Light yellow to mud green: dyeing with natural dyes

The process through which something is dyed not only has a huge impact on the sustainability of the clothes we wear but also on our understanding of craftmanship and local production. Natural dyes are often forgotten, or viewed as solely historical, but dyes are a key point in the textile industry. What is the history of natural dyes and how did they end up forgotten in the current production processes? Within an urban landscape, how can natural dyeing processes keep us grounded with nature? And how is the value of craftsmanship, local production, and natural dyes related?

‘Looking at the label in your clothing might tell you how it’s made, the materials and sometimes the name of the person who made the clothing. But one point of information is missing; what kind of dyes were used for the clothing?’ –  Cecilia Raspanti (lead TextileLab)

Historical traces of color

From 1600 to 1900 regions of the Netherlands and Flanders were cultivating and trading the plant Madder (Rubia Tinctoria) , known for its roots that can produce varieties of reds. The Netherlands was known for their high quality of madder because the loose sandy soil of the Netherlands fit perfectly with the plant's growing needs. In Germany they used to trade in yellow, the natural dye came from the flowers of the weld (Reseda Luteola) plant which could produce colors ranging from light yellow to mud green. Until the discovery of synthetic dyes in the 19th century weld was the most popular source of yellow. Blue was cultivated and traded by France through harvesting Woad (Isatis Tinctoria), often also called European Indigo. Woad, a plant that was growing from Europe through the Caucasus, Central Asia and Siberia, was cultivated for its deep blue dye properties.

blue devil
"Church of St Mary, High Street, Fairford, Gloucestershire." by Wessex Archaeology.

In the 13th century, woad was produced and traded in industrial quantities. The competition between red dye (madder) merchants and blue dye (woad) merchants became so high that the devil started to be depicted in blue rather than red in religious depictions so people would stay away from the natural blue dye.

This illustrates how the natural environment was reflected in the color pallet of natural dyes of every region which was also visible in the clothes that people wore. The trading of these natural pigments by the Netherlands, France, and Germany created a stable economy for these merchants. Nowadays, however, there aren’t a lot of dye houses left standing in the Netherlands. With the introduction of synthetic dye, the rich history and practice of natural dyes and their trading seemed to be forgotten. The practice of dyeing with natural color is generally seen as a hobby rather than a valid, valuable, and sustainable way of producing color. 

Sustainability in the city, the importance of local production 

When we walk around in our urban city we don’t recognize the plants around us anymore. While specific parks are organized to be dedicated to nature, this gives the illusion that nature only exists within these spaces. Plants that grow spontaneously are deemed to be weeds, something that should not live between the stones of the city. But every plant has its properties and importance. 

gedroogde planten

We tend to forget what we don’t see or notice. Once we start to register and recognise the plants around us we become more aware of our urban landscape and the nature that resides within it.  This understanding and connection to nature improves when local production of natural dyes starts to take place within cities.

Local Color, a two-year project run by the Textilelab Amsterdam at Waag Futurelab, reintroduces the heritage of natural dye processes within the urban city. To bring back sustainable ways of color production; the natural dyes don’t cause pollution, and developing local dye gardens within urban spaces lowers the ecological footprint as it dissolves the need for pigments from other places. The dye garden of Local Color is located on the Marineterrein in Amsterdam.

Tracks4Crafts x Local Color

Local production of natural dyes within urban spaces also recreates visibility for processes of labour and craftsmanship. To sustainably produce locally, every facet of production must be accounted for. This also means ensuring the visibility of craftspeople within the city. Similar to the way that the value of plants goes unnoticed, craftspeople and their traditional crafts knowledge start to become undervalued when they aren’t visible. Within Tracks4Crafts, an EU Horizon project, the Textilelab seeks to create visibility for the future craftsperson within their pilot ‘Hacking the Machine’. Within this pilot, sustainability, technology, and craftspeople stand central. Part of this pilot is the research about digitally printing with natural dyes; this creates the opportunity for future craftspeople to work fully sustainably.

Read more about ‘Hacking the Machine’ and the design of craftsperson 2.0.

With the introduction of synthetic paints, natural paint processes have fallen into oblivion. It becomes important to value and reintroduce these traditional techniques to create a sustainable society. Local production and the reintroduction of natural dyeing techniques improve sustainability within the textile industry. However, this improvement will have little effect if sustainability is not considered within all facets of textile production; valuing local production, knowledge of craftspeople, and sustainable innovation remain important.





EU official flag

The Tracks4Crafts project is financed by the European Commission under grant no. 101094507.