When you look out at the people in the streets, at the mall, on the runway, and on social media, you see an array of different colored clothing. Well, how do these clothes get their colors? From the beginning process of designing an article of clothing, all the way back to the making of fabric, it goes through a dying process. Keep reading for a dye and pun-filled post about the history, uses, and techniques of natural and synthetic dye.
Dyefined (pun intended)
Dye, according to Oxford, is a natural or synthetic substance used to add color to or change the color of something.
History of natural dye
Dyeing can be dated back thousands of years ago. Chinese, Egyptians, Persians, Italians, and more all have their proof of textile dyeing. Where did it all start though? Early recordings of the use of natural dye can be dated all the way back to 2600 BC in China. It is also noted that the earliest evidence of dyed textiles can be dated back to the Neolithic era in Çatalhöyük, which is modern-day turkey.
Back then, they only used natural materials like flowers, fruits, vegetables, animals, insects, and even cow urine. In order to extract the needed color from the natural materials, you would usually need to use a process of boiling, mixing, and dipping to get the desired outcome. While Natural dye was the norm for dyeing textiles, that all changed about 165 years ago.
History of synthetic dye
In 1856, Sir William Henry Perkin accidentally discovered a new type of dye, which is what we know today as a synthetic dye. While on vacation from school, 18-year-old Perkin was working to try and synthesize quinine in order to find a synthetic cure for malaria. Quinine comes from the bark of the cinchona tree and is used as a medicinal property to treat diseases. Instead of getting his desired result, he ended up with basically dirty brown-colored water. He tried again and ended up with the same result, but this time he extracted the water with alcohol and ended up with a bluish-purple dye. He named the dye Tyrian Purple, but the French later renamed it mauvine (mauve). Sir William Henry Perkin went on to patent his discovery, and eventually buy a factory and make more synthetic dyes.
To dye for (literally)
As you look around you in the world and at the runways, you will notice an array of colors. While these colors are visually and aesthetically pleasing, they come at a very high cost. The effects that synthetic dyes have on the environment are alarming. In the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future, it is stated that “20% of industrial water pollution globally is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles.” A majority of textiles are dyed with synthetic dyes. The textile industry is the largest consumer of dyestuff (Weber & Adams, 1995). During the dying process, some of the dye does not bind to the textiles, which means over 10% of the dyes are released back into the environment. Orsola de Castro, a fashion designer, and activist has a saying, “there is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ color of the season by looking at the color of the rivers.”
Not only does synthetic dye affect the environment, but also those who work with it. Azo dyes are one of the most common groups of dyes. They are a class of synthetic nitrogen-based dyes that produce bright reds, oranges, and yellows. These dyes have been known to contain harmful toxins and carcinogens. In a study by Zorawar Singh, he states “The textile industries use different kinds of dyes including the most commonly used azo dyes which are aromatic hydrocarbon derivatives of benzene, toluene, naphthalene, phenol, and aniline. The solvents used by the workers in different sections result in a major carcinogenic effect by direct contact with the subjects.”
As you can see, synthetic dyes have a lot of cons, but what about the pros. For starters, synthetic dyes produce a wide array of beautiful and long-lasting colors. Also, major fashion brands like Adidas, Patagonia, and Levi’s use sustainable practices like reducing water usage, and using organic materials, to be more environmentally sustainable and to reduce their carbon footprint.
1000 Ways to Dye (or maybe just 5)
Listed below are some of the most popular ways that clothes can be dyed. These techniques come from all over the world.
- Shibori Dyeing
- Shibori is a type of dyeing technique that originates from Japan. It usually involves some sort of twisting, tying, or folding to create beautiful and intricate designs.
- Tie Dye is one of the most common methods of dyeing. Like Shibori, tie dye originates from China and Japan dating all the way to 618 C.E. In the 6th century India, another type of tie-dye was used called bandhani. To achieve a tie-dye method, simply tie your fabric with string, yarn, or rubber bands and dye it completely whole, or the sections that you want. There are hundreds of ways to tie and many designs with this dyeing technique.
- Batik Dyeing
- Batik dyeing is a type of resistance process. Usually, wax is used to draw designs. And when dyeing, the parts of the fabric without wax are not dyed. This dye process, again, originates from Asian countries dating back to 581 A.D. However, Java, Indonesia is most accomplished with this technique.
- Dip Dyeing
- This process is very similar to tie-dye. The techniques call for you to dip your fabric into the dye, and that is basically it. When finished, it gives you an Ombre effect.
- Piece Dyeing
- Piece Dyeing is the most common form of dyeing. This process is when ultimately dye your entire textile a certain color without any manipulation.
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