Imagine a world without any colour, or more specifically, any coloured clothing. No black dresses. No green hats or red shirts. No colour at all. It’s hard to imagine a wardrobe without a multitude of hues and shades. Luckily, this was a reality even our great great great ancestors didn’t have to face. The first recorded mention of fabric dyeing dates all the way back to 2600 BC. Originally, dyes were made with natural pigments mixed with water and oil used to decorate skin, jewelry and clothing. Back then, natural dyes were used on caves in places such as Spain.
Today, 90% of clothing is dyed synthetically. Synthetic dyes are used so heavily in the manufacturing process, that critics say you can tell the next season’s latest hue by the colour of the rivers in China. It is estimated that over 10,000 different dyes and pigments are used industrially and over 735 tons of synthetic dyes are annually produced worldwide today. Increasing interest in sustainable fashion, and concern to the workers, has reinvigorated the idea and art of natural dyeing.
The most commonly used dyes in ancient times were found near where they were discovered. This meant that different colours often signified different geographical locations. The colours were mixed from exotic plants, insects or sea life. In fact, the word “crimson” is derived from kermes, which was an insect found on oaks trees in the Mediterranean. Of all the colours in the ancient world, yellow was the most common color, and could be sought from a number of different parts. Other colours, like blue derived from indigo, were found in plants located in India and Southeast Asia. However, It’s the colour purple that truly changed history. It provides the perfect insight into the history of fabric and dyes,from its position as a status symbol (Roman emperors would often wear purple), to opening the doors to synthetic dyeing around the world. It was sometimes even worth its own weight in gold!
The colour purple could only be achieved by crushing thousands of shells of a mollusk called Murex, found on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Because of this, it became the most expensive colour to mix, and still is. Famously, When Alexander the Great conquered Persia, he saw clothes dyed with purple, and liked it so much, that it became the colour associated with royalty.