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Extracting from Common Sense: A Social History of Natural Dyes in India- Part I

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Extracting from Common Sense: A Social History of Natural Dyes in India- Part I

Fabrics in natural dyes have been with us since the earliest, major civilizations were around. By this time, people in Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indus Valley civilizations were draping themselves in single piece fabric, knotted, pleated or tucked by belts. These were plain, white fabric (or in Hindi, “kora”) etched in our imaginations by popular representations- dhotis pleated and tucked, knee high with scrolls of white papyrus in their hands.

We don’t really know when people began to colour their clothes, although we do have a date for the earliest record of dyeing in history- 2600 BC.1 What is clear though is that people discovered natural dyes when foraging and hunting- a berry that left a red stain on someone’s dress, or a root that stained black, their hands. Natural dyes were extracted from common sense!2

A lot has been written about the discovery of natural dyes, their types, applications and uses, the best of which is a recommended piece of research by Juliette of Zady (read here ) and an exhaustive piece by Mira Roy (read here ). At The Co Company, we were interested in the social history of natural dyeing. Questions that came to mind, as we met and engaged with craftspeople were: who discovered these dyes in India, who dyed their clothes, who wore dyed clothes, what patterns were used to convey status and stories? We’ll also look at the synthetic boom in the country and how these affect and inhabit the lives of so many



An Early Start

Fragments of mordant dyed cotton fabric have been found from an archaeological site at Mohenjodaro- signs that ancient Indians had learnt to dye their clothing as early as Harappa.3 Important centres of artisanal dyeing were in Gujarat, Masulipatnam (now Machalipatnam in Andhra), Kalahasti (also in Andhra), Pulicat and the Tanjore region in Tamilnadu. Each region specialized in a different set of motifs, techniques, colors and in different trade routes- the western coast preferred the block-printing method, while the eastern coast preferred brush-painting dye (also, called Kalamkari).4 Techniques differed between regions, also based on how the mordant was applied before dyeing. Some used the brush such as at Kalahasti, while for others, using a block was preferred for applying mordants.

Natural dyes were extracted from plants, vegetables, roots and flowers. For instance, popular colours like indigo and blue were extracted from the bush Indigofera tinctoria, while the madder root was used in a combination with mordants to produce black or red dyes. Yellow was extracted from flowers.


Dressing Up

Detailing a social history for dyed fabric is far more difficult and less obvious than it is for fabric itself. Yarn made from silk, jute and fine bark fabric was invariably time consuming to produce and its value made it the possession of royalty and the wealthy. So were zari embroidered clothing, made from pure gold and silver threads.5

Natural dyes were easily accessible by peasants and poor, coming as they were from common property, the forests and grazing lands. For instance, henna was a popular choice for body decoration, in place of jewellery.6 This made it possible for everyone to wear dyed clothes, although a historical account of Indian clothing is not available for the ancient and medieval periods. For instance, Ritu Kumar observed that fashion masterpieces produced during the 16th and 17th centuries have not preserved tropical weather, making a study of these garments difficult. Historical records were often left to oral traditions leaving history in the domain of continuity and conjecture.7

This does not leave everything in the domain of conjecture. Historical, trade records show that the volumes in which dyed clothing were produced was very high, especially for export.8 But did this guarantee that everyone at home, including the peasants and weavers, wore the same cloth they exported?

A look at early social divisions suggest that weavers and dyers began to be pushed down the social hierarchy as the caste system developed in the Vedic period.9 Caste itself was highly color coded and determined that white was a mark of purity reserved for the “upper castes”, even prohibiting the apex caste from wearing or touching dye colour. Colors associated with inauspiciousness such as black and blue, were typically worn by the “lower” castes, a practice visible even today, in rural India.10 Curiously, the artisan who took on blue and black dyes, particularly the indigo dyer, was placed in a paradoxical relationship with the rest of early society. He was seen as both powerful, for his ability to produce beautiful craft, and yet foreboding for engaging with dark colors.11

There is evidence to suggest that colored fabric was worn by peasants. Turbans and headgear of the common man on the western coast (where dyeing emerged in ancient India) retain bandhani and dip dyed methods even today.  Women were prohibited from wearing white, white typically worn by widows, which provides a convincing point for conjecture that women across class (and caste) used dyed fabric. Ritu Kumar observes of the dancing girl in an Ajanta painting dating to the medieval centuries:

A 5th century Ajanta painting gives us the equivalent of India’s first Vogue cover. It shows sophisticated stitched attire accessorised with some unstitched scarves...The figure is of an exotic dancing girl...The sleeves are made of a dotted fabric which appears to be tied and dyed in the bandini technique.”12

We think it’s safe to say, naturally dyed fabric was an equalizer, coming from the pastures of the poor and returning to their wardrobes, inverting hegemony in a society undecided about its relationship with color.


