Common misconceptions about plant dyeing.

I was going to wait a while before doing this kind of post but I was struck with sudden inspiration when I stumbled upon a Facebook group that focuses on plant and mushroom dyes. What is plant dyeing? Or, as it sometimes is referred to, natural dyeing?

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Yours truly doing a batch of indigo dye in January 2017.

Wikipedia is generally considered as an unreliable source but it somehow reflects society and the general public, and as such they say the following: “Natural dyes are dyes or colorants derived from plants, invertebrates, or minerals. The majority of natural dyes are vegetable dyes from plant sources—roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood—and other biological sources such as fungi and lichens.”

The alternative to plant dyes is synthetic dyes which are dyestuff that is not naturally occurring. The first synthetic dye was Mauveine in that was synthesised in 1856 and subsequently launched on the market in 1857. Even though picric acid was prepared as a dye as early as  1771, the foundation of the synthetic dye industry is generally attributed to the Mauveine synthesis and commercialisation (Christie, 2001). Before that point, all dyes were derived from natural sources.

But today plant dyeing seems to have a unique meaning only known to the user themselves. The general consensus is that fibres are being dyed but the means of doing it varies. For some, it means using plants for dyeing; for others, it means only using natural sources they can harvest out in the nature by themselves to dye with; and for a few it means to dye only using things with trivial names (incorrectly but commonly referred to as a “chemical free” process). I will try to avoid going into semantics about what is and is not a chemical by posting a link to this blog post about “What is – And What Isn’t A Chemical?“. As much as I’d like to tell you everything, I don’t have the time (and besides, who says you’re going to believe me?). But if you DO believe me, let me sum things up by saying that every material is a chemical, even if it exists in your home and has a trivial name.

To use a plant dye example; the chemical Ca(OH)2 is commonly referred to as slaked lime, which is constantly presented as an alternative to the chemical ammonia, NH3, in indigo vats. Unfortunately, they are both chemicals so if your aim is to do a dye without chemicals you have failed to understand the fundamentals of dyeing (and chemicals). Although, there are other reasons to use Ca(OH)2 instead of NH3 and vice versa but replacing one with another in the hope of becoming chemical free is futile work. Even that handmade natural oak-spirit-soap you bought at the last Carpe Diem-fair is made out of chemicals; even though the individual who sold it to you guaranteed it was not. There is no way around it. Minerals are also naturally occurring (Richardson, 1997), which makes copper sulfate, Cu(SO)4, legit as a plant dyeing material if we go by the the definition of plant dyeing (plants, minerals, invertebrates; derived from nature; naturally occurring etc.). And as such, we have the conspiracy unfolded right here, similar to when Frank Thorn realises the plot twist of the movie Soylent Green;

Nature is chemicals! They’re making chemicals out of nature. Next thing they’ll be synthesising organic molecules themselves. You’ve gotta tell them. Chemicals are naturally occurring!

soylent-green
In this scenario I’d say that I am Frank Thorn trying to tell the truth to a people in denial.

But really though, I don’t think this comes as surprise for anyone (neither did the soylent green revelation!). I mean, where else would chemicals come from, the highly unnatural space? And, now that we think about it, are we sure that space isn’t natural as well? Anyhow, I do feel the need to mention that there exists a general idea of what is and what is not chemicals even in the field of chemistry; because we are also, believe it or not, a part of society and its norms. It is considered childish and unnecessary to refer to everything as chemicals all the time because it’s a basic fact which tells us nothing new. But on the other hand, in communication you have to specify what you’re talking about and herein lies the difference; you can’t just say chemicals if you want other people to understand you! You should explain what chemical you’re referring to, which isn’t that much of a stretch really since you probably have one in mind already.

I don’t believe you! If everything is chemicals then how do I know what is toxic and what is not?

In case you didn’t know, table salt can be toxic to humans. Apple seeds contains cyanide and cyanide is also toxic to humans (Holzbecher et al., 1984). All in all, there is stuff like this everywhere and about everything can be toxic, it’s only a matter of concentration and dosage. The thing is, you don’t digest or wash your eyes with washing powder, hairspray, rubber, deodorant, hair dye, thinner, oil, nail polish or shampoo because you know that it might not be good for you. You seldom use these things outside of its intended purpose because you also know that it might become weird. And don’t get me started on people who smoke and drink but are afraid of chemicals eventually being hazardous… Nevertheless you don’t hesitate to use it in your everyday life. But for some, reason, this kind of thinking completely disappears as soon as the word chemical is involved. Which is weird, because it’s basically the same things going on there. There ARE information and literature on how to plant dye and what to use and how. Follow those instructions and you’d be fine. Another source of information is to check out the (Material) Safety Data Sheet (M(SDS)) for a certain chemical. Here is a MSDS for table salt.

