Podcast: The History of Fabric Dyes


Human beings have been dyeing their fabrics for as long as fabrics have been available. For nearly the entire history of fabric dyes, the dyes were natural. Only in recent history (less than 200 years) has mankind had access to synthetic dyes. In that short time, we have done a fair amount of damage to the planet and its fresh water. In this post (and in the podcast above) the ThriftCon team will dive into the history of fabric dyes, and link some cool articles and videos to check out and how we can blame the discovery of synthetic Mauve dye for purple drank. Let's get into it. 

In the natural world, there are three bases for which you can dye a fabric: plant, animal or mineral. Plant dyes are the cheapest, most abundant natural source of potential compounds to dye a fabric, however they are neither vibrant nor steadfast. Mineral compounds are the most steadfast in terms of color, but they are inorganic and difficult to track down in your day to day life. Animal sources for fabric dyes are the most expensive, but produce much more vibrant and steadfast colors.

Let's break down some of the more popular colors and how they've been achieved historically, and how you can go about dyeing fabrics naturally yourself. 

Natural Dyes


Historically, red was either sourced from Kermes insects, or the roots of the madder plant.

Kermes insects (Kermes vermilio) are from an order of insects called Hemiptera (consisting of groups such as cicadas, aphids, planthoppers, leafhoppers, and shield bugs). Historically, these bugs are found on oak trees in the Mediterranean. Dye from kermes insects creates the color crimson. Another insect used to create red dye were Cochineal insects, which feed off cacti. Cochineal insects create a slightly different red, Scarlett. 

Sourcing red dye from these various insects is difficult and expensive, so the more common method of dyeing fabrics red is from the roots of the madder plant. These roots contain the compound alizarin, which is the chemically derived compound used in a lot of synthetic red dyes today. Check out this video of a sweet old lady teaching you how to dye fabrics red from the root of the madder plant. 


Of all the colors in the ancient world, yellow was the most common color, and could be sought from a number of different sources. Yellow dye often came from the leaves of weld, quercetin, and the bark of the North American oak tree. Carotenoids, which are compounds present in green plants, also produced yellow to red dyes. Additionally, herbs like saffron, tumeric and safflower are often used to create different yellow dyes. Finally, lichens were an important source of natural dye for the natives of North America, as they produced yellow dye by boiling lichens in water. Lichens are a complex life form that are a symbiotic partnership of two separate organisms, a fungus and an alga; the most common example, moss.


Blue derived from indigo, can be found in plants located in India and Southeast Asia. Other sources include mineral sources and fruits. Indigo is a compound that is broken out of plants to yield the dye, and is not limited to one specific plant. "True Indigo" Indigofera tinctoria, is a species of plant from the bean family that was one of the original sources of indigo dye. Extracting indigo (the dye) from indigo (the plant) is a pretty simple process, check it out here.


Naturally occurring purple dye has the most interesting history of them all. Roman emperors would often wear purple derived from the glands of Murex sea snails - purple dye could be worth its weight in gold at its peak of popularity. When Alexander the Great conquered Persia, he saw clothes dyed with purple, and liked it so much that it became the color associated with royalty. The dye became so popular and valuable that Byzantine emperor Theodosius I prohibited its use from the lower classes, the penalty was death.


Green is one of the more difficult colors to obtain from a single source naturally. In fact, there is no single source of a good natural green dye that is colorfast and resists fading. Therefore, when dyeing green naturally the most common practice is to combine indigo and yellow natural dyes (yellow first, indigo second). Most often green was achieved by mixing indigo and a natural yellow such as turmeric or jackfruit. Indigo and turmeric based green dye is known locally in areas of the the Middle East as kunyit.

Black and Grey

There are many different methods of dyeing black naturally with minerals, black beans and more. During our research we uncovered a pretty neat method that yields an impressive natural black dye. Check that article out here.

Artificial Dyes

In regards to human history, artificial dyes have been around for a very brief amount of time, however their impact on fashion, medicine and the environment have been massive.

Synthetic dyes were discovered entirely by mistake. British chemist, William Henry Perkin, was attempting in 1856 to synthesize quinine, which was used to treat malaria. Instead, Perkin stumbled upon the first ever synthetic dye that could then be mass produced: Mauve; a light, bright purple. Perkin realized the commercial potential for his dye and quickly patented the dye and began selling it. In 1859, Frenchman François-Emmanuel Verguin discovered and patented fuchsine (magenta). Fuchsine became far more popular than mauve, it was cheaper to produce, so he undercut the selling price.

As the synthetic dye market began to grow, most of the industry became centered around Germany and Switzerland. Germany had the most talented chemists in the world, and Switzerland had a ton of investors, and no patent laws. 

In 1869, the first dye to be a chemical synthesis of a naturally occurring compound (alizarin), Red was produced. By this time, the chemists knew better what they were looking for and trying to create. What's important about this dye is that although it was chemically synthesized, the compound was identical to the color compound of natural dyes from the madder plant. 

In 1883, Adolf Van Baeyer synthesized indigo. Indigo was next on the list for German chemists, because Britain was controlling the entire natural indigo market. 

All of the early chemical dyes were synthesized from coal tar. Coal tar is the byproduct of creating heat, light or energy from coal. Coal tar is rich in organic compounds, and the goal was to isolate each an every one to discover its potential use. This ranged from dyes, to medicine and rudimentary plastics. By 1900, more than 50 compounds had been isolated from coal tar, most of which were used for the German chemical industry.

Coal tar derived synthetic dyes known as Azo dyes. Azo dyes are still the most common dyes used in the textile industry, however they produce a lot of harmful chemicals, not only in their synthesis, but in the application of the dyes themselves. 

Experimenting with dyes broke serious ground in the medical field. Dye synthesis became the foundation on which a new industry that dealt in the production and use of chemicals was built. Phenothiazine derivatives (from coal tar) were researched to develop drugs for malaria, but the most LIT drug to come out of coal tar compounds was promethazine. You can blame the color purple, discovered by accident, for every good or bad thing that has ever been manufactured by way of chemical synthesis.