Colours, whether vivid or subdued play an important role in bringing a fabric to life. In ancient times, the practice was to use colours extracted from natural sources like flowers, leaves, animals and minerals. The earliest record of natural dyes goes back to 2600 BC in China, red fabrics found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt reveal that the brilliant shade was the result of the pigment extracted from madder. In his conquests, Alexander the Great mentions of purple robes dating to 541 BC found in the royal treasury of Susa, the Persian capital.
Closer home in India, weavers used colours from flowers such as the kesu (for yellow), haritaki, (for green), amaltas, teak, catechu, beetroot, pomegranate etc TO colour clothes in those days.
It would be centuries before the first synthetic dye called Mauvine would be discovered around mid-19th century by an English chemist named William Henry Perkins. The synthetic colours came as a boon to manufacturers and dye houses which could now operate on a large scale and had more options in vivid and rich colours. “It wasn’t surprising that they become ‘the’ option for manufacturers as they stuck to fabrics and didn’t lose pigmentation,” explains Nagaraj Cheripally, a CAD master designer who is responsible for training weavers in new digital weaving techniques in the city.
But as the saying goes, too much of anything is harmful, and the same went for synthetic colours which were synthesized using elements such as chromium, copper, sodium, chloride, toluene and benzene. Over time, the dyes and their effluents not only caused harm to the wearer but also environment. Dye manufacturing properties dumped effluents into the rivers causing large scale damage. The infamous azo dyes containing nitrogen belong to this category. The azo dyes were highly carcinogenic, mutagenic which could lead to skin irritations, eye problems, kidney failure and hypertension.
While there are many manufacturers involved in making azo-free dyes, the major players at present are Colorant, Colourtex and Sandoz to name a few. “There is a shift to using natural dyes as sustainability is a buzzword now. But it’s happening slowly, people still use synthetic dyes which are azo free. What we use is vat dye. Natural dyes are used more in Lucknow and Chennai,” adds Sudha Rani, founder, Abhihaara, a social enterprise involved in revival of handlooms.
Preference for natural dyes is less due to many reasons, primary being the efficacy of natural colours which tend to fade after a couple of washes, the other being lack of awareness on how to extract colours from natural resources. “Cost of making natural dyes is marginally higher and it is time consuming. The colours are not as vibrant as synthetic ones. Also it calls for lot of arable land which makes it difficult to stick to natural dyes completely,” adds Nagaraj.