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Natural dyeing/ Harper's Bazaar

Content research and illustrations on Natural Dyeing for Harper's Bazaar India, July/ August Issue 2018


Secret garden


Textiles and fashion have historically drawn from the mineral and plant world to colour their fabric. Marigold for the brightest yellow, lac for the richest red, and iris for the deepest purple, nature’s bounty is deep and diverse. Bazaar’s illustrated guide traces the curious and quaint origins of six natural dyes

By Sunaina Mehrotra



A deep, dark black is one of the toughest colours to reproduce using natural dyes. To produce a truly inky shade, most dyers work with a combination of natural sources like tea leaves, acorns, walnut husks, and indigo that is over-dyed with reddish-brown shades. It is then combined with a mordant (material used to fix the colour) that is rich in iron.



One of the most commonly available colours in nature, brown is sourced from the bark of trees like pine, maple or oak as well as from recycled materials like coffee grounds and tea leaves. Eucalyptus, however, is a crucial source and the colour varies depending on the type of eucalyptus tree, the mordant it is combined with, and the fabric it is used on. On wool it produces a rust, reddish brown and on silk and cotton an earthy tone of brown.



There are at least 40 different plants and insects that produce dyes in shades of red, like fuchsia pink of the sappan wood tree, crimson of boiled bamboo shoots, and purple-red of beetroot. One of the oldest sources of red is the root of the madder plant—often associated with chintz prints—that is found in coastal areas across the country. However, the most beautiful shades of red come from lac, which is secretions and eggs of the lac insect. Combined with madder or an alum mordant (a fixative aluminium sulfate) it produces a brilliant, deep red.




The leaves of the plant indigofera tinctoria, or indigo, are the primary source of blue dyes. Extracting the colour from the plant is a lengthy process and the resulting dye is used in techniques like block-printing, tie-dye, and other forms of resist-print dyeing. The Assam indigo plant, cornflower, and hyacinth flowers are other sources of blue.




While the strongest purple shades come from blackberries, there is enough flora that produces this royal hue. Each material needs a different treatment to release its colour. Dyes from hibiscus flowers have to be steam-treated on fabric to give an inky, blackish-purple. The roots of the cherry tree, basil leaves, raspberries, or red cabbage have to be boiled with water, and iris blossoms require the addition of a metal-based mordant for a truly colourfast purple shade.




Bright, sunshine yellow is an immediate mood lifter. While marigold flowers, fresh sunflowers, dried turmeric, and saffron come as no surprise as the source of the colour, more unexpected are basil leaves, daffodils, onion skins, and even pomegranate rinds. The choice of source often depends on the seasons.

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