Appendix 4: About natural dyes

Information for this Appendix is provided by Kamaldeep Kaur

When we look at two plants of the same species they don’t look the same: no two leaves or flowers look exactly the same. Thus when we work with the same dye plant we should not expect the same precise shade each time we use the natural dye. Natural dyeing gives us the possibility to smile, to wonder and to be surprised by nature.

Historically, before the invention of chemical dyes human beings had no other way of making colour, whether for cloth, paper, or other purposes. The three main sources for natural dyes in nature are plant, mineral, insect and lichen.

Mineral colours are ground in a mortar and pestle to separate the impurities of the colour28. Further, mineral colours can be divided into earth pigments, organic pigments, mineral metals and alchemical pigments i.e. those pigments that are created by a chemical process29.

In antiquity, quite a few animal sources were used for obtaining colours- Tyrian purple, cochineal red, lac, etc. Cochineal and lac are the only two sources that are still in use in sizeable proportion. To extract colour from animals, for example Tyrian purple from shellfish, was a very laborious and foul smelling work. In fact, about 8000 shellfish were required to obtain 1 gram of dye. (Various sources mention considerably different proportions). For 2000 years, Tyrian purple was considered one of three most prized dye sources. After 1453 the kingdom of Constantinople fell, thus the animal was no longer available to Christendom. It was in 1464 that pope Paul I accepted a robe dyed with cochineal for his cardinal’s. Since then the shellfish industry never revived.30

Lichens have been used since time immemorial in various parts of the world. Lichens are a symbiosis of algae and fungus thread. Collection and regular availability might be difficult to commercialize the same, but colours of good strength can be derived from this source. A big range of reds, yellows, purples and browns etc, can be achieved from lichens around the world.

The most common source remains the plants, due to easy and regular availability. They are also commercially viable. Among the plant sources historically speaking indigo, madder, pomegranate skin are a few of the most important dye yielding plants. These seem to be the three most common dyes, which are found in many old textiles, from various origins. There are many other local specialties example-fustic chips, catechu, heena, marigold flower, etc.

Dyeing with natural dyes is a laborious process. Multiple stages are often involved to get the precise colours and depth. In block printing the mordent is usually printed and then the fabric boiled in the dye bath to provide a background colour to the fabric. Sometimes the mordent is painted with brushes or rags of fabric, or sponges to create a bigger border, the dyeing usually takes place the next day.

Key Natural Dyes

AL – Morinda citrifoloia, Morinda Tinctorium

Colours –red to maroon, reddish brown

In Marwar, in Rajasthan dyeing red with Al was called Chol. Al root has been used for dyeing since a long time in different parts of India. It is a very common plant, but at the same time the process of extraction of dyeing is very complicated. In many parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, Al was used very commonly for a rich dark red colour. In present times it is only practised in Orissa, kotpad, in weaving. The plant was growing in the surrounding forests and could be gathered by the weavers easily. In last 20 years much hasbeen done to commercialize the same, so that the tribes producing these woven fabrics can get regular work. As a result there has been a shortage of the plant and there are efforts or re-growing the same. With iron one can get a rich deep reddish brown colour.

Before dyeing the yarn here is treated with oil and dung and then khar (an alkaline solution), this yarn is further boiled in Al and left in the dye bath for a day. The entire process is then repeated.

Al dyeing is now practiced only in Orissa, which government is trying hard to keep it alive, it has disappeared from Gujarat and Rajasthan completely.

Cutch or Catechu or Katha -Acacia Catechu, Aria Catechu

Colour-light brown to blackish brown with different mordents

Catechu or katha is often eaten in Paan, or beetle leaf, as an after mint in many parts of India. Thus it is very commonly available. It is mentioned in some books that catechu was used for dyeing canvas ails and fish nets.31

Catechu has been used in India for about 2000 years for brown colour for dyeing cotton. It is used from very dark to light brown in carpets, rugs as well as textiles. There are three different plants used for extraction of brown colour:

  1. Bengal catechu is an extract from the heartwood and
    pods of Acaia catechu
  2. Bombay catechu was produced by Areca or betel nuts,
    Areca catechu
  3. Gambier was an extract made from the leaves and
    twigs of a vine growing in Malacca islands called
    Uncaria gambir32

The available form in the market is small cubes of brownish colour of red catechu or black catechu.

For making the cakes of catechu, the log of the tree is removed after cutting the tree. The inner wood is then removed and made into small chips, which are boiled. The liquid is evaporated and the leftover sludge like material is spread out in the sunshine to dry. This cake like form is then cut into small pieces, which need to be pounded before dyeing.
Direct dyeing methods are suitable for catechu.

