Natural Dyes

Coloring clothes using flowers, foods, and plants is an ancient art. Now, a rise in ethical and sustainable practices across fashion is breathing new life into such age-old traditions.

Google natural dye and be prepared to dive down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos explaining how to use everything from coffee to vegetables and food scraps to give new life to old clothes. Dig a little deeper, however, and this crafty world gives way to a different point of view. The technique, once something associated with pine kitchen tables, aprons and messy onion skins, has been taken up by the fashion industry.

 

Small labels ranging from Ssōne to Mara Hoffman, Jason Wu to The Elder Statesman are using natural dyes to create pieces that have a uniqueness, and a connection to nature, one that is appreciated by clients. Caroline Smithson, the designer behind UK-based Ssōne, says it is part of a wider thirst for knowledge of the origin of clothes. “You know what you’re eating but you don’t have it for the clothing,” she says. “People want to know where it’s coming from, they want the story.”

 

With natural dye, the stories abound. This is an ancient art, after all. Writing in her 2016 book The Secret Lives of Colour, Kassia St Clair describes how, in 1882, “the British Museum acquired an object it would take 11 decades to understand.” A small clay tablet, dating to Babylon, now Iraq, between 500 and 600 BC, it was eventually revealed that the text inscribed were instructions—on how to use indigo to dye wool dark blue.

Courtesy of Ssōne / Photograph by Frederique Loressa.
Courtesy of Ssōne / Photograph by Frederique Loressa.
Courtesy of Ssōne / Photograph by Frederique Loressa.

Indigo derives from a shrub of pink flowers. It has been used in Babylon, by Yoruba tribes in Nigeria, and in Peru—the oldest example, dating back 6000 years, was found there in 2016. Japan also has a long history with indigo, dating back to the eighth century. Shibori—a tie-dye like technique using indigo, which actually originally began in China—is now becoming popular again. In Mexico, the Zapotec civilisation used natural dyes including indigo, a tradition still carried on by a small minority near Oaxaca. And artist Aboubakar Fofana works with West African indigo—for his own artwork, and at a farm in Siby, Mali where he aims to reignite the use of the plant for dyeing.

 

This is just one natural dye that forms part of our shared history. Woad (another kind of blue, derived from a plant with yellow flowers) was big business in the sixteenth century, with areas like Alsace, where it was manufactured, growing rich. Madder—a claret red made from the roots of a leafy green plant—covered medieval wedding dresses before white became the convention, and fabric coloured with it was found in Tuankhamun’s tomb. Cochineal—a more vivid red made from tiny insects—dates back to Aztec and Inca cultures.

 

If the use of natural dyes halted after synthetics became more wide-spread in the 1850s, they have returned as we reassess the impact our clothes have on the environment. Synthetic dyes require more water, and the water used in the process becomes polluted. While natural dyes do require water, it’s less, and there are fewer toxins released into the water system. Cara Piazza, a natural dyer based in New York who has worked with Jason Wu and Mara Hoffman, says this attracted her to the technique in the first place. “I have always wanted to work in the fashion industry but I was very disillusioned with how toxic it was,” she says. “This is a medium [where] we’re working with waste, but it’s also working with plant matter.”

“I have always wanted to work in the fashion industry but I was very disillusioned with how toxic it was.”

Cara Piazza

Smithson has used onion skins and avocado stones to dye pieces. She says she is inspired by how the dyes have been used in history. “There’s a green that we used in a jumper which is a mixture of indigo and woad or something like that,” she says. “I think it’s called Robin Hood green. That is [from] a recipe from around the 12th century…You think of the Maid Marian period, they were all fairly out-there colours. And these were all natural dyes.”

 

If Smithson is looking at dyes in the UK, the history to explore extends across the world, and across different cultures. “This was the way that we coloured cloth across the globe since antiquity,” says Piazza. “You can read medieval recipes, Indigenous American recipes, [recipes] from the Global South. I think it’s really important to acknowledge the cultures that gave you that information.”

 

Jordan Maxwell, the founder of the UK-based natural dye studio Salt Textiles that has worked with Ssōne as well as lifestyle brand Copson and Tom Dixon, is enchanted by this heritage. “I think the first natural dye sample that they found was in China over 5000 years ago,” she says. “So it’s a very, very ancient thing that people would have participated in.” For Maxwell, the sameness of the process across centuries means it has a meditative quality. “I think it goes back to the thing of when you’re foraging outside and really being with the plants,” she says, adding “even though this feels like something new, we’ve only really had synthetic dyes for less than 200 years. I think of how long we’ve been making things and creating textiles—that’s a wink.”

SALT for Coal Office / Photograph by Tom Dixon.

The history of natural dyes, and the techniques, are being explored by the next generation of fashion creators too—a natural dye garden was established at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 2021, with students taking part in planting and making designs from what grows. Regina Gregorio, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Institute, first had the idea as a sign of hope, with students returning to campus after the first wave of the pandemic. “The garden and the act of planting is a sign of faith that people will be around to harvest it,” she says.

 

And harvest it they did. “Working with natural dyes takes time, and the learning curve is steep,” says Gregorio. “But the aspect of discovery and the phenomenal interaction of fibre and dye matter is deeply satisfying for our students. They learn to let go of strict expectations and commit themselves to process and methodology.”

 

The garden opened students’ eyes to issues around the production of synthetic dye, which increased the demand for vivid colours. Gregorio says it is “tied to a history of colonialism. The demand for colourful fabrics by Europeans and settlers to the Americas swiftly overtook natural resources such as indigo and cochineal [which were used by Indigenous people].”

 

While the time-consuming process and expense of natural dye means it would probably never take over from synthetic on a mass scale, it can be scaled up to be part of the future of fashion. Tonello, an Italian dyeing company founded in 1981, launched Wake in 2019, a division for natural dyeing. “It is the right time to invest in these kinds of processes,” says Research and Development Director, Alice Tonello. “The market was missing a dyeing process like this, involving no chemistry of synthesis, and using organic waste materials instead.” Another option mooted is a hybrid of synthetic and natural dye, possibly made using GM techniques.

 

More developed production for natural dyeing is top of Piazza’s wishlist. “We’re not going to push the needle with people with a pot [in their kitchen],” she says. “Having a non-synthetic dye house where we have equipment that can be run on rainwater, these are my dreams. So if there’s any investors listening…”

Courtesy of The CMP Dye House / Photograph by Lisa Kato.
Courtesy of The CMP Dye House / Photograph by Lisa Kato.
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