The Colourful World Of Natural Dyes

“Colour!” 20th century impressionist Paul Gaugin once exclaimed, “what a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.” For years, fashion has been giving form to that dream - with all manner of unusual dyes enhancing the clothing we wear. But only recently has the process behind those colours come into focus.

Textiles are usually dyed using synthetic chemicals. The process is effective and cheap, but can be dangerous for both workers and wildlife, particularly when carcinogenic Azo chemicals (banned in the EU) are used. Regulations vary massively by country, giving rise to textile dyeing scandals in Bangladesh and China, where rivers - even the sea itself - have run black with pollution. This, obviously, ruins drinking water and puts people who live close to factories at risk. According to one source, finishing and dyeing account for a staggering 20% of global water pollution. While much is being done to reduce (or prevent) the environmental and social impacts of synthetic garment dying, the solution could lie in the ground beneath our feet.

What are natural dyes?

Natural dyes consist of pigments that are made from minerals, organic fats, plants, seeds, and even insects. The vast majority of natural dyes are plant or mineral based, although mushroom dyes are also proving popular. These dyes are not always as vivid as synthetic dyes, but they’re a whole lot better for the planet. 

Many have noted that natural dyes represent a return to tradition. Before synthetic dyes burst onto the scene in the 1800s, every item of clothing was dyed naturally.

Are natural dyes eco-friendly? 

Natural dyes are broadly considered to be more eco-friendly than synthetic dyes. The reasons are obvious: earthbound elements combine with sustainable production techniques (as we’ll explore a little later). If these dyes do end up in waterways, at least we know they’re not going to corrupt the entire ecosystem - in theory. However, though the dyes themselves may have an entirely organic composition, they can be bound to clothing fibres through artificial chemicals, called mordants. These are metal oxides that combine with dyes to help them adhere to fabrics. 

Another sustainability issue with natural dyes is that they can involve higher water use than conventional dyes. Even so, should innovation allow it, natural dyes could take the fashion world in a slower, safer, and more sustainable direction.

Limitations of Natural Dyes

One of the drawbacks of natural dyes is that they offer limited choice. Many shades are simply impossible to replicate using organic elements and some can fade over time. Natural dyes are also not easily scalable, being both more expensive and more technically difficult to create than synthetic dyes. But as noted by writer, Audrey Stanton, there are lessons to be learnt here. If we’re to make clothing as sustainable as possible, we’ll need to change what we expect it to look like! Natural dyes offer an escape from the kaleidoscopic and oversaturated palette of consumer culture and the toxic side-effects of fast fashion. Natural dyes help form a connection with the planet rather than overtly harming it. 

Which leads to our own - modest! - use of natural dyes.

Supplier focus: Eyand

Presently, all of our natural dyes come from a supplier called Eyand (standing for: Ecological Yarns and Dyes). This impressive and innovative company creates pigments from a range of colourful minerals, natural fats, and plants. Eyand say that their dyes are “100% natural and 100% chemical free”. As a bonus, they also claim that their multi-tank system and incorporation of solar panels reduces energy and water consumption by 50%. They add that they can reuse the water “up to 100 times.” This is good news, as it shows that, contrary to expectations, natural dyes don’t have to involve excessive amounts of water. 

Importantly, they also stress that their natural dyes do not fade over time. 

Selecting two of our favourite muted tones, we were able to introduce natural dye to the following products.

Anchor - Pale Aqua

This gorgeous shade of green is soothing to wear and easy on the eye. We use it alongside LENZING™ ECOVERO™ Viscose & Linen for a subtle slub effect and organic cotton for a warmer feel. It’s the perfect choice for ocean lovers who care about reducing water pollution and taking a dip into a serene natural dye. Eyland’s green dyes are made from a rare mineral called eskolaite. 

Hoved - Henna

Benefiting from a literal connection to the earth, the natural version of this colour likely comes from hematite, which is a type of crystal commonly found in soils. While arguably more vibrant than Pale Aqua, it goes beautifully with other pale colours to create a wardrobe of simplistic synergy.

Both these styles come in both these colours, so you can choose your favourite! They were part of a broader capsule of naturally dyed garments.