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MLU team detects natural dye in old clothes

22
Apr '19
Pic: Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU)
Pic: Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU)
Scientists from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) have developed analytical methods to examine several-thousand-years-old textiles from China and Peru. The new method is able to reconstruct the spatial distribution of dyes, and therefore the patterns, in textile samples. As part of the study, the scientists detected indigo dyes in the samples.

The research is described in the scientific journal Scientific Reports. The study indicates that even thousands of years ago people wore clothing with colourful patterns made from plant and animal-based dyes.

Chemists Dr. Annemarie Kramell and Professor René Csuk from MLU examined two ancient textile samples. One comes from the ancient Chinese city of Niya and was probably once part of a shirt. It is over 2,000 years old. The other sample comes from Peru and dates back to 1100 to 1400 AD. It was produced by the Ichma people who lived in Peru at that time. Today, there is little evidence of the colourfulness of such ancient clothing.

"Time has not treated them well. What was once colourful is now mostly dirty, grey and brown," says Csuk. Over time, the natural dyes have decomposed as a result of the effects of light, air and water, explains the chemist. In the past, only natural dyes were used. "The roots of a genus of plants called Rubia, for example, were used to create the red colours, and ground walnut shells produced the brown tones," says Kramell. Even back then, people mixed individual materials to create different shades.

The researchers have developed a new analytical method that allows them to detect which materials were used for which colours. With the aid of modern imaging mass spectrometry, they have succeeded in depicting the dye compositions of historical textile samples as isotopic distributions. Previously, the dyes had to be removed from the textiles. However, that previous method also destroyed the pattern. This new approach enables the chemists from MLU to analyse the dyes directly from the surface of the textile samples. To do this, the piece of material under investigation is first embedded in another material.

"The piece is placed in a matrix made up of a material called Technovit7100. Slices are produced from this material that are only a few micrometres thick. These are then transferred to special slides," explains Csuk. Similar methods are used, for example, in medical research to examine human tissue. The advantage is that this method can be used to study very complex samples on a micrometre scale. "This enables us to distinguish between two interwoven threads that held originally different colours," says Csuk.

As part of the new study, researchers were able to detect indigo dyes in the samples. However, the method can also be applied to many other dye classes and provides insights into the process of textile production in past cultures, the two scientists conclude.

The research was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of the project "Silk road fashion: Clothing as a means of communication in the 1st millennium BC, Eastern Central Asia". The Hans Knöll Institute in Jena and Dr. Gerd Hause from MLU’s Biocentre were also involved in the project.

In India too, natural dyeing of textiles is an age-old practice. Though the very earliest dyes came from berries and fruits, gradually vegetable dyes were used for colouring fabric. Even today, there are few places like Bagru in Rajasthan where natural dyes are still used. Currently, through the setting up of Weavers Service Centre at various locations across India, efforts are being made to boost the use of natural dyes. The increase in demand of hand-block printed fabric is also contributing to this revival of natural dyes. (SV)

Fibre2Fashion News Desk – India


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