One of the many things one has to consider when creating material goods is the source of their colour. This week the Centre focuses on natural dye, a specialty currently seeing a huge surge in interest. Natural dyes are those derived from animal, plant or mineral sources as opposed to synthetic dyes which are petrochemicals. Without switching to natural dyes there are many ways in which designers and brands can and should take steps to see that their designs are made with low-impact dyes and there are many situations where natural dyeing would not be the best choice. But what natural dyes offer is a possibility of colourful clothing and textiles created as part of a very different framework of making, one which seeks to build strong ecological systems, often locally and embed community resourcefulness.
The opportunity for seasonal and regionally specific colour as well as colour that taps into local economies and biodiversities are some of the most appealing aspects of natural dyes. The image above is an example the colours that the plants in one area of England offer. Because the hues gained from a particular plant will vary greatly depending on species, mineral content of soil and weather conditions, each bioregion will be conducive to particular colour strengths, akin to regions that produce characteristic wine.
Another reason designers may choose to use natural dyes is for a depth of colour and subtlety that can be difficult or expensive to achieve otherwise. This may be possible because while synthetically dyes give a pure hue, many dye-producing plants actually contain a number of different dye chemicals. My theory is that these colours are blended by our eye in the same way we see a Seurat painting from afar. The diversity of the structure of the dye matter, whether it be yellow and green sunflowers, inner red birch bark or multi-coloured cherry leaves is mirrored to some degree in the complexity of the colour that they produce. So while the difficulties of natural dyes may be prohibitive for some, others value these qualities above the need for standardisation.
Natural dyes can be difficult to use and trying to insert them into current industrial dye operations certainly raises issues of predictability and consistency. Further development of equipment made to work with natural dyes will need to happen as interest in their unique characteristics continues to grow. Recently Thalia Warren (MA Fashion & the Environment 2012) created a collection coloured using local plants with the aim of showing how ‘natural seasonal cycles, rather than industrial demands alone, can profitable inspire the rhythm of fashion.’ Natural dyes are much more complex in the same way that the natural world is complex and for that reason alone more and more people are wanting to work with them.