Garden: Natural Dyeing, Part I: Understanding Dyes

Understanding Natural Dyes

A Short History on Natural Dyes

Historically speaking, dye sources have been difficult and rare items.

We as humans have been obsessed with color - more than likely due to the fact that we needed to quickly identify color when hunting and gathering in order to pick out brightly colored fruits and flowers that signalled food sources as well as to watch out for poisonous animals that might display certain colors.

Interestingly enough, it’s a proven fact that women have more color receptors in their eyes than men, possibly due to the fact that evolutionarily-speaking, women may have done more of the gathering and therefore needed better color vision to spot the fruits and vegetables that they would have to locate and harvest.

This also means that when a man tells you that they can’t really tell the difference between a salmon and peach tablespread, they may not actually be just clueless when it comes to color - they may not actually be able to tell the difference. Thus why colorblindness is primarily a male vision disorder.

Well as a result of this evolution driven characteristic of humans, we are drawn to color - especially rich, bold saturated colors. Although dyes have been used commonly among all human cultures, the very bold colors - mainly red, purple and green - have been usually very difficult to create and the materials used to create them are usually also difficult to source.

Take the cochineal beetle. This unassuming furry little beetle that feeds on prickly pear cactus in the Southwestern United States, Mexico and Central America was used by the Aztecs and Mayans as a dye. Apparently Moctezuma II, the famous tiatoani or king of the Aztec empire demanded a yearly tribute in the form of cochineal from the conquered cities of the empire.

Sketch of the cochineal beetle

Sketch of the cochineal beetle


Cochineal was discovered during the Spanish conquest and plundering of Mesoamerica, and afterwards became a major export to Europe. Despite attempts to smuggle the insects and cacti into Europe, any attempts to cultivate the cochineal beetle were ultimately unsuccessful there and the production of cochineal in Mexico remained a large industry until the invention of artificial dyes.

Raising cochineal beetles is a very time consuming and labor intensive ordeal, requiring the colonization of cactus pads by hand with cochineal beetles, keeping the cacti dry and hot for the beetles to grow and feed, and then collecting them by hand. Generally speaking, large scale cochineal production was expensive and difficult, making the dye even more valuable when it was the only good source of red dye in the world.



Small baskets known as Zapotecs that contain females to colonize the prickly pear pads

Small baskets known as Zapotecs that contain females to colonize the prickly pear pads

Whether scarlet from cochineal beetles, the royal black of logwood, true indigo from India or the royal Tyrian purple derived from the mucus secretions of sea snails in the Mediterranean, colors and pigments have been generally very rare and difficult to obtain before the advent of artificial dyes.


The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry, dyed with weld (yellow) madder (red) and woad (blue)

The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry, dyed with weld (yellow) madder (red) and woad (blue)

Artificial and synthetic dyes generally made a lot of the original natural sources of dyes obsolete - they are the reason of course that we were able to start mass producing clothing with bright and bold colors, and the reason that all of us are able to afford it. Although what’s funny is that we’re seeing a move away from artificial dyes and back towards natural dye sources, especially when it comes to food (minus the cochineal scandal with Starbucks that recently occurred)

We now have at our fingertips a wealth of natural dyes available, and although more expensive than synthetic dyes, the colors and product they produce are well worth the investment and labor. It’s never been a better time to look into working with natural dyes.

Natural dyes vs. Synthetic dyes

    Synthetic dyes are great for a reliable, bright, saturated punch of color. It’s like turning up the saturation on Instagram - your reds are really red, your greens are very green and so on.

    Two problems with synthetic dyes. First of all, synthetic dyes have a tendency to not affix into textiles really well. Yes, you may be able to dye a cotton t-shirt red, but it will tend to fade really quickly - and stain your other clothing a nice pink color in the process. We wanted to dye a ribbon dark black for a client and ended up doing it with a synthetic fabric - only to find that no matter how long or how many times we washed it, a little bit of black dye would continue to seep out from the ribbon.

    The second problem with synthetic dyes is the fact that they look synthetic. Even the brilliant colors of nature are different from the synthetic colors and dyes present in everyday items. Certain portions of a delphinium may hit that perfect spectrum of sky blue, the dahlia a perfect blush, and the marigold a bright yellow - but it’s never the color that comes from a paint tube or a dye packet.

    If you come across a blue-dyed mum or a green rose at the store, you know that those aren’t natural colors. It may fool the uninformed consumer (the popularity of rainbow roses are the result of such situations) but for anyone who has been around flowers for a long period of time, you can spot artificial coloring within a moment of looking at it - it just doesn’t look like nature produced it.


How We Got Started

Steven has always been interested in textiles - especially ones of historical significance.

Although we had used artificial dyes before on textiles, it was a really messy and somewhat ham-fisted attempt at dyeing fabrics and looked more like what you would find with a children’s art project than a fine art.

When we discovered that other people were dyeing silk ribbons using natural dyes, it was intriguing. The idea of using naturally occurring plant dyes fit in well with our interests and our business philosophy, so we started experimenting with different dyes.

After a couple of failed attempts at dyeing, we were able to dye a length of silk ribbon a perfect peachy pink from avocado pits. I remember pulling out that ribbon from the dye bath, unrolling it and being fascinated by the coloration. Something so ordinary - an avocado - had produced something of such delicate natural beauty.

When we started using them for our own weddings and photoshoots, were actually initially taken aback by the glowing feedback we received on our silk ribbons. Our floral design was great, but people were crazy about the silk ribbon and wanting to know where we had gotten it.

That summer we dyed a whole rainbow assortment of ribbon - everything from blush and grey to blue and green, colors to match every single color scheme for our brides and events and photoshoots. We started selling the excess to local designers as well as online, and did very well - you may have seen our ribbons advertised as the brand “Desert Garden Silk”.

We stopped doing silk ribbon because we moved and our location no longer had the space for us to have a large scale dyeing and drying facility for silk ribbons - but we were still able to keep a large stock of ribbons for our design needs.

It’s brought us a lot of joy and a lot of satisfaction and beauty through dyeing silk ribbons, and we would like to share with you how we do it - using all natural dyes derived from a variety of leaves, bark, roots and fruits, which we cover in our next post (or, you can skip to the third post for dye color sources)

Garden: Natural Dyeing, Part II: The Dyeing Process

Garden: Natural Dyeing, Part III: Natural Dye Colors