The Shades of Nature in Your Closet

Here's everything you've always wanted to know about natural fabric dyeing.

naturally dyed cotton thread

Cherdchanok Treevanchai / Getty Images

One of the many activities my mother would devise for her caboodle of three daughters, scampering around bored during the summer holidays, was a tie-and-dye class. We would steal one of our father’s big white handkerchiefs (often with one or two boring gray stripes on the edges) from his linen drawer. 

Bunching it together, we’d tie a thick thread across a portion of its girth. Taking turmeric (Curcuma longa) from the spice tin, we’d dunk the hanky in turmeric-infused warm water for an hour or so. Fishing it out, we would untie the thread to get a bright yellow and white hanky, perfumed with turmeric, staining our chubby fingers with a mellow ochre hue.

Turmeric continues to be a popular beginner’s dye, a natural alternative in an industry dominated by synthetic dyes. The fashion industry is one of the biggest global polluters, with tremendous environmental impact, and synthetic dyes play a major role in this. In fact, around 25% of chemicals which are produced globally are used in the fashion industry, primarily for dyeing clothes. Though few studies have been done on absorption of chemicals from dyed clothes into your skin, they do pose potential health risks.

The Case for Natural Dyes

In light of this, we chat to Dr. Bosco Henriques, the founder and director of BioDye India, which creates natural dyes used by designers including Rachel MacHenry’s Botanica Tinctoria project for trimmings and threads, as well as award-winning Ruchika Sachdeva, who founded Bodice.

“Natural dyes come from minerals, invertebrates (some insect secretions and mollusks), although the majority come from plants,” Dr. Henriques says. Owing to their origins, natural dyes are relatively scarce and need to be stocked in advance, as opposed to inexpensive synthetic dyes which are readily available.

Natural dyes work best on fibers derived from plants and animals, such as silk, cotton, linen, and wool, though nylon and polyester can be used, too. BioDye works primarily with plants. It uses indigo (blue color); leaves (yellow and earthy hues); "cutch" that’s a byproduct from the manufacture of catechu, an extract from the acacia tree (brown); and Indian madder vines (red). It also uses Laccifer lacca, an extract from a scale insect, and iron vinegar (black and gray).

The natural dyers at BioDye avoid using wood, roots, and barks, as harvesting those would kill the plant. For mordants—a substance that fixes the dye in material and binds the color—they use alum and iron, avoiding chromium, tin, and copper.

The easiest way to make a plant-based dye, Dr. Henriques says, is by “boiling fresh or dry parts of different plants, depending on the color required.” What’s more, the wastewater from natural dye can be used for irrigation, as specially-produced enzymes, made in-house, are used instead of salty caustic lye to scour fabric (a chemical wash to clean fabrics). The solid waste can be composted and used as manure.

Maintaining Your Natural Wardrobe

As a microbiologist and plant molecular biologist, one of the issues Dr. Henriques has worked on is improving the fastness of colors and tackling the challenges in achieving a variety of shades using natural dyes. He is now working on agricultural models which will help scale up natural dyeing, so it can expand from its niche.

Dr. Henriques has a few handy tips on how to maintain your naturally dyed clothes. Wash your apparel with a neutral-pH detergent in soft water to extend its life. “Detergents with a high pH factor tend to turn the naturally dyed fabric brownish,” he says. He recommends Ecover laundry detergent.

Dry the garments in the shade to prevent them from fading. Don’t bleach them, as it can alter the color. Also, you can compost the garment after it completely wears out, provided it is made from natural fibers.

If you want to dabble in natural dyeing yourself, you can pick up some DIY kits. Both Maiwa and Graham Keegan offer some. Otherwise, like me, you can bring out some turmeric, pull out a handkerchief or scarf, Google furiously, and dye your own beautiful keepsake in the colors of nature.

View Article Sources
  1. Hosen, Md. Dulal, et al. "Effect of Turmeric Dye and Biomordants on Knitted Cotton Fabric Coloration: A Promising Alternative to Metallic Mordanting." Cleaner Engineering and Technology, vol. 3, 2021, p. 100124., doi:10.1016/j.clet.2021.100124

  2. Lellis, Bruno, et al. "Effects of Textile Dyes on Health and the Environment and Bioremediation Potential of Living Organisms." Biotechnology Research and Innovation, vol. 3, no. 2, 2019, pp. 275-290., doi:10.1016/j.biori.2019.09.001

  3. Plell, Andrea. "There Are Hidden Chemicals In Our Clothing." Remake, 2018.

  4. Iadaresta, Francesco, et al. "Chemicals From Textiles to Skin: An in Vitro Permeation Study of Benzothiazole." Environmental Science and Pollution Research, vol. 25, no. 25, 2018, pp. 24629-24638., doi:10.1007/s11356-018-2448-6