The addition of colour to fibres, yarns and cloth, specifically with natural dyes from either plant, animal or synthetic materials.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Iron Age (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current no. of professionals (main craft)|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main craft)
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
Prior to 1856 when the first synthetic dyes were developed, all dyeing was done using natural dyes from plant and animal materials. Traditionally, ‘hedgerow dyeing’, or the use of what was growing freely nearby, was carried out in all areas of the UK and was undertaken to dye items for domestic use. Later on, there were certainly centres of commercial dyeing such as Frome and Wellington in Somerset, but today these days such divisions do not exist.
Natural dyes can be made from both indigenous plants and imported plants – and plants had been imported for this purpose since Mediaeval times. Imported dyes such as indigo, tannins, dyewoods and cochineal made a wider variety of colours possible as they became available over a long period of time, and consequently the cost of textiles was affected. Sumptuary Laws attempted at various times to control imports of dyes to protect the drain on the Treasury. It was also a neat piece of control over the social classes by dictating what colours people could wear: thus colour equalled status. Dyeing would have developed in all parts of the country to serve domestic or commercial needs, and dyes were a hugely important trade commodity.
Abundance and scarcity affected the dyestuff market. Scarcity might be as a result of natural phenomena such as crops of a dyestuff being spoiled or diseased, but trade routes could be affected by wars, politics, piracy, weather, and even the availability of slaves. Merchants speculated by holding onto stocks in the same way as happens today with other commodities.
In 1856 the entire nature of dyeing changed with the discovery of the first aniline dyestuff by W. H Perkin. After this date, the development of synthesised dyes permanently altered the way in which textiles have been dyed. Synthetic dyes did not immediately supplant natural dyes and there was a long period of overlap but these days there is very little commercial use of natural dyes on a large scale. Those of us who use natural dyes are craft dyers colouring our own yarn or cloth, re-enactors, researchers, conservators etc. The movement towards a more sustainable world has generated a revival of interest in natural dyes in recent years.
Synthetic dyeing: The dyeing trade collapsed to a large extent in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s but didn’t disappear and many companies continued and are now growing again. The Society of Dyers and Colourists have been promoting an online course which it is hoped will grow to a degree-level qualification in dyeing. There are several apprenticeship schemes in operation.
The techniques of natural dyeing are relatively simple – the skill lies in the knowledge and experience built up over time and through experimentation. A good dyer must have thorough understanding of fibres, preparation processes, mordanting and dyeing:
wide knowledge of plant material and insect dyes
knowledge of scouring/cleaning fibre and cloth
knowledge of good mordanting and the different effects of different mordants
knowledge of modifiers and how these can affect colour
preparation of dyestuff and vats
knowledge of recipes and endless experimentation and record keeping
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Training issues/dilution of skills: There is no recognised training or qualification available for natural dyeing. A number of small companies have set up to teach natural dyeing but the skills on these courses are often diluted or not demonstrated by the tutor, and many practitioners go on a day course run by someone not much more skilled than they are. The standards are not really known and the craft is being devalued. The dilution of skills ultimately gives the craft a bad name.
Training issues: The traditional methods of skills transmission – from master to apprentice, mother to daughter, or father to son – have disappeared, and today dyers tend to learn from books and from each other.
Lack of awareness: Dyeing is often an invisible craft. It contributes to a finished product, rather than creating one itself, and while many people may appreciate the colour or surface embellishment of a textile, they tend not to appreciate the dyeing.
Lack of awareness: The growing interest in sustainable living has seen a rise in the popularity of natural dyeing, although this is very dependent on what type of plants are used and when and where they are obtained.
Lack of awareness/Market issues: Using natural dyes makes products more expensive as it is a time-consuming process and raw materials can also be expensive. Buyers don’t always understand why natural-dyed products are more expensive, so there is a process of education needed which many dyers constantly try to address. There is also a body of inaccurate ‘received wisdom’ about natural dyes which is hard to overcome (they rub off, they fade, they are boring colours etc.).
Market issues: Many people who are practising the craft are doing so to a very high/professional standard but are unable to make a living from it.
Supply of raw materials: should be purchased sustainably and the onus is on natural dyers to buy responsibly – which they don’t always do. This is not helped by suppliers who will not / cannot give sources for dyewoods, roots etc.
There are several institutions offering short courses in natural dyeing, such as West Dean and Ardington School of Crafts.
Craftspeople currently known
Some of those working at the very highest level in natural dyeing include:
Jenny Balfour Paul (specialist in indigo)
Jane Callender (indigo)
Helen Melvin of Fiery Felts
Jane Deane (wool and silk yarns, range of natural dyes)
Shiilasdair in Skye: the dyer used to be Eva Fleg Lambert but the dyeing may be done by someone else now. Wool yarns
Deborah Bamford (The Mulberry Dyer) Cloth, yarns, threads; historical expert
Isabella Whitworth (dyed silk using resist techniques using various natural dyes)
Origin in the UK: Natural dyeing is likely to date from the Iron Age. Examples of dyes have been identified in Iron Age textiles from Danish bog burials and similar dates are likely to be true for the UK.
Number of trainees: There are no formal ‘trainees’ in the craft. Natural dyeing is learned in the UK from accumulation of experience and knowledge, from attending courses and studying good books on the subject. The Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers (AGWSD) has a large body of members actively engaged in the craft part-time and they will have wide skills in many aspects of natural dyes. The Guilds often arrange workshops in their individual areas, and hold a biennial Summer School at which natural dyeing always features. It is believed that there are some textile courses at colleges (e.g. Falmouth and Loughborough) in which natural dyes are featured as a module.
Number of skilled craftspeople: It is estimated that there are about 50 natural dyers working at the very highest, and another 500 or so who really ‘know their stuff’. Some dyers are experts in one area only – such as indigo dyeing, dyeing wool, dyeing linen, dyeing for historical re-enactment etc.
The Association of Guilds of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers is hoping to establish a foundation certificate in dyeing which can be delivered online and includes in-person workshops.
There is a good range of practical (rather than project based) contemporary books on natural dyeing, such as those by Jenny Dean.