Textile Dye Part 2 - Natural Textile Dyes - Abbie James

Textile Dye Part 2 - Natural Textile Dyes

Textile Dye Part 2 - Natural Textile Dyes

This blog post is a little cheerier than my last where I talked about synthetic textile dyes comericiually used across the fashion industry and the effect it has on our waterways. This is part two of a two part series on textile dyes, part one focusing on synthetic textile dyes. 

Natural Textile Dyes are gaining momentum, albeit on a niche level, in the fashion industry. Compared to synthetic dyes they offer an allure of sustainability and individuality that is becoming increasingly popular among those looking for a more sustainable and ethical approach to fashion. 

I met local natural dye artists, Canan and Fiona from TOR recently and I have been fascinated by what these talented ladies do with their natural textile dyes, Fiona has been kind enough to lend me her expertise and help me with this blog post. Their naturally dyed socks and scarves are so unique and captivating and I can’t wait to see their soon to be released naturally dyed clothing range too.

Indigo dye​​

What are Natural Textile Dyes

Natural textile dyes are derived from plant, animal, or mineral sources, and have been used to color fabrics for centuries. In Japan, the indigo plant was used as far back as the 17th century to dye fabric and has continued as one of the most widely used natural textile dye sources to this day. 

The process of natural dyeing starts with selecting the right dye material. This could be anything from plants, leaves, bark, flowers, food waste, minerals, or even insects. Once the dye material is selected, the colour is extracted by boiling the botanical material for long periods of time. Next the fabric is prepared for dyeing by removing manufacturing oils from the fabric and then applying a mordant to the dye material, which helps the dye adhere to the fabric.

After that, the dye is heated in water to extract the color, and then the fabric is added to the dye bath. The fabric is then simmered in the dye bath for several hours, and the dye is left to cool before being rinsed and dried.

Canan & Fiona from TOR, photo credit, ​​Helene at Feather and Thread

Why Mordants and Fixatives?

Mordants are naturally occurring mineral salts that are used to help the dye bond to the fabric. Common mordants used in natural dyeing are alum, iron, tin and copper sulfate. These mordants help the dye to become more colorfast and last longer on the fabric. There are a very small amount of natural textile dyes that do not need a mordant where they have their own tannin which is like a built in fixative, indigo being one of them. 

These mordants vary in their safety and not all mordants are created equal in

sustainability terms. Fiona from TOR said they choose to use alum as their mordant

due to it’s safety to the environment, it’s safety to human contact, and it’s ease of use.

”We agree that the use of mordants in natural dyeing is a complex issue. There is

a science to natural dyeing and we are very specific about using minimal safe levels of alum

based on the weight of fibre we are dyeing. Though it is a metal, alum is naturally forming

element within the earth’s crust. We use it almost every day in our lives - think aluminium

foil against our food. When we make a choice to use alum as a mordant, it takes our work from being a hobby, to being a commercially alternative option to synthetic dyes that ensure we are producing long lasting, natural colour on our products”

Tin and copper mordants are toxic and  a carcinogen so can impact the health of the people involved in the dyeing process. Fixatives such as salt, tannins, vinegar etc also play an important role in plant based textiles to help fix the dye to the yarn but this is used in a more domestic, small scale nature and wont offer the vivid colours that we all love.

Photo credit, ​​Helene at Feather and Thread


Natural dyes are a much more sustainable option than azoic dyes, which are synthetic dyes made from petroleum products. I cover these dyes in depth in this article. Natural dyes are also better for the environment, as they are biodegradable and don’t contain any harmful chemicals. In terms of performance, natural dyes can be just as colorfast as azoic dyes, and are more resistant to fading. As you would expect coming from natural sources, the colours do have more of an earthy undertone and you cannot reach the intense colourrs that synthetic dyes can achieve, think neons and bright bold pinks, electric green etc.


In the sustainability arena, natural textile dyes outperform synthetic in a major way. The actual dye is biodegradable so unlike synthetic dyes, these can be composted and broken down into the environment. But it’s not all pussycats and roses though. The concern is in the mordants and fixatives to hold the colour onto the fabric. As mentioned earlier, Alum is the least impactful on the environment with the other options being quiet toxic. The toxicity of the latter on the people dying the fabric is also a concern plus any remnant leftover on the fabric for the wearer. We also need to consider the natural ingredients used as a fixative such as salt. Discarding large quantities of any material into waterways is not something that happens naturally in the environment and the impact needs to be addressed. So it’s not really an option for large

scale dyeing or a solution to the synthetic used in mass in fast fashion.

Photo credit, ​​Helene at Feather and Thread

Both synthetic and natural textile dyes are very water intensive with natural dyes using more power to heat the water for the length of time needed to extract the colour from the natural

dye material. This does sound rather grim, but please read my other blog post on synthetic textile dyes and you will see the comparison favourably falls heavily in the natural textile dyes camp. 

Fiona brings another important point to light, “On this matter I will also say there is a major issue with mass amount of discarded fast fashion sitting in our landfills across the Earth. These will take hundred’s of years to break down, and even natural fibres, when dyed with azoic dyes, will leach levels of chemicals into the Earth. Natural dyes only attach to natural fibres so in most cases, can be safely composted and return to the Earth when it has reached its end of life.”

It is rarely cut and dry when it comes to sustainability options in the fashion industry so it is always important to know the facts, know what you value in your clothes and the environment and choose based on what your morals and intentions are. Too often we are letting the fashion industry choose for us by not being properly informed. We need to consider not only the aesthetics of our clothing but the ethics also.