Natural Dyes vs. Fugitive Dyes

Natural dye | Muezart Yarn

Global demand for natural dyed fabrics is on the rise, as the awareness of the harmful effects of chemical dyes on the environment is becoming increasingly evident. 

As a direct consequence, the global demand for natural fabric dyes is increasing.  

As per a report: 

The global natural dyes market is anticipated to generate revenues of approximately $5 billion by 2024, growing at a CAGR of around 11% during 2018-2024’.  

Muezart believes in the gift of nature, and hence we vouch for natural dyeing. We are a boutique enterprise on a mission – to create a market for handwoven Eri Silk fibers and yarns of Northeast India, in such a way that it improves the livelihood of villagers who know the age-old art of Eri silkworm rearing.

Muezart is committed to caring for the environment and working with nature. Most of the silk fibers and yarns we sell in India and worldwide are in their natural colors.  

We sell colored yarn too but are careful to use only 1005 natural  dyeing material, natural fabric dyes, which are mostly plant-based.   

One of our new team members came up with some interesting questions on natural dyeing. As a business that is committed to using only natural dyeing techniques for the Eri silk fibers and yarns we sell, we felt we should try and answers these questions – for ourselves and for our customers. Here are some questions and our answers to them! 

What are Natural Fabric Dyes?

Natural fabric dyes are derived from natural sources such as plants and animals. They have been used for generations, and prior to the invention of synthetic dyes, natural dyes were very popular; so much so that they were even traded extensively.

Some of the sources of natural dyes include leaves from certain type of plants, berries, vegetables such as beetroot, red cabbage, onion peels, spinach, etc.

Here in Muezart, we keep it natural, always.

Keeping sustainability in mind, Muezart’s wide assortment of natural dye ingredients ranges from excellent plant dyes such as the Oroxylum indicum plant to the natural mordant plant Myrobalan (Terminalia chebula). Berries such as mulberries and elderberries and even minerals such as iron ore. Our favourite though, has got to be lac.

What are Fugitive Dyes? 

Fugitive dyes aren’t exactly dyes but rather the term fugitive dyes is used as a reference for colors that fade away as a result of external factors. Factors such as exposure to sunlight, temperature, humidity, etc. can affect the colors. In fact, the color can lighten or even deepen, and at times, totally fade away. So, you can think of fugitive colors as temporary. 

Fugitive dyes bleed over time but offers a different washed look to the dyed fibres, yarns, or apparels.

Here are some experiments we tried:

  • At Muezart we dyed a batch of Eri silk yarn with red cabbage and got a nice pink shade but the color stayed just for a day or two! So, red cabbage yields a fugitive color.  
  • Dyeing with Beets is supposed to give fugitive color. Again, at Muezart we dyed a batch of Eri silk yarn with beets and got a nice brown color which did not change! So, we are not sure if Beets can be classified as producing fugitive color.

    (Although beetroot is a stain the color did stay and we’re using the yarn for our tapestry loom weaving.) 

    Beet Root dyeing | Muezart Silk Yarn            Beetroot color changes from Deep Pink to Brown
  • Onion skin can be used as a natural dye. It is not a fugitive when the right mordant is used said Kong Tmung, an Eri silkworm rearer that Muezart works with. She uses onion skin for Muezart’s green colored yarns.  
  • Elderberries, sapphire berries, and mulberries worked well as a natural dye.   
  • Using ground coffee (that is left after making coffee decoction) for dyeing is a waste of time! We tried and it did not work. You can dye paper with it though.

How to dye silk fabric with natural dyes?

When it comes to dyeing silk or any other fibre with natural fabric dyes, the use of a mordant is instrumental to making the dyestuff color fast. In our case, certain plant leaves such as that of the Myrobalan plant acts as a natural mordant. In other cases where natural mordant ingredients are not found, alum is used as it is known to possess minimal pH levels.

Being a protein based fibre, silk has the ability to retain natural dyes better than plant based fibres. But then again, other factors such as usage of mordant and maintaining a suitable temperature while boiling the dye in water is also important to keep in mind.

Does natural dyeing guarantee that the colors will be fast? 

No. Only synthetic dyes can guarantee fast colors. But chemical dyes pollute the environment and are toxic.   

An interesting tidbit for you: 

Chemical dyes were discovered by a young English scientist called William Henry Perkin in the year 1856. Prior to that, the only means of coloring fibers and fabric were by using natural fabric dyes. The majority of the natural dyes were from the plant kingdom – roots, leaves, barks, flowers, and leaves. Some minerals like Ochre and Malachite too were in use for dyeing.  

Natural fabric dyes are sustainable (as plants can be regenerated). But there is no guarantee on the fastness of the color, nor surety of the exact shade you will get!  

In fact, most plant-based dyes tend to fade over time. A study seems to confirm this: 

 “most natural dyes fade rapidly initially followed by a slower rate of fading. Only the most lightfast natural dyes fade at a constant rate over time” 

You may then wonder, are there no natural fabric dyes that yield fast colors? There are! Some natural dye ingredients produce brilliant and permanent colors, like Indigo, woad (for blue color), saffron, and madder (the root of this plant gives hues of red color). Before synthetic dyes came, these were highly prized and were commercially traded. 

We found a post on natural dyes that give color-fastness.   

Many kitchen ingredients and nature given plants and roots are used for natural dyeing – which of these colors are ‘predictable’ In the sense, how easy is it to replicate the same color?  

This is a bit of a challenge. The same natural dye ingredients can produce different colors in different fibers depending on a few factors - the Ph value of the water used in the process, the fiber that is being dyed, and the quantity of dye used, etc.

Using naturally occurring mordants (material that helps the dye to penetrate the fiber and color more evenly) helps to make the color a bit stronger and more lasting, but there is no guarantee that naturally dyed color will not fade.  

Perhaps by using the same quantity of natural fabric, dye, mordant, etc, and making sure that the same water is used we can expect somewhat the same color in each batch.  But the beauty of natural dyeing is in the unique shade each dyeing exercise yields.  

    Do some fibers lend themselves better to natural dyeing than others? 

    Fibers from animals like wool and silk, which are proteins, are good for natural dyeing.  

    I am sure this blog has helped you gain some perspective on natural fabric dyes and fugitive dyes. 

    Have you experimented with natural dyeing? Do you know some other natural dye pigments that are color-fast?  

    1 comment

    • Shouri TAMRAPARNI

      hey team, great article <3 what about dyes from avacado?

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