Natural dyes, also known as vegetable, botanical or earth dyes have been used for centuries not only to colour clothing, but for their health and wellness properties. Below we highlight some of the ones we use.
Indigo (Indigofera Tinctoria)
Dye colour: Blue tones
Indigo is one of the world’s oldest dyes, with evidence of its use stretching back at least 6,000 years ago in South America and through the ages in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt and India where it was used and exported through the silk road. Through somewhat of a change in status, indigo cloth went from a luxury in ancient times to commonplace in nearer years as its use spread - from ‘royal blue’ to ‘blue collar worker’.
Indigofera Tinctoria is a legume, part of the bean family of plants, and is not only an excellent source of indigotin (the pigment used in dyeing) but is also routinely used in crop rotation to improve soil conditions.
Indigo is considered a powerful wearable medicine in the ancient practice of Ayurveda, and is mixed with other plants to dye cloth designed to cure or help with skin conditions, respiratory health and temperature regulation.
Indigo as a 'dye' is a little bit of a misnomer - it's actually more of a 'coating'. Our yarns or fabrics are dipped in pots of fermenting dye (the bacteria in the pits are the real heroes here and have been replaced by harsh chemicals in industry) and deeper colours are only achieved through successive dips. For our darker shades, we dip, dry and dip up to 16 times over the course of a few days.
Madder (Rubia Cordifolia)
Dye colour: Scarlet / red / peach / orange / pink
Rubia Cordifolia is a flowering plant in the same family as coffee. The source of the colour is a compound called alizarin, and the plant has been cultivated for dye since antiquity in Asia and the Middle East. In more recent Western history, 17th Century English soldiers dressed in uniforms dyed with madder, giving them the name ‘The Redcoats’.
Madder is Bobbin's favourite dye, chiefly because the range of colours from one simple root makes it versatile and unpredictable - giving us anything from dark scarlet reds to light blush pinks - as well as bright orange and peach tones.
Madder has been used both as a wearable and drinkable medicine for centuries. Manjistha, a form of madder made into a tea or tincture, is prescribed as a potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial in India, as well as an aid in digestion and stress relief. It is also used as topically to heal bruises and chronic skin conditions.
Babul Bark (Vachellia Nilotica)
Dye colour: Brown tones
The Babul tree, which you may have seen extracts of in food and medicine as ‘gum arabic’, has been the subject of fascination to civilisation for some time. We have heard about almost every part of the tree being used, from the roots, to seeds, leaves and even the twigs. In fact, the fibrous nature of the twigs means they have been used throughout history as disposable toothbrushes - Bobbin’s dad used them himself as a child when visiting relatives in rural Iraq.
The bark of the tree (which, boiled like a tea imbues our cotton with brown tones) has traditionally also been used to treat skin and eye irritation. Our favourite recipe, formulated to treat eczema, involves grinding bark extract with fresh, ripe mangoes and applying topically.
Myrobalan (Terminalia chebula)
Dye colour: Yellow, Khaki, Black
The plant grows wild across India but is found in abundance at the foothills of the Himalayas.
The myrobalan plant is like the swiss army knife of natural dyes. It can be used alone with no mordant (it is itself a mordant and a dye) to create brownish yellow tones, or as a bright yellow dye with the help of alum as an additional mordant. Because of its high tannin content, myrobalan reacts with iron compounds to create khaki and black tones on fabric.
In addition to its use as a dye, myrobalan is an essential element of traditional block printing, used to create black prints (read our story on this here).
Dye colour: Khaki, black
We use iron in a couple of forms, but the primary use is fermented iron. Our dye houses ferment rusty nails, iron filings and even bits of old door handles with jaggery (a natural sugar) over the course of a few weeks to make a potent reactive brew.
Iron alone does not dye fabric, but works in tandem with myrobalan to make khaki and black tones and prints (see above).