Dyeing of fibers has been carried out since antiquity. Virtually every culture has its own set of dyestuffs, but a few have emerged and have been particularly important. Although these dyes were once widely used, the synthesis of synthetic dyestuffs in 1856 by William Perkin, an English chemist, and the subsequent manufacture of synthetic dyes (mainly by the Germans), replaced almost all of them with better quality materials.
Synthetic dyes are more stable, many bind more effectively to the fabrics, and they are more reproducible. Some purists still use natural dyes, but except for food and histological uses, few of them are important. Madder is locally important in the Near East and indigo is still used in Africa and India.
Several dyes from animals have also been used. Cochineal (Coccus cacti) is a scale insect that feeds on cacti. It was used by the Aztecs. A related insect from the Middle East produces a similar dye called kermes.
Probably the most famous dyestuff was Tyrian purple. This dye was once the mark of royalty. It came from a small sea snail in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The snail contains a small dye sac. The use of the dye was once synonymous with power and wealth. Royal position. Knowledge about how this dye was made was lost from about the time of the Roman Empire until about10-20 years ago.

Adherence of dyes
Dyes must adhere to the fibers or they will be washed out. It is easier to dye animal fibers than plant fibers. Although many plant parts are colored, the components of some of these parts are not particularly stable and decompose too quickly to be useful. Some do not bind well to the fibers. In some cases, the dyestuffs bind tightly and in others they are only bound by hydrophobic interactions.

As early as the Egyptians, it was known that other substances caused some dyes to bind that normally would not. These are called mordants. Many of these are metal salts and they appear to form metal bridges between the dye and the fiber molecules.
Sometimes these substances came from the container in which the dyeing was being done and at other times from dung, urine or other compounds added. Some dyestuffs (such as madder) contain substances that naturally act as mordants.
Alum is a commonly used mordant. Cream of tartar, wood ashes, tannic acid (sumac), and many other substances have been used.

Woad (from which we get our word "weed", German Weedt) (Isatis tinctoria, Brassicaceae or Cruciferae) was once widely grown and utilized as a dyestuff in Europe. Woad contains a smaller amount of the same compounds as found in indigo (actually these compounds are found in a number of other plants as well).
The odors produced from processing woad were legendary. The leaves were crushed and made into balls which were then allowed to ferment. After fermentation, the product was allowed to dry and then refermented before use to make it soluble. In the Middle Ages, woad was a common article of commerce in Europe.
The color of the clothing of Robin Hood's men was produced by woad and weld (Reseda luteola, Resedaceae).


Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria, Fabaceae) has been one of the most important dyestuffs; this dye was used as far back as 6000 years in China. Indigo produces an intense deep blue color. The leaves and branches of the plant are harvested, placed in a vat, covered with water, and permitted to ferment.
The sludge of partially rotted plant material which settles to the bottom is collected and pressed into cakes. When dry, these produce a powder that makes a colorless solution. The color only develops when an item is dipped into the solution, removed and then exposed to air. See the diagram on page 375.
Indigo dyeing and the cultivation on the plant originated in India. Because of the good quality of the dye, indigo became an important item of trade between India and other parts of the world by 300 B.C. Dyers in Europe tried to resist the importation of indigo into Europe and were able to do so for a long time. Finally, however, quality won out.
Indigo was an early crop in colonial South Carolina. South Carolina indigo was considered excellent, but as the economics were not too good, it was replaced by rice. The leaves contain about 3% indigo. Synthetic indigo was produced in 1897.
Although indigo of commerce came from an Old World plant, another species of Indigofera was domesticated and used as a source of a blue dye by the Precolumbian inhabitants of Yucatan.

Madder (Rubia tinctoria, Rubiaceae) (see the diagram on page 372) has been used since ancient times. One form of this dye is sometimes called Turkey red. The dye is found in the root of the plant. The compound in the plant is ruberythric acid. Alizarin (a compound derived from madder) is usually used with an aluminum mordant.
This dyestuff is fast to water and light. Madder was formerly used to dye mummy blankets in Egypt. Although the dye is fast, the dyeing process is complicated. The fibers were covered with cheap vegetable oil (called Turkey red oil), were then degreased and treated with tannic acid, followed by a aluminum mordant. The fibers were then steamed.
Changing the mordant can give red, pink, lilac, orange, black, and brown colored pigments. This dye was introduced into Europe in the late Middle Ages. The Dutch selected lines that were of superior quality. The color of the British soldier's uniform in the Revolutionary War was produced by madder. Alizarin is still used as a biological stain.


By 3000 B.C., Greek women used henna (Lawsonia inermis, Lythraceae) to dye their hair. The leaves are ground into a paste that has a great affinity for protein. Henna is still used in hair preparations.

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, Asteraceae or Compositae) was also used for thousands of years in India and other parts of the Near East. Probably native to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Makes a red or yellow fugitive dye. Today grown mostly as an oilseed.

Safflower in a field

Logwood (Haemotoxylon campechianum, Fabaceae) came from the New World. The wood of this tree permitted dyeing things black for the first time. Although not used today for dyeing, haemotoxylon stain is used as a histological stain in blood analysis.

Log wood

Achiote or annatto, Bixa orellana, Bixaceae, was used by the Aztecs and Mayans for food preparation. The plant is probably native to Brazil. The pulp surrounding the seeds contains a lipid dye that is soluble in grease and dyes foods a yellow-orange-red color. Achiote is widely used in Latin America, but also in other parts of the world today. This substance is also now used to dye margarine and similar products. See the diagrams on page 374.
Achiote contains about 2% vitamin A.

Achiote or annatto plant in flower
Achiote or annatto plant in fruit

Other dyestuffs
Fustic (Chlorophora tinctoria, Moraceae) and cutch (Acacia catechu, Fabaceae) were used by the Romans. The red stigmas of saffron (Crocus sativus, Iridaceae) were used to dye the robes of Irish kings. This material is used today as an expensive spice.
About 4000 flowers are needed to make one ounce of dye. Widely used in Italian and Spanish cooking. Most saffron today comes from Spain and from Kashmir (India).
Weld (Reseda luteola, Resedaceae) was once commonly used to produce a yellow dye.
The gray color of Confederate Civil War uniforms was produced by Juglans cinerea, Juglandaceae.
Turmeric (Curcurma longa, Zingiberaceae) is used mostly today to color foods (such as pickles), but has been used to dye clothing. Litmus comes from the lichen Rochella tinctoria. The pigment from this lichen has been used for pH measurement.

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Revised April 2005

© David S. Seigler, Integrative Biology 363, Plants and Their Uses, Department of Plant Biology, 265 Morrill Hall, 505 S. Goodwin Ave., University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA. 217-333-7577. seigler@life.uiuc.edu.