Color Me Good

Color Me Good

Why natural dyes are a win-win for us & the planet 

Blue hues of Indigo that impersonate water to soothe our souls, brilliant yellows of turmeric and marigold that make us happy and bold reds of roses and madder to get us charged up…colors are our eyes’ first interface with the world around us and they affect us in so many ways.  

Humans have had a continuing love affair with colors; experimenting with ash from a spent bonfire (it’s called carbon Black!) the green of mashed up leaves and the mineral-heavy clay from early rivers that gave off colors like red and ochre. They painted cave walls to leave images of their life behind, colored their faces to sort themselves into tribes and as soon as they could, colored their clothing as well. We eventually moved from soot and charcoal to more elevated colors like blue from the Indigo plant and Tyrian Purple from the mucus of the Murex snail. The journey kept going and we’re still at it today. 

However, when the British chemist, William Henry Perkin accidentally created aniline purple from synthesizing quinine in 1856, a whole new industry of chemical dyes opened up, affecting the traditional way of dyeing, nearly depriving artisans of their livelihoods. 

But as concerns for our planet grow, chemical dyeing finds itself in the spotlight. Consider this – a chemical textile dyeing factory needs nearly a million tons of water a day and pollutes it with toxic substances including heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic. Those are reasons enough to move back to traditional natural dyeing that uses lesser water and helps create textiles that are future-friendly and rooted in nature.  But the competition from chemical dyes is stiff.  

We spoke to Anita Chandramohan from MadderMuch, a Mumbai-based, growing apparel brand that makes extensive use of natural dyes, on what keeps customers coming back to them and buying product made with organic dyes, when cheaper options in chemical dyes are available. She says, “I think the main reason customers consciously choose natural/organic/ecologically sensitive dyes is for their health in the long term. Chemical dyes are harmful to skin and may not show results of ailments instantly. They appear over a span of time and harm us.  

Secondly, textiles that use chemical dyes undergo quicker wear and tear because they use small amounts of sulphuric acid or nitrate to brighten the colors. Needless to say, all chemical dyes finally go back to the soil disturbing the water table and the pH value of the soil that supports plants, animals and marine life. Natural and organic dyes are made mindfully from nature. They are easily accepted back within nature and replenish themselves easily.” 

Organic dyes and pigments are part and parcel of Indian handwoven textiles and dyers are one of the most important cogs in the craft wheel. But this important craft is struggling. Relief comes in the form of slow fashion brands like Rias Jaipur, that champion natural dyeing and help sustain the craft. We spoke to Avishek Mandal, Creative Head and one half of the design and founding team of this young, Jaipur-based clothing label on why they use natural-dyed textiles. Animatedly, he tells us, “Using natural dyed fabric is not about just creating and selling. It’s about going back to what really is ‘normal,’ and time-tested as sustainable. We rely heavily on natural dyed fabric because our target audience is conscious of how we’re damaging our planet and they also want to explore traditional Indian crafts.  

On the other hand, brands like us working with a small number of artisans for dyeing are able to make some tangible impact on their lives and livelihoods. Our artisans had continued employment throughout the Covid 19 pandemic. So, it works both ways for us.” 

Not only does the brand use a small group of artisans based in Jahota and Bagru, they also grow their own indigo. How’s that for back-end integration? 

Colors obtained from natural sources like Indigo, marigold and madder roots make the world a better place and you can even make them for your Holi celebrations this year. Try these on for size: 

  • Onion skins, boiled in water for a soft pink color 
  • Palash flowers, boiled in water to create a range of colors from yellow to a deep orange 
  • Pomegranate rinds to get a sunshine yellow, and good old beet to create a bright magenta hue.  
  • You may also want to try mixing besan (gram flour) with haldi (turmeric) to create a 100% organic gulal! 

What’s it going to be? 

Images: Rias Jaipur and 

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