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Natural Dyes and Pigments

About Natural Dyes and Pigments
Natural dyes consist of end products of roots, nuts, and flowers occurring freely in nature. They are termed as natural dyes because they are extracted from natural sources like plants, animals or minerals. The tradition of extracting dyes dates back to the dyers who extracted colors from various flowers, leafs, roots and the the outer and inner barks of trees. Natural dyes are the result of centuries old knowledge and skill, which have been handed down through generations and manufacturers were secretive about their production techniques. With the plethora of chemical dyes available and recognition of the harmful effects of these substances, natural dyes have are being looked at with renewed interest. Chemical dyes are harmful to the environment, are carcinogenic and result in increase toxicity and pollution. Pigments are substances that impart color to other

materials and are the basis of paints. For thousands of years, various cultures have been using them for different purposes. Pigments are ground colored materials and were mostly in the form of ground earth or clay. Using spit or fat. the ancients made a range of natural dyes. Pigment and dyes differ in a basic sense. While pigments are insoluble, dyes are either liquid or soluble. Colorants can be used as a pigment or a dye, depending on the vehicle that is used.

Records of the use of natural dyes dates back to as a far as 2600 BC in China. The medieval world also used dyes extensively and it was extremely important part of medieval trade. One tree was the Sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan) which was said to produce a high quality red dye and was favored by the Portuguese who named it bresil or brasil. When they landed in South America, it was replete with sappanwood trees and they called the land, Brazil.


Types of Pigments and Dyes
Broadly, there are three types of natural dyes: plant-based dyes, animal-based dyes and dyes made from minerals, colored clays and earth oxides. Plant-based dyes includes madder and indigo. Indigo is a popular dye which is affordable and available in plenty. Animal-based dyes could be created from shellfish. Deep red or crimson dyes was produced from a species of scaled insects, Cochineal. In addition, there are dyes made from minerals, colored clays and earth oxides. An example is ochre which has been used since the earliest times.

Natural pigments refer to the coloring matter used in dye or paints. Pigments were made by

grinding minerals, plants, and animal parts to a fine powder like form. Indian yellow, gold, vermilion and ultramarine made from lapis lazuli were regarded as the best type of pigments. Chemical pigments do not fade as easily as natural pigments and are less expensive. Ochres and iron oxides are two types of naturally occurring pigments. A pigment was frequently named after the place where it was produced on a large scale.

Uses of Natural Dyes and Pigments
Recently, in a cave at Twin Rivers, near Lusaka, Zambia, pigments and paint grinding equipment, dating back to 350,000 and 400,000 years old, have been discovered. Early man would used paint for aesthetic purposes like body decoration. Throughout history, ochres and iron oxides have been used as colorants. Pigments are used for various purposes like coloring paint, ink, plastic, fabric, cosmetics, food and other materials. Medieval craftsmen produced folk paintings and handicrafts with the help of natural dyes. Pigments generally consisted of the earth and mineral pigments. Botanical materials, animal waste, insects, and mollusks were other sources of pigments. The dyes were used for textiles and even in cosmetics. Natural pigments are more time-consuming to manufacture and the Industrial Revolution brought newer synthetic pigments which were bright in color and cheaper.Pigments and dyes have artistic and decorative uses


Interesting Facts

  • Religious paintings always depicted the Virgin Mary in blue robes particularly ultramarine which was the most expensive natural dye
  • A natural dye name Tyrian purple was the most expensive dye in the ancient times and relegated to royalty alone. Tyrian purple, a
    natural dye, is made from Mediterranean shellfish and was extensively used in the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre. It takes approximately 8,500 shellfish to produce one gramme of this dye. The dye is also mentioned in the Bible
  • Species of scaled insects, Cochineal, is used to produce deep red or crimson and was probably used by the Aztecs and the Mayans
  • Red fabrics were discovered at Tutankhamen’s tomb which were found to be dyed with madder, a plant-based dye
  • Before 1856, textile dyes were dependent on purely natural sources and no synthetic dyes were utilized
  • Alexander the Great, when he conquered Susa around 541 BC, talks of the discovery of purple robes
  • In the biblical Book of Exodus, Kermes (from the Kermes insect) is mentioned as the source of scarlet colored linen.