Natural dyes

Colouring materials have been used for many thousands of years by man. Leather, cloth, food, pottery and housing have all been modified in this way. The two old ways were to cover with a pigment (painting), or to colour the whole mass (dyeing). Pigments for painting were usually made from ground up coloured rocks and minerals, and the dyes were obtained from animals and plants. Today, many of the traditional dye sources are rarely, if ever, used (onion skins, for instance). However, some of our most common dyes are still derived from natural sources. These are termed natural dyes.

The Colour Index uses this as a classification and naming system.
Each dye is named according to the pattern:–

natural + base colour + number

These dyes are thereby specifically identified as dyes of the stated colour, and which may still be derived from animals or plants. Note that this is a classification based on the dye's source and colour. It contains no chemical information, neither does it imply that dyes with similar names but unique numbers are in any way related. It gives no information about the mechanism by which staining occurs.

Natural dyes are often negatively charged. Positively charged natural dyes do exist, but are not common. In other words, the coloured part of the molecule is usually the anion. Although the molecular charge is often shown on a specific atom in structural formulae, it is the whole molecule that is charged. Many, but by no means all, natural dyes require the use of a mordant.

The use of dyes is very ancient. Kermes (natural red 3) is identified in the bible book of Exodus, where references are made to scarlet coloured linen. Similar dyes are carmine (natural red 4) and lac (natural red 25). These three dyes are close chemical relatives, obtained from insects of the genus Coccus. All require a mordant.

The most commonly used natural dye is undoubtedly hematein (natural black 1), obtained from the heartwood of a tree. This dye also requires a mordant.

Saffron (natural yellow 6), is obtained from the stigmata of Crocus sativus, and is used without a mordant, staining as an acid dye. Although its use is very ancient, it is more common now as a colouring and spice for food than for dyeing, due to its expense.

There is an article on currently produced natural dyes on the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation web site.



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