LAC-Tachardia (Laccifer Lacca)

Colours-violets, purples, crimson.

Known as Laksha in Sanskrit, Lakshadia chinensis or Lakshadia communis are the two parasitic insects found on about 80 plant species. But according to sources only 8 are commercially feasible. Some host plants are:

  1. Acacia arabica (English: Indian gum Arabic tree; Hindi: Babul, Kikar)
  2. Butea monosperma (English: Bastard Teak, Hindi: Palash)
  3. Cajanus cajan
  4. Ficus religosa (Hindi: Peepal34)
  5. Schleichera oleoda (Hindi: Kusum)
  6. Zizzyphus jujube (Hindi: Pitni–Ber)
  7. Zizzyphus xylopyrus (Hindi: Kat-Ber35)

The branches and the twigs of the tree are removed along with the insects and broken into small pieces. These are then left outside in the sun to kill the insect. The insect look yellowish red to dark brown, sticking to the branches.

Lac is another dye which is very fast without mordent. The fact that it is much cheaper then cochineal, which gave quite similar shades of colours helped popularize it. The only difference is that cochineal gives a more brighter shades compared to lac.

HENNA-Lawsonia inermis L.

Colours –Red, rust, maroon, green with indigo, yellow, reddish brown

A shrub, that grows wild, as well as cultivated especially in many parts of the world. India, North Africa and Middle East are the three places which seem to have many cultural associations with this plant. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one finds a rich history of dyeing with henna, on hand woven textiles. In India and surrounding countries, till one reaches the Arabic areas, henna is used on many auspicious occasions for colouring the hand and the feet in extremely decorative forms. The colours achieved are from orange till deep maroon. The same deep shades are achieved on textiles also.
A very special kind of painting of hand woven textiles by henna directly on the cloth is done by the Feija tribe using architectural motifs, good luck symbols and apotropaic symbols to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes they paint signs and Arabic or Berber scripts. Most of this work virtually stopped by mid 20th century. The tribe is among the descendents of Bedouin and are based in the southern slopes of the central Anti-Atlas, in southern Morocco.36

Henna can also be dye with a direct dyeing method by boiling the dye after soaking it for about 12 hours with the required mordent.

Other uses-the most important use of henna in everyday is for decoration on hands and feet on auspicious occasions, as well as for colouring hairs to obtain a kind of orange rust look.


Indigo has maintained its status as the king of dyes for a long time. Various plants of the genus Indigofera, which contain indigotin, yield a blue dye. One of the main commercial centres for the plant was India. Indigo also grows in Africa, Japan and in many parts of South East Asia. About 300 species are found under the category of Indigofera tinctorium.

The dye needs to be extracted from the leaves by a very complex process, and then the dyeing itself is a complicated process. It remains one of the biggest secret of expert dyers all over the world, as each dyer discovers the process by much trial and error. Due to huge differences in the species found in different parts of the world, one needs to make small changes in the process. At the same time depending upon the time of the year one uses the dye, one constantly needs to analyze its behaviour and thus make changes in the proportions.

For extracting the Indigo dye from the plant, the branches of the indigo plant are first cut and closely arranged in a huge stone basin. This is then further covered with bamboo cane and pressed with a heavy material. The basins are then filled with a sufficient amount of water to cover the plants. The liquid is then stirred extensively. After about 12 hours of soaking this helps in the maximum extraction of colour. The slimy liquid and the plant are then separated. The dye material settles down and the water dries. This sediment is purified and condensed into bricks, thus the name Indian stones.

Not only for dyeing but for the extraction of colour also, one does come across many different additives used in different cultures. In Morocco, two fistfuls of dried figs, dates, sugar, wood ash and quick lime are added.

MADDER – Rubia cordifolia L.

Colours –Rust, pink, red, maroon

Madder is known to be one of the most ancient dye plants. Examples of madder dyed textiles have been found from tombs in Scythia, which are about 2400 years old, but the colour of madder is still very intense. For centuries, Madder has been used in Maithili wall paintings. The juice of madder is mixed with goat milk to create the red colour in the frescos made outside the houses in Maithili.

