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Embracing natural dyes

Nov 01, 2020
Embracing natural dyes

With the death toll daily shooting up all around the world; corona virus is certainly the produce of the wrath of god. Such notions have got deeply entrenched in the minds of people. Many have gone into hibernation till the vaccine is made, slacked their daily activities to mere necessities of life; nothing impulsive happens now. People on the whole have been compelled to re-think their priorities as they have been nudged out from the inertia of the quotidian life they were leading. To become more resilient to such calamities the mankind needs to undertake re-evaluation and re-planning of life. A new model of life has mushroomed in every household for a healthy body and mind people have resorted to the lifestyle of the 50s.

Optimising health during this pandemic requires not only knowledge from the medical and biological sciences, but also of all human sciences related to lifestyle, social, behavioural studies, finances which have not been conventionally stated in the past because business needs a new model now.

The virus has severely hit the global supply chain and has even more extensively hit the manufacturing sectors all around the globe but not all businesses have been disrupted some business opportunities are rolling forward along with new strategies or new business model. Today, when the masses are experiencing turbulence, uncertainty, vagueness and abrupt changes it becomes critical to re-strategise and remodel business.

A very odd term the very new oxymoron forced into our lives, the ‘corona blessing’ is this re-modelling, re-planning, re-evaluation or simply ‘going back to the roots. The tangible improvement in the nature past lockdown convinced people that earth could be saved by preservation of natural resources, development and adoption of sustainable products or substitutes. Many businesses found their expansion and survival in adopting the ways of the past. Crises are drivers of innovation. When we talk about the textile industry many have resorted to natural dyes instead of synthetic. In the past many businesses had resorted to this philosophy either to preserve the environment or to evade environmental inspections but now it has become survival.

An American company by the name of Stony Creek Colours found a more economic and efficient way of producing indigo dyes using indigo plant. An Indian company AVANI advocated that a range of many colours can be produced using local plants. NRDC–India (Natural Resources Defence Council) where natural plants and herbs are used for dying coir yarn, mats and mattings.

Archroma and Ternua manufacture clothing by using non-edible waste products from agriculture and herbal industries. Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology discovered that chitin derived from the exo-skeleton of invertebrates and fish can be used in the textile industry where water-repellent properties in a fabric are desired.

Recently, Heimtextil exhibition has redefined their new trends by rediscovering nature’s resources and delivering on sustainable or even more corrective and humane solutions. The most apt regenerative solutions is employing natural dyes for desired colours:
Red: Lac (insects), hibiscus (flowers), madder and beetroot (roots), red elderberry and sumac (berries), Brazilwood (wood), St John’s Wort (whole plant), sycamore (bark), cadmium( mineral), avocados (fruit). Red have a tendency of changing to browns if exposed to heat, therefore they should never be boiled.

Reddish purples: Red basil (whole plant), dark red hibiscus and daylillies (flowers), vermillon (mineral)

Pinks: Avocados and cherries (fruit), roses (flower), lichens (whole plant), white bedstraw (roots)

Yellows: Bayleaves (leaves), saffron (stamens), marigold (flowers), queen Annes Lace (flowers), St John’s Wort (plant) golden rod (flowers), turmeric (roots), Osage orange (inner bark or shavings), tea (leaves), brown onion (skins), Larkspur (plant), chromium (mineral), lead (mineral), titanium (mineral), Annato (seeds)

Oranges: Brown onion (skins), turmeric (roots), giant Coreopsis and barberry (any part of the plant), Bloodroot Eucalyptus – leaves

Browns: Oak bark (bark), walnut (hulls), dandelion (roots), coffee (grinds), yellow dock (plant), ivy (woody stems), golden rod (shoots), tea (leaves), sumac (leaves, powder), birch (bark), brown clay (clay soil), limonite (clay), octopus/cuttlefish (ink)

Blue: Dogwood (fruit), hyacinth (flowers), indigo (foliage), red maple tree (inner bark), woad (leaves), bulberries (fruit), elderberries (fruit), blueberries (fruit), cornflower (flowers), blackbeans (dried bean), cobalt (mineral), copper (mineral), Murex snail (trunculu)

Green: Tea tree (flowers), spinach (leaves), Larkspur (plant), red onion (skins), yarrow (flowers), chamomile (leaves), black-eyed susans (flowers), nettle (leaves), dyer’s broom (plant), chromium (mineral)

Grey/black: Oak galls (galls), sumac (leaves), walnut (hulls), iris (roots), black beans (dried bean), titanium and carbon (mineral)

This virus has left us all victimised by quarantine, uncertainty and malaise. Vulnerable individuals need to keep themselves motivated through the limitless scope that art offers. Detachment from the regular life can give birth to situational drawings or re-create old memories if travelling has become a farfetched idea. The following pieces are from natural colours like coffee and flowers to express the situation and emotional aberrations during lockdown.

