Botanical dyes are colours that have been derived from plants. They have a long history, dating back over 5,000 years. However, since the discovery of chemical dyes in the 1800s, the use of botanical dyes has all but disappeared, with only a few organisations retaining knowledge of how to create them. It is a time-consuming process that requires a high level of skill, but the final product is worth the effort as botanical dyes have a beauty that is impossible to find among chemical alternatives.
Unlike chemical dyes which produce a flat, uniform colour, botanical colours have a multi-sensual appeal, exuding a faint fragrance and revealing subtle but deep colours that morph into different shades over time. Like patina on an antique table, these changes in colour reveal the beauty of the fabric's age.
Historically, many dye plants were believed to possess magical properties. The European Elder, for example, whose berries produce a purple colour, was once considered to have the power to repel evil spirits as well as heal various ailments. Indigo has also been associated in many cultures with spiritual power, both good and evil, and has been used as a treatment for various injuries.
Today, many dye plants are classed as medicinal and studies have shown that they do indeed contain healing properties. Elderflowers have anti-inflammatory effects, turmeric ( a source of yellow dye ) is a powerful antiseptic, and indigo has anti-microbial properties.
At Ecosophy, we are promoting the use of botanical dyes not only because they are beautiful and therapeutic, but also because they represent a rich source of environmental and social benefits. The textile industry is currently the second largest polluter of freshwater in the world, and much of this pollution is due to the chemicals and heavy metals used in dyes. Because this dyeing takes place in countries with minimal regulations, there are few safeguards over the amount of exposure workers have to toxic chemicals and how the waste from the dyeing process is disposed of. As rivers become polluted, the health of people who use them is affected, and the fish and plants that live in them become endangered.
Unlike synthetic dyes, botanical dyes do not pollute the environment. In fact, many have the potential to encourage environmental regeneration. Indigo, for example, is a natural fertilizer, and can be used not only to produce dye, but also to enrich barren soil so that it becomes more amenable to crop growth. It can also be integrated into agricultural systems as a rotational crop so that it complements food production, rather than replacing it.
It is sometimes pointed out that natural dyes require the use of mordants (substances which bind the colour to the cloth) that are toxic. However, while some traditional mordants are toxic, non-toxic alternatives exist, such as alum, and these tend to be used by good practitioners.
On top of the environmental benefits, the cultivation of botanical dyes is a source of rural livelihoods. In Bangladesh, a cooperative we are partnering with is cultivating indigo plants and using the dye to create vividly patterned textiles. By choosing to use botanical indigo rather than the synthetic alternative, it is creating income-earning opportunities for local indigo farmers. Many of these people do not own their own land, but as indigo has no need for fertiliser (being capable of fertilising the soil itself), it can be grown pretty much anywhere. Members of this cooperative grow it along the unused sides of roads.
Given the many benefits of botanical dyes, it is unsurprising that they have historically been seen as magical. As our society begins to rediscover these benefits, they may be able to unleash their magic again - bringing their vitality and healing power into our homes, regenerating degraded land and providing a sustainable source of employment in parts of the world where it is most needed.