Madder can be dyed directly, which means the simple method wherein one soaks the dye material and then boils it. For printed fabrics the mordent is usually printed on the fabric and boiled in madder dye. Madder gives a special characteristic fragrance during the dye process, and is one of those dyes which are considerably fast without any mordent also. Indian and Iranian madder are usually available in the Indian market for medical and dyeing purposes. In both the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, madder was a very important plant for red colour along with Al –Morinda citrifoloia. Synthetic Alizarin has replaced madder in most places. Some of the Ajrakh printers based in Kutch region are still using madder regularly.


Colours-yellow, brown, green in combination with indigo

Pomegranate skin has been used since antiquity to dye wool for various purposes. The colour is not only fast but also very cheap. Fresh skins can also be used, but are often dried and stored as pomegranate is not available throughout the year. One can soak them in water for about 12 hours and that will yield enough colour. After this one needs to boil it for a very short time for dyeing.

SAPPAN WOOD OR BRAZIL WOOD– Caesalpinia sappan

Colours –red, Indian pink, dark wine with iron sulphate

Sappan was an important commercial crop like Indigo for the Europeans and was exported considerably from India, Malaya and Ceylon to different parts of Europe. Sappan colours range from orange to blue red on wool, silk, and cotton depending upon the acidity of the dye bath. Sappan can be dyed by employing a direct dyeing method.

TURMERIC–Curcuma longa or curcuma tinctoria

Colours- yellow, orange

A yellow powder which is what gives the curry its customary colour has been used for yellow dyeing for a long time. It remains a fugitive colour. Powdered dry root is used for dyeing. Salt addition can help a bit in fastness, but still there are much better sources of yellows. The only reason it was so popular was, because it’s very inexpensive and readily available. It is often mixed with pomegranate skin. When it is dyed or applied on to the printed fabric, initially the fabric looks very bright shade of yellow orange because of the turmeric, but the colour fades with a few washes. It is often mixed with other yellows and also used very often to create a brighter green with Indigo. Unfortunately the yellow part fades or washes soon.


Natural dyes require a mordent to bind to the dye. The word mordent is derived from the French word mordere, which means to bite. Thus the mordent a metallic salt, bites into the fabric and helps bind the colour. There are various natural mordents in nature which have been used historically all over the world.

Alum – Potassium aluminium sulphate, does not change the original colour that we derive from a dye plant, but provides lustre and fastness. In the natural form it’s a chunk of white translucent crude piece. While in the chemical form it is a white powder. Alum is one of the safest mordent when used in its natural form. Alum is mainly used to fix the colour it does not affect the shade much. In the past we do find examples in various parts of India where dyers used alum in varying percentages to change the colour. By increasing the amount of alum used, they decreased the amount of the dye material and still reached the same depth of colour. Alum is quite cheap in comparison with most dye materials. In Rajasthan alum, was produced by processing broken shale’s tipped as waste around copper mines.

Iron – Ferrous sulphate, green coloured crystals saddens the colour (makes it very dark). Sometimes the tonal gradation is so different that the colour itself changes. One has to be very careful when working with an iron solution, as the spots it leaves are quite strong. This is also used for dyeing grey to black by changing the concentration of the liquid. Black colour made in this fashion is also used in printing black colour by mixing gum, etc. Gujarat, Rajasthan, south India, all the natural dyes centres has been using the same.

Copper sulphate – Blue coloured crystals, gives darker hues. It is a poisonous material needs to be handled carefully.

Chrome – Dichromate of potash is available as orange crystals. Due to poor light fastness it is not very popular. It can provide bright colours.

Stannous chloride – white tin crystals is another material which gives brightness to the colours, but can also make the fabric very rough and hard.

Extracting colours from flowers, leaves, roots, fruits and barks

An important factor when working with natural dyes is the part of plant used for dyeing. In the case of dyeing with hard materials like barks, roots or the wood, one needs to work harder to be first able to extract the colouring matter from the dye material. This means boiling the dye bath for a much longer time to get a desired colour. But when one uses softer materials like flowers, petals, fruits, peels then less than half the time is required.

  • Flowers for example –can be used fresh, in season time, but the dye material should be double of the weight of the fabric. Most flowers seem to give shades of yellow and orange.
  • In the case where dry material (dried flowers or leaves) is used then that is often the same weight as that of the fabric. Dried flowers can be soaked for minimum 2-3 hours for good extraction of colour.
  • Roots or bark are typically soaked for 2-3 days for easier and complete extraction of colour.
  • With most materials it is very important to first grind them into a rough powder form, this way maximum colour can be extracted, and otherwise we are wasting most of the dye material present in the plant.
  • It is highly recommendable to soak the dye material in normal or warm water for 1-2 days. This helps in the natural extraction of colour and also saves much energy.

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