The Interesting Case of Natural Dyes

Natural dyes are colored pigments or colorants derived from a variety of organic sources such as plants, minerals, or insects/other invertebrates (shellfish).  Whereas synthetic dyes are not from a natural source (hence synthetic) but rather are manmade compounds which were first synthesized out of the phenylamine, Aniline, and are now made out of a variety of organic azo compounds.  The organic compounds that makes up different colorants for some natural dyes can also be duplicated synthetically to create the same color but with less production costs when produced on the large scale.  The advantage of natural dye is that fibers can be dyed a variety of colors using common and locally available plants so it is readily available to the common person and can be used to easily dye home produced fibers.  Although more research is necessary, natural dyes also tend to be less toxic than synthetic dyes.  Aniline, the organic compound basis for the first synthetic dye created and many latter dyes, is a fairly toxic compound and its other uses are in rocket fuel.  Less toxic dyes are important for both the consumer who will be directly exposed to the dye while wearing the fabric and also the environment which will receive dye residues through water run-off after washing laundry.  A drawback of natural dyes is that they are often not as economically viable for large scale operations, as compared to synthetic dyes that can be easily made in large quantities.  In order to produce natural dyes, cultivation of the natural dye source is often needed and in order to extract the colorants in high enough concentrations, a lot of the source has to be used.  Also natural dyes usually have low affinities towards the fabric so in order to make the dye stick and not wash out; it often has to be mixed with a mordant which is chemical that “fixes” the dye.

Due to the creation of synthetic dyes, natural dye production dropped dramatically since synthetics are a lot more economically viable.  But natural dye is slowly starting to regain popularity as a section of the population becomes more aware of what they put in or near their bodies and the potential hazards posed by synthesized chemicals (these are often the same type of people you commonly encounter around Ithaca).  Natural dyes are also still used in many food colorings and by drug companies to color pills since they tend to be less toxic (or at least the common held belief is that they are less toxic).  Natural dyes also appeal to craftsman and farmers that produce and sell their own fibers such as wool because natural dyes are held to be of higher quality than synthetic and their use in homemade products tends to appeal to the consumer.  We read an article for class titles, PAST GLORY AND PRESENT STATUS OF COCHINEAL by Daniel W. Gade which was an interesting article about the historical use of an insect, cochineal, to produce red dye.  The author concluded that although natural dyes will never be as popular as they once were the industry is still profitable and due to become even more profitable with the recent rise of interest in naturally produced dyes.  According to him the production of dye can be an economically viable solution for poor farmers in the Andean mountains.  I agree that a new agricultural good that is of such high value can be an important crop that can assist poor farmers’ livelihoods.  What I do not agree with is the author’s choice of wording which states that if demand rises for the dye, it can be produced in great quantities in Peru where “many highland valleys still have supplies of cheap peasant labor needed for the long hours of collection, drying, sifting, and bagging the delicate cash ‘product.”  The production of the dye should not be viewed as a successful colonial style industry as the author suggests but as an economic alternative for independent farmers and people of Peru.

Natural dyes are appealing in that they are “all natural” (a very successful money-making label for commercial goods) but more research has to be done in order to determine if they are actually an environmentally viable alternative to synthetic dyes.  The sources of natural dyes are often wild foraged plants, invertebrates such as shellfish and insects and minerals.  Foraging of wild plants is known as wildcrafting which is a notorious practice since it is often unsustainable.  So before natural dyes are pursued, it is important that the plant source is able to be sustainably cultivated instead of only foraged from the wild.  This goes for invertebrates, as well, they should be able to be farmed.  Farming material for dyes is not only more environmentally sustainable compared to collecting but it is also more economically sustainable because it allows for the greater production of dye materials.  Also the extraction of minerals for dyes is probably not a very sustainable practice since it is similar to the extraction of minerals such as copper, which is highly disruptive to the environment and is currently being fought against by environmentalists in Intag, Ecuador.

1 Thought.

  1. Hey Emily, great post! I liked how you laid out what you agreed with and disagreed with in our readings. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on expanding the natural dye industry–you said you didn’t like how the author made it seem as though a higher demand would lead to a sort of neo-colonialism in terms of workers in Peru. Can a market ever expand due to rising demand without beginning to have to exploit workers for efficiency? In my blog I said that I thought it couldn’t, but what do you think?

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