What are natural dyes?

As the name indicates, natural dyes are those obtained from naturally available sources. Though plants are among the most common sources of natural dyes, insects, fungi and minerals contribute too. As for plant sources, the options are plenty from leaves, seeds, and bark to flowers fruits, vegetables, and roots. And if you think the number of colours could be limited since they are of natural origin, here’s a little surprise for you- the variety is almost endless. Different shades of red, green, blue, purple, and brown can all be obtained naturally!

A few common sources

Cochineal and lac insects are a source for shades of red. While the former is used largely in textile, the latter is used in ornaments and for wood finish. Shellfish plays an important role as a natural source for shades of purple. The use of all three goes back at least a few centuries.

One of the oldest and most widely used, indigo comes from a variety of flowering plants of the genus indigofera, and it’s believed to have been in use since prehistoric times. Pomegranate rind, turmeric, onion skin, tamarind seed, myrobalan fruit, marigold, bluebellvine flower, annatto seed, teak leaf, and madder root are some of the sources of natural dyes. These dyes have a wide variety of application.

Where are natural dyes used?

Many Indian textile traditions originally used only natural colours-while some may embrace synthetic colours now, some continue the tradition. Such traditions include ajrakh and kalamkari. In addition, several everyday products, including soaps, bags, and baskets, lend themselves to natural dyes.

Since synthetic colours have been proven to cause skin and health concerns, natural dyes offer a much safer alternative for use in food, cosmetics, and medicine.

Just like textile traditions, several of our toy and art traditions have used natural dyes. These include Etikoppaka and Channapatna (toys), and Patachitra, Gond, Patua, and Warli (painting traditions). Many floor and wall art traditions across our country, practised and popularised exclusively by women, have traditionally used natural sources of colours such as rice flour, clay, red soil, cow dung, etc. These traditions include kolam, mandana, and aripana.

Why natural dyes?

Kinder to Earth: Since they are natural, the dyes are biodegradable, and disposing them of may not cause pollution. In the case of a plant source other parts of that plant may have their uses too, leading to waste reduction. Many of the sources are said to use less water when compared to synthetic dyes.

Gentle on humans: Many synthetic colours are said to contain chemicals that can harm our skin (through textiles, cosmetics, or toys) or internal organs (when consumed as food), both during the production stage and when used. Such chemicals are almost absent in natural dyes.

Tradition meets innovation: The traditional process of preparing, testing, and using natural dyes is labour-intensive, and the people involved are artisans in their own right. Add to this contemporary experiments, and what we have is a unique result that beautifully straddles the old and the new.

Did you know

  • Synthetic dyes have their origins invariably in non-renewable petrochemical compounds, and are available in many forms such as liquid powder, pastes, or granule. So, they cost less and are more widely used than natural dyes. But they are not environment-friendly in the long run. Their effluents may cause harm to marine creatures
  • Synthetic or artificial dyes were invented less than 200 years ago, becoming particularly popular around the time of the Industrial Revolution. And for thousands of years before that, our ancestors had used colours obtained only from natural and local sources.
  • Our country has evidence of madder-dyed textiles found at Mohenjo-daro nearly 5,000 years ago, a clear indication of our ancient knowledge of dyeing fabric.

Picture Credit : Google 

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