A short, but very unsatisfying, summary would be to implore you to use your common sense and you’ll be fine. If you still want more I’d recommend to study toxicology.

But there is too much information, I can never remember any of this!

You don’t have to, most people use books to write down the most important things and there is always the internet to enlighten us.

Why did you have to make everything difficult, my way of thinking and evaluation is much easier!

I didn’t make anything (except this pesky blog), nature did.

But I am sure that people used only onion skins before the first synthetic dye, none of these mordants and acids! Those are all 20th century ideas!

I am not so sure. Unfortunately, as we often do in historical reenactment, we lack a lot of sources. Though one source that we do have is from a handwritten manuscript from around 1860; that is only a few years after the first synthetic dye was created and the processes described in manuscript involves no synthetic dyes. In fact, all these recipes described would soon be abandoned for the much more efficient and less costly synthetic dyes (Sisefsky and Sandberg, 1979). The manuscript has one example for dyeing blue wool yarn and it involves potassium cyanide (KCN), hydrochloric acid (HCl), disulfuric acid (H2S2O7), potassium aluminium sulfate (alum, KAl(SO4)2) and potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar, KC4H5O6). How’s that for a cocktail? Kind of put our modern concern about using a 20wt% alum mordant at a shame. Of course this doesn’t mean that this is what was used in the earlier centuries but we can at least say that these chemicals are not exclusive to the 20th century and their use in plant dyeing processes precedes the 19th century development of the synthetic dye industry .

I dye only using onion skin! I am chemical free.

Pelargonidin is what is in the dyestuff of onion skin (Uddin, 2014). If you’re not using a mordant, it would be sufficient to just say that you’re dyeing without using a mordant.

Surely I use less hazardous material than in the industry? My environmental impact has to be less than if I’d buy the industrially dyed material?

The current industry has had several iterations, process optimisations and experience which generally makes the industry a lot more efficient than a single individual with little to no technical equipment and experience. Most developed countries also have a lot of regulations that is to be followed regarding the process and its emissions, no one will measure your own amount of trace metals in your plant dyes (Griffiths, 1984). As I previously mentioned, synthetic dyes are far more efficient than plant dyeing which means you’d generally consume less resources using synthetic dyes compared to plant dyes (Sisefsky and Sandberg, 1979). The difference here is to how to view the emissions; if you compare emissions and resource consumption per kilogram of dyed material, the industrial dye would probably be using less resources. A common theme is that there is a lot of transport involved in production, which is not good thing for the environment but also makes calculations more difficult. Even so, there are ways that these are accounted for (an example would be the Life Cycle Assessment) but you will always have to limit the analyse. I’ll try to explain this with an example; if you’d dye yarn that was made at the farm next door you’d be responsible for less emissions than if you’d buy imported yarn. But then again, if the sheep that made the wool at the farm next door lacks food in the pasture and needs to support feed and then that food needs to be transported there, should that transport be included in the emissions for the yarn? And where was that food grown and using what fertiliser? As you probably understand, this thinking can derail pretty quickly but I hope you see the problem with deciding a number for any of these emissions and impacts which is also why you should be critical to anyone producing such numbers, what is included and what is not? Often the numbers are in favour of whoever is presenting them so my advice is to be critical.

A summary of this would be to say that it’s impossible to know but an individuals plant dyeing process is probably more inefficient than the industry and has an unknown quantity of residuary chemicals in it (unless you analyse every batch, which would be cool but very expensive but at least you’d know what you’ve got). The industry can, of course, also have an unwanted quantity of residuary chemical but this is why we invest in quality and try to only buy fabrics and clothes from countries with regulations and decent working conditions, right?

My dyes DO become resistant to both light and water if I do it using only the dyestuff like blueberries/lupins/beetrot and no mordants!

No, they don’t. What happens is that you get a dyed material that WILL be drained of colour when exposed to water or sunlight (Burkinshaw and Kumar, 2009; Dumitrescu et al., 2008; Waheed and Alam, 2004). If you keep the dyed material away from water and sunlight things then you’d be fine but you’d also be living in a very dry and dark place. If you aim to be eco friendly, natural, climate considerate, environmental friendly or whatever buzzwords you use in justification then consider both the time, energy and work that you put into this. If you’re using any kind of heating in the dyeing process you are literally wasting energy and time; not to mention if you use wood as a fuel for heating the bath which has a LOT of exhaust gases that are harmful and currently not very popular (Bari et al., 2010;van Lith et al., 2006; Tissari et al.,2007).

I only use plant dyes in a cold bath and using sunlight so I am the most environmental friendly dyer there is and I am always pleased with my dyes and colour hues!

