50 Shades of Beige?


The history and use of plant dyes… A Talk by Glenis Price


To find out how you can dye fabrics naturally at home, click HERE!



Natural dyes have been used for centuries, with ancient archaeological remnants discovered in China, India, and South America. The findings reveal the frequent use of these dyes, though there is little evidence left today as the textiles perished quickly.

Not only were colourful dyes desirable, they were also extremely expensive. This meant that rich colours became an indication of status, where lower classes were expected to wear dull-coloured clothing.

Madder is one of the world’s most ancient dyes, with some of the earliest textiles dating back to 1350BC – in particular, the madder dyed belt found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. It is a complex plant that contains over 20 compounds, with Alizarin creating the distinct crimson red colouring.

True reds and purples were the most difficult to produce. Turkey Red for instance, required 12-20 separate processes; whilst Royal Purple dye was extracted from large quantities of shellfish… It is suggested that 10,000 shellfish were needed to produce just 1 gram of dyestuff!

These processes were likely to be accidents or based on trial and error, but once created, all recipes were closely guarded secrets.

By the Mediaeval period, dyeing was well established, although by this point, most dyes had to be imported since England was poor in dyestuffs.

The use of woad had already declined by the end of the 15th century, and before long, the mid-19th century called the death knell for all natural dyes, as the first synthetic dyes began to be made.

Natural Dyed Fibre by Glenis Price

Naturally dyed fibres… More than 50 shades, and not just beige!

Why were synthetics preferred?

Not only did natural dyes look muddy and dull, the colours were not always reproducible either – nor were they light or wash fast. Synthetic dyes could be produced a lot easier, with more vivid colours that did not fade.

The interest of natural dyes never entirely waned though, with revivals throughout the 19th and 20th centuries – notably in times of uncertainty:

  • The Arts and Crafts movement from 1880
  • The 1970s ‘self-sufficiency’ movement – inspired by John Seymour and heavily influenced by the environmental movement
  • Most recently, the demand of authentic fabric production for re-enactment societies and alike.


Feel inspired? Watch out for my next post – How to Naturally Dye Fabrics at Home


Content is based on the information discussed within the talk.

Credits for featured image: Alamcsd at wts wikivoyage



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