Patna Kalam was one such art form that used colours made from flowers, metals, leaves, and plant barks on handmade papers, bamboo sheets, ivory and mica. The challenge was not just collecting all the ingredients to make the colours but that the colours were made during summer and applied on paintings during the winter season. This art form was an amalgamation of Mughal and British school of painting evolved with time to woo the British patrons who bought it in bulk. The best of its masterpieces are outside the country with only a glimpse of this for the art enthusiasts at Patna museum, Khuda baksh library and Patna college of art as the art became extinct almost 20 years back after the demise of its artisan Ishwari Prasad Verma and Mohan Babu.

But unlike Patna Kalam many art forms, that used natural resources and dyes, revived, evolved and their professors created situational art pieces during this pandemic to give many messages for the posterity.

Indian folk art has always been inspired by religion, society, creativity and availability of raw material which gives it a natural feel and a geographic identity from which makes it unique with high aesthetic value. Amidst the turbulence in the socio-political demography of India the Indian paintings have self evolved their pattern. Therefore, an exquisite mix of indigenous skills, paucity of material and creativity have resulted in mesmerising creations in the past as well as during the turmoil of this pandemic. Many forms of art in their rudimentary forms not corrupted by substitutes have come in the foreground in these testing times.

Cheriyal: A 500 year old art form belonging to Telangana using natural colours and organic material like powered wood and tamarind seed are being used to make small sized masks for adornments at doors to ward off bad influences or ailments rather than the large sized ones used for storytelling in the ancient times.

Phad paintings: An art from originated in Rajasthan using vegetable colours to create a scroll of 15 to 30 feet canvas in praise of gods and historic deeds. In Bhilwara, veteran artist, Kaayan Joshi has earned quite a name by shifting his subject from ‘Devnarayanji’ to the events during the pandemic because it is befitting for posterity to depict contemporary events that foster a social connect in such times like the origin to the aftermath of this virus and awareness messages on COVID-19.

Warli art: The hour glass stick figure art form a native of the tribal the range of North Sahyadri. In which the locally available material like a mixture of branches, red brick and earth are used to create an ochre background against the white pigment of rice flour, gum and water to create different meaningful geometric motifs. During the pandemic, Tulsi Patel, an artist from Surat depicted the migrant crisis in Warli art form and further depicted the corona warriors as Gods.

Madhubani art: Characterised by eye catchy geometric patterns from the Milthila region done using twigs, brushes, fingers, nib-pens, etc. using natural dyes or pigments. Remant KR Mishra hailing from Jitwarpur, Bihar started hand painting Madhubani motifs on masks and then there was no stopping as the orders dropped from pan India for them for their creativity, quality and cost-effectiveness.

During this pandemic even crochet is being rediscovered for its ability to focus the mind.

To counter this pandemic and similar such turbulence more resilient business models are being conceived and made functional after the flop of global supply chain and manufacturing sector. The resources-to-recovery model shall be the best fit model. Despite several corrective and inspectional regulations practised universally we are still facing environment degradation. It becomes necessary for us to introspect and consider that we have received a second lease of life and now we need to work in sync with nature to qualify the status of being nature and discard the synthetic and toxic effluents we add to the environment every year and deplete the resources thus working both ways to degrade the environment.


  • 1. All Natural Dyeing, Samantha Jane.
  • 2. Embrace a Gift of Nature: A Proposal for Commercializing Natural Eco-Dyes for the Textile Industry, Vidhya E. Iyer
  • 3. NATURAL DYES INT’L, (providing various resources for natural dyers).
  • 4. Bloomington Blues, (explaining indigo plantation initiative for self-sustainability)
  • 5. See Natural Dyes, AVANI, /advocating natural dyes for textile industry
  • 6. Indian Textile Journal / latest textile industry (heimtextile- announces new trends article)
  • 7. Articles from The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Times of India


  • The article is authored by Kumar Vikas, Assistant Professor at National Institute of Fashion Technology. For more than a decade, he has been a CC for Shillong and Patna for Fashion Communication and Fashion Design Departments.