The addition of colour to fibres, yarns and cloth, specifically with natural dyes from either plants or animals, or synthetically produced materials.
This craft uses products derived from animals and minerals extracted from the earth – please read our ethical sourcing statement.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Iron Age (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
Prior to 1856 when the first synthetic dyes were developed, all dyeing used dyestuff from plant and animal sources. 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 these days such divisions do not exist.
Natural dyes can be made from both indigenous plants and imported plants – and in Britain the import of natural dyestuffs was already established in medieval times. Imported dyes such as ‘tropical’ indigo (as opposed to indigo obtained from the woad plant), tannins, dyewoods and cochineal made a wider variety of colours possible. They became available over a lengthy 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 an attempt to control and identify the social classes by dictating what colours people could wear: 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.
At the time of manufacture the key marketing factor and value of a cloth was often its colour, which relied on the knowledge and multiple skills of master dyers. At different periods in history a wide range of local and internationally sourced natural dyes were used.
Abundance and scarcity affected the dyestuff market. Scarcity might result from natural phenomena such as dyestuff crops 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 who use natural dyes are craft dyers colouring their 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 synthetic dyeing and manufacturing trade in the UK collapsed to a large extent in the late 20th century but did not totally disappear. Many companies continue dyeing.
The Crutchley Archive: In June 2020 The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) inscribed three archival collections onto the UK’s Memory of the World Register – the documentary heritage equivalent of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One of the collections was The Crutchley Archive, an astonishingly rare and full record of an 18th century dyehouse. It is held at Southwark Archives and has been documented by University of Glasgow’s Dr Anita Quye, who discovered it and realised its significance, and her colleagues Dr Dominique Cardon and Dr Jenny Balfour-Paul (with additional research expertise). The Crutchley archive provides a uniquely detailed record of a once ubiquitous industry which has all but vanished from the UK except through the work of craft practitioners. The UNESCO recognition is significant in spotlighting the industry’s history and importance.
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, experimentation and record keeping
- knowledge of environmental law and gathering material from the wild
- Fungi dyeing – a small number of dyers in Scotland and England have been using fungi as a dye source since 1991. There was not much historical evidence of fungi dyes; however Miriam Rice in California discovered that the full palette of colours can be obtained.
The biannual International Fungi and Fibre Symposium brings together dyers from all over the world.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Training issues/dilution of skills: There is no recognised training or qualification available for natural dyeing. There are some excellent courses available, but it can be hard for prospective students to assess the quality of the tutors. This can lead to a lowering of standards in teaching and dyeing, and a devalued craft. This dilution of skills and consequent loss of product quality can give natural dyes 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 each other, by consulting books, DVDs (such as those produced by French natural dyer Michel Garcia), or via online information.
- Lack of awareness: Dyeing is often an invisible craft as it contributes to a finished product. While many people may appreciate the colour or surface embellishment of a textile, they tend not to appreciate that dyeing is a separate and highly skilled process.
- 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 very hard to overcome (they rub off, they fade, they are dull 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.
The AGWSD runs a Certificate of Achievement in Natural Dyes. The SDC has an Associateship (ASDC) assessed by examination, and also offers an Associateship by exemption (by writing a thesis and undergoing a panel interview).
There are several colleges and institutions offering short courses in natural dyeing.
Craftspeople currently known
There are many experienced practitioners of natural dyes and the following list offers a few examples. It is far from exhaustive. Businesses or organisations run by these practitioners are italicised.
- Jenny Balfour Paul – specialist in indigo, author, artist, dyer, researcher
- Debra Bamford, The Mulberry Dyer – based in France but works extensively in the UK: dyed cloth, yarns, threads, historical specialist
- Jane Callender– specialist in indigo, specialist in stitch resist, author and tutor
- Jane Deane– fibre specialist, dyer, tutor, author, researcher
- Jenny Dean – dyer, author and tutor
- Susan Dye and Ashley Walker of Nature’s Rainbow: growers, dyers, tutors
- Judy Hardman author, dyer, tutor
- Polly Lyster, Dyeworks
- Helen Melvin, Fiery Felts– dyer, artist, author, tutor
- Caroline Nixon, dyer
- Lisa Reddings Indigowares
- Shilasdair, Skye – founding dyer Eva Lambert has passed the natural dyed yarn business to dyer Kirsty Faulds
- Luisa Uribe Indigo Bluefields
- Claire Wellesley-Smith– artist, tutor, author, researcher
- Isabella Whitworth– artist, dyer, tutor, author, researcher
- Justine Aldersey-Williams, The Wild Dyery – dyer, tutor (including online), runs Fibreshed in the North West
Origin in the UK: Natural dyeing is known 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.
Those wishing to study natural dyes and dyeing now have an international choice of tutors available online. A large number of practitioners run informative websites and excellent online courses. The ‘normalising’ of Zoom and similar platforms for online teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic will surely facilitate this method of learning the craft.
There has been a surge of enthusiasm and interest in natural dyeing over the last few years. Note that some very experienced dyers are experts in a specialist area only – such as indigo dyeing, dyeing wool, dyeing linen, dyeing for historical re-enactment etc.
Fibreshed: The Fibreshed movement has arrived in the UK and now has South East, South West and North West branches. Fibreshed, in its own words is ‘a designated area within which efforts are made to harness and use natural resources – in this case fibres, dyes and labour – in a responsible way that minimises waste and creates opportunities not just for sustaining these resources, but for improving them over time in positive feedback cycles’.
Dyestuffs, recipes, information
- Dean, Jenny, (2010) Wild Colour: How to grow, prepare and use natural plant dyes, revised edition (Mitchell Beazley)
- Dean, Jenny, (2014) A Heritage of Colour: Natural Dyes Past and Present (Search Press)
- Dean, Jenny, (2010) Colours from Nature: A Dyer’s Handbook, reprinted (Search Press)
- Goodwin, Jill, (2003) A Dyer’s Manual (Ashmans Publications)
- Boutrup, Joy, and Ellis, Catharine, (2019) The Art and Science of Natural Dyes: Principles, Experiments and Results (Schiffer Publishing)
- Liles, J N, (1990) The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use (The University of Tennessee Press)
- Fereday, Gwen, (2003) Natural Dyes (The British Museum Press,)
- Sandberg, Gösta, (1989) Indigo Textiles: Techniques and History (Black / Lark Books)
- Grierson, Su, (1989) The Colour Cauldron: The History and Use of Natural Dyes in Scotland, reprint (Mill Books) – out of print
- Balfour-Paul, Jenny, (2011) Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans (British Museum Press)
- Cardon, Dominique, (2007) Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science (Archetype Publications) – a 2014 revised paperback edition is published in French by Belin
- Hofenk de Graaf, Judith H, (2004) The Colourful Past: Origins, Chemistry and Identification of Natural Dyestuffs (Archetype Publications)
- Garcia, Michel, Natural Dye Workshop: Colors of Provence using Sustainable Methods
- Garcia, Michel, Natural Dye Workshop 2: Colors of the Americas on Wool Fibres
- Lance, Mary, (2011) Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo (Corrales, New Mexico: New Deal Films Inc)
- (2005) Indigo: A World of Blue (Vancouver: Maiwa Productions)