Good for you, get back to me when you can dye 2 kilograms of heavy wool evenly with a deep colour intensity while also getting water and light fastness in a cold water bath at pH7 using only dyestuff. Snark aside, if you HAVE achieved something like what I just said in a reproducible and controlled manner, please do share it with the world (that shit would be Nobel prize worthy)! That would be an amazing feat and of great benefit to the whole planet.

The question to ask in these cases is, if all kind of processing and chemicals are to be avoided at all costs then why dye it in the first place? The most natural way to avoid any kind of dye process is to NOT dye. Personally, I think that the natural colour and hues of wool is superior to many other hues, this is why a large part of my reenactment kit is non dyed wool. If you completely want to avoid any kind of chemistry happening then plant dyeing, or any kind of dyeing, is not for you. And before you even think it, there is nothing like good or bad chemistry; nature doesn’t work that way. Endless energy consumption is something to be avoided as well as pollution. Water is a resource and electricity doesn’t spawn spontaneously at the energy company, globally it is often a result of combustion (often coal) and somewhere there is a exhaust coming from that energy production. Is it worth the time and energy if the result will fade within a month?

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Sol Roth waiting for a water refill so that he can re-dye his 25 grams of lupin dyed yarn; it’s totally his favourite shade of green.

On the other hand, there are several other things you can do if you want a more sustainable lifestyle. Some examples would be to eat less meat, promote local farms and production, don’t throw away food, travel less (unless by foot, bike or sailing), recycle, repair, invest in quality and so on. And my primary advice is to consume less. Simply put, buy less shit. Remember, it’s not a bargain if you don’t need it.

In the end, however, everyone does as they please but be aware of what you’re doing and the reasons for doing it. It is totally ok to plant dye for your own sake, and peace of mind; I encourage that since that is what a hobby is about! But don’t do it for the wrong reason or try to claim the moral high grounds by saying that it’s more natural (what even is natural? Infant deaths, scurvy, polio, venomous snakes, anaphylactic chocks, cyanide, dental cavities, space?) or without chemicals (IT’S NEVER WITHOUT CHEMICALS!). Instead, to specify what you’re avoiding and for what reason would be a better way of communication if you want to show some sort of situational awareness and at the same time be understood by other people.

That’s all for now folks, peace out!

References

Bari, M. A., Baumbach, G., Kuch, B. & Scheffknecht, G. (2010), ‘Temporal variation and impact of wood smoke pollution on a residential area in southern germany’, Atmospheric Environment 44 (31), 3823 – 3832.
URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1352231010005017

Burkinshaw, S. & Kumar, N. (2009), ‘The mordant dyeing of wool using tannic acid and FeSO4, part 1: Initial findings’, Dyes and Pigments 80 (1), 53 – 60.
URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0143720808000752

Christie, R.M., Royal Society of Chemistry (Great Britain) & Books24x7, I. 2001, Colour chemistry, Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge.

Dumitrescu, C., Gorghiu, L., Olteanu, R. & Bumbac, M. (2008), ‘Natural dyes used in tinctorial practice’, Bulletin of University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine Cluj-Napoca. Agriculture 63 (0).
URL: http://journals.usamvcluj.ro/index.php/agriculture/article/view/1355

Griffiths, J. 1984, Developments in the chemistry and technology of organic dyes, Blackwell Scientific, Oxford.

Holzbecher, M. D., Moss, M. A. & Ellenberger, H. A. (1984), ‘The cyanide content of laetrile preparations, apricot, peach and apple seeds’, Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology 22 (4), 341–347. PMID: 6098693.
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/15563658408992565

van Lith, S. C., Alonso-Ramírez, V., Jensen, P. A., Frandsen, F. J. & Glarborg, P. (2006), ‘Release to the gas phase of inorganic elements during wood combustion. part 1: development and evaluation of quantification methods’, Energy & Fuels 20 (3), 964–978.
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/ef050131r

Sisefsky, Jan & Sandberg, Gösta (1979). Receptsamling från Schwartzska färgeriet i Borås efter handskrivet original från 1860-talet på Borås museum. Borås: Borås museum

Richardson, H. W. (1997), Handbook of copper compounds and applications, CRC Press Tissari, J., Hytönen, K., Lyyränen, J. & Jokiniemi, J. (2007), ‘A novel field measurement method for determining fine particle and gas emissions from residential wood combustion’, Atmospheric Environment 41 (37), 8330 – 8344.
URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1352231007005754

Uddin, M.G. 2014, “Effects of Different Mordants on Silk Fabric Dyed with Onion Outer Skin Extracts”, Journal of Textiles, vol. 2014, pp. 1-8.

Waheed, S., & Alam, A. (2004), Studies of some natural dyes, JOURNAL-CHEMICAL SOCIETY OF PAKISTAN, 26, 255-263.