The Evolution of Textile Dyes: History and Development

The Evolution of Textile DyesThe use of dyes on textiles is widely used in different businesses. More than adding color to everyday things, the use of dyes is also embraced by many industries in order to minimize overhead costs and maximize existing business materials.

Dyes are indeed revolutionary for it adds color and a different perspective to most of the things used in the home or in the workplace. But did you know that dyes have a long history attached to them and their use dates back to ancient civilizations?

Let’s look at the evolution of using dyes and how it turned into a mega industry that we all benefit from today.


The Early Beginnings of Dye Use

The use of dyes began thousands of years ago.

Some evidence show that textile dyeing dates back as early as the Neolithic Period or New Stone Age, which took place around 10,200 BCE. Some data states that dyeing was done more than 4,000 years ago because of the evidence of dyed fabrics found in Egyptian tombs. Meanwhile, the use of black, white, yellow, and reddish pigments made from ochre in cave painting were traced back as early as 15,000 BCE. During 7,200 to 2,000 BCE, the period when fixed settlements and textiles were being developed, dyes were also used.


Natural Dyes

Dyes were originally derived from sources found in nature such as vegetables, plants, trees, lichens, and insects. Dependence on natural dyes went on for a long time until the 1850s.

Some of the natural dyes used in ancient times were indigo, alizarin, Tyrian purple, yellow and logwood. Let’s look at each of them and see where they were derived from and how they were developed.

  • Indigo – Indigo was probably the oldest known natural dye. It was derived from the leaves of dyer’s woad herb, isatis tinctoria, and from the indigo plant, indigofera tinctoria.
  • Alizarin – Alizarin was a red dye extracted from the madder plant. Meanwhile, other red shades were derived from scale insects such as kermes and coachineal.
  • Tyrian Purple – Tyrian purple was extracted from the glands of snails. This type of dye was quite elusive because experiments in 1909 found that only 1.4 grams of dye was generated from 12,000 snails, which may be the reason why only people in power, high office, or royalty such as kings and emperors had exclusive rights to wearing garments dyed with this pigment, as documented in the Hebrew Bible and illustrated for Roman emperors on mosaics in Ravenna.
    When the Eastern Roman Empire declined in the 1450’s, the Mediterranean purple industry eventually waned as well.
  • Yellow – Yellow 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.
  • Logwood – Logwood is the only natural dye that is still being used today. Heartwood extracts coming from logwood yield hematoxylin. Once it oxidizes, it will turn to hematein during isolation. Initially, it is red but the color will transform to charcoal, gray, and black once combined with chromium. Logwood is used to dye silk and leather.


The Use of Mordants

Most natural dyes warranted the use of mordants in order for the color to stick to different materials, fabric, or textile. Mordants used alongside natural dyes include aluminum, copper, iron, and chrome.

In some cases, mordants helped achieve different variations of shades or tints of a particular color. For instance, magnesium mordants helped alizarin dyes give off a purple hue.


The Rise of Synthetic Dyes

During the 1850s, the use of natural dyes slowly declined, and the rise of synthetic dyes started taking place, and it happened for a number of reasons.

The Industrial Revolution led to the growth of the textile industry, which also spurred the increase in demand for dyes that are cost-effective, readily available and easy to apply. As a result, the economic limitations of harnessing natural dyes were revealed such as the vast area of land needed for its production and the consistency and staying power of the color they give off.

The study of coal and tar also laid the groundwork for the rise of synthetic dye use. In 1850, coal tar was not widely used. However, it still attracted the attention of a lot of chemists as being a source of new organic compounds.

One of the leading researchers that studied coal and tar was German chemist, August Wilhelm von Hoffman. He directed the Royal College of Chemistry in England in 1845. For the next 20 years, he trained most chemists in the English dye industry including William H. Perkin who discovered the first synthetic dye called mauve. His discovery marks the rise of synthetic dye development and the gradual decline of natural dye use. While mauve only lasted in the market for a short while, its creation paved the way for further research and development of synthetic dyes.

Because of the development of mauve, English textile manufacturers demanded for new dyes. Through studies and further development, coal tar was discovered to yield other useful dyes. By 1900, more than 50 compounds have been isolated from coal tar, most of which were used for the German chemical industry. The synthetic dye industry was firmly established in Germany in 1914.

From then on until today, synthetic dyes are still widely used in different industries. Through the years, continuous efforts and studies were conducted to further develop synthetic dyes, make it more sustainable, expand its use to other fields, and lessen its impact on the environment.

READ: Natural vs. Synthetic Dyes: Which is Better?

The Dye Industry Today

Today, there are different types of dyes used in the textile industry. Aside from textile production, dyes are also used among various types of businesses such as hotels. Instead of replacing materials such as linens, towels, uniforms, table napkins, and sheets, some entrepreneurs simply resort to re-dyeing. Adding a new pigment to existing items is like getting new ones minus the extra cost.


If you’re considering using dyes for your business, KeyColour can help you out. We have a catalogue of different eco-friendly, affordable, and easy to apply dyes that are suitable for various types of materials. Head over to our products section or get in touch with us to know more.

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