Indigo Routes

Indigo has a special place in Indian textile history. This quintessential blue dye comes from the indigo plant native to India, Egypt and Peru. Varieties of the indigo plant also grew in China, Japan and the African continent. With the exception of the latter two, India was a major producer of indigo dye, soon discovered by travellers and traders. With the rise of imperialism, indigo became a major product of trade and eventually, conquest and the battle of power between European rulers. When the native plantations could not keep up with this rising demand, plantations were created in the Caribbeans and Latin America, resulting in slave trade. In India, the tyranny of planters lead to a “blue mutiny” between 1859-1862, in lower Bengal, wiping out indigo plantations as indigo peasantry revolted against European planters and their practices. What was once a dye that was for all and not only the blue blooded, now partook of a bloody, human rights crisis. For a deeper reading of the social movements surrounding indigo dye, read Prakash Kumar’s colonial history of the dye, here and a global purview, here.


Washed Out

With resistance and social movements building up across continents and peasant groups, synthetic dyes emerged on the scene facilitated by the industrial revolution in Britain. Early versions of the synthetic blue dye could not supplant purer, natural indigo, until new experiments by a German company in 1897, launched a stronger and cheaper indigo dye. Indigo planters were called on to produce cheaper and better quality, agricultural indigo. However, by the end of the first world war, the progress in synthetic indigo had taken away most markets from the native products and fewer investments were made in the production of the natural variety. The empirical nature of these times meant that manufacturers were now more concerned with scientifically produced compounds as opposed to purer, handcrafted materials. In this way,  traditional knowledge systems became displaced by a scientific know-how located in foreign powers.


The Problem of Excess

We are now in a place on a historical timeline where the use of natural dyes is considered revivalist and niche. Revival is occurring especially as much is said about the ecological and health hazards posed by pollutants, including from textile industries. While synthetic dyes are known hazards in polluting riverine ecosystems and for their toxicity, what of natural dyes?

Producing natural dyes require vast amounts of land to grow dye crops for cultivation, posing pressures on land also needed for food cultivation. There are layers of socially entwined narratives here. Synthetic dyes are cheaper but pose a risk to labor and consumer health. Natural dyes are safe but place pressure on land already in conflict. Also, some natural dyes require mordants to stick to fabric, including tin, chrome and copper that also pose toxic hazards. The most commonly used mordant is alum, which is considered relatively safe. At the core of this is 3 very simple keys: production methodology, treating the effluents and their consumption.13


New Beginnings

At The Co Company, our attempt is to build an informed society. We discuss issues surrounding BT cotton with our weavers and synthetic dyes with our dyers. We encourage them to switch to organic cotton by educating them on the changes their choices will bring to the soil and to their own lives. We also encourage our weavers to opt for VAT dyes and natural dyes whilst sharing the impact that synthetic dyes have not only on the environment but on the dyer and wearer both. 

We also speak to consumers about the problems of overconsumption and the culture of buy-and-throw. We do this by encouraging consumers to connect to products at the level of soul, craftsmanship and aesthetics.





Content is prepared in collaboration with Titiksha. Titiksha is a researcher exploring the intersections between arts, crafts, design, experience and development.



1Donatelli Juliette, “The History of Fabric Dye”, Zady, last accessed 23rd November, 2016,
2Roy Mira, “Dyes in Ancient and Medieval India”, Summer School of History of Science, Indian National Science Academy, 1974, pub. 1977, Vol 13, No.2, last accessed 23rd November 2016,
3A mordant is a substance that is needed to facilitate some dyes from absorbing and fixating onto fabric
4Mitra Amit, “Dyeing cotton fabrics is an ancient Indian art”, Down to Earth, Dec 1992, last accessed 23rd November, 2016,
5Kumar Ritu, “A Story of Sartorial Amalgamation”, Seminar, Vol. 585, 2008, last accessed 23rd November, 2016,
6Silk and Stone, “About Henna”,
7Kumar Ritu, “A Story of Sartorial Amalgamation”, Seminar, Vol. 585, 2008, last accessed 23rd November, 2016,
8Verman Sanghamitra Rai, “ Women and Their Role in Ancient Indian Textile Craft”, Journal of Eurasian Studies, Vol V, Issue 4, 2013, last accessed, 25th November, 2016,
9Ibid 10Handeye Magazine, “Color and Encoded Meaning”, May 2010, last accessed 25th November 2016,
11Sarkar Smritikumar, “Indigo Dyeing in the Land of its Origin”, The Handbook of Textile Culture, pp. 387-401, pub. 2016
12 Kumar Ritu, “A Story of Sartorial Amalgamation”, Seminar, Vol. 585, 2008, last accessed 23rd November, 2016,
13Kimani Natalie, “Dye Off: Natural vs Synthetic”, The Designers Studio Blog, last accessed 25th November, 2016,

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