It’s no secret that clothing can be dyed by hand; at one point or another, we’ve all put on the rubber gloves and made a super sick tie-dye t-shirt in a neon rainbow swirl from a synthetic RIT dye kit. But what no one tells you is that you can get incredibly rich colors from the flowers, leaves, and food grown in your own backyard! And that is exactly how all clothing was pigmented over 5,000 years ago.
Natural dyeing is sometimes a slower and pricier process compared to commercial/synthetic dyeing, which is why it has been largely phased out since the discovery of synthetic dyes following the industrial revolution. But it has such a wide array of contributions to the earth, from upcycling food waste to 100% non-toxic biodegradability. We use natural dyes to color almost all of our Charlie Darwin garments because we also love the rich earth tones it produces!
Here are a few things you might not know about natural dye...
1. Natural dyes have been made from plants, minerals, and… invertebrates!
Until the 1800s, purple dye came from sea snails in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was extremely expensive to produce as it required nearly 12,000 mollusks to produce 3.5 ounces of dye! Because of this, its use was restricted to members of the royal family. (Lichens were used to produce ochril, a purple dye, which was called the “poor person’s purple”).
2. The natural dye process can range from a couple of hours to many months!
For some dyers and dye materials, the process of dyeing one piece of fabric can take hours days, weeks, or months! The fabric has to go through several steps before even reaching the dye-- it is washed of all impurities (scoured), prepared to bind to the dye (soaked with minerals), and then placed in a dye bath.
The total turnaround time for my black tea dyeing is about 2 hours, whereas my onion skin takes about 2 days from start to finish!
This dyer uses lichens from fallen trees and lets the lichens soak for up to three months to get the most vibrant colors!
3. Using urine in a dye recipe is not out of the question... (well... it is for me!)
Urine has been used as a mordant to vary the colors produced from a single dye. Here is an excerpt from a dye recipe, published in 1540 by the Venetian Giovanni Ventura Rosetti:
"Take one pound of Orselle of the Levant, very clean; moisten it with a little urine; add to this sal-ammoniac, sal-gemmae, and saltpetre..."
4. The first American flags were naturally dyed!
The first synthetic dye was not developed until 1856, so early Americans used natural dyes to create the flag's famous red and blue. Undyed and sometimes bleached fabrics were used for the white portions of the flag. The red dye was usually obtained from madder root, which, ironically, was also used to produce the British Army's famous red coats. The primary sources for blue dye were woad and indigo.
5. Natural dyes are a rare specialty in fashion today.
Today only one natural dye, logwood, is used commercially, to a small degree, to dye silk, leather, and nylon black. Once synthetic dyes became more commercially available, natural dyes got a bad reputation for being more expensive and less predictable. However, they are currently making a resurgence in the handmade community because they are non-toxic, biodegradable, and are such an enjoyable infusion of art, science, and earth. Plus, we all love those rich earth tones!