Natural dyes and colorants in the world today: a crossroads between vanishing ancient knowledge and new applications

The whole spectrum of colours can be obtained from a multitude of plants, animals and fungi, to dye clothes, textiles and artefacts, and to colour our skin, our hair and the food we eat. The discovery and use of natural dyes and pigments contributed to the maintenance of the age-old bond between humankind and nature and could now help to revive and enhance it. Natural dyes and colorants are an essential part of the worlds ecological and cultural heritage; their selection and uses to create colours are common to all civilizations. During the past century, archaeological discoveries have largely contributed to show that, since the dawn of humankind, the quest for sources of dyes and pigments went abreast with the selection for food and medicinal plants and animals. Throughout history, natural colorants have played a major part in economic and cultural exchanges between nations.

A major break occurred in this long history during the 19th century: with the development of organic chemistry in Europe, industrialized countries generally adopted synthetic dyes and pigments extracted from fossil resources, coal-tar and oil. Cheap and easy to apply, they caused a cultural revolution.

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This article was originally published in the "12th Biennial Symposium", Textile Society of America, 2010.