By: Francis Rainsford
Alpaca breeders who retail products from their animals via small shops, catalogues and/or the internet and who are on the hunt for someone to convert their fibre into finished goods invariably ask, ?for colours other than the natural alpaca ones will you be using plant dyes ??.
Up rears the old argument about which dyestuffs are best, natural ones or synthetics?
Dr. Ian Holmes, of the University of Leeds, points out that natural dyestuffs (mainly from plants but also from animal and mineral sources) have been used for at least 5,000 years and were used exclusively for dyeing textile materials prior to 1857 when William Henry Perkin discovered Mauveine, the very first synthetic dyestuff.
Up until the 1920?s both natural and synthetic dyestuffs were used alongside each other but the increasing ease of manufacture of the synthetic dyes, and the fact that they do not need mordants to fix the colour prior to dyeing, gave them a big advantage.
Coupled with the birth of synthetic fibres, for which natural dyestuffs were not suitable, the less commercial activities of craft industries or limited edition apparel collections soon became the new downsized world of natural dyes.
Before the production of synthetic dyes in 1857 the world?s population was around one billion people and land was plentiful for the production of cultivated material for dyestuffs (e.g. madder, indigo etc.) or for finding them in their natural habitat (e.g. logwood, brazilwood etc.). Natural dyestuffs were extracted to colour natural fibres (cotton, wool, silk and flax in the main) and where, at the time, colour fastness of dyed textiles was variable and the washing of clothes, primitive. Dry cleaning of silk was first commercialised in Paris, France around 1855 using camphene - a kind of turpentine. Later, other solvents such as gasoline, paraffin and benzine were used.
Then, in 1906, the electric washing machine was invented; synthetic detergents in 1917 and flourescent brightening agents in 1930 - the consumer soon learnt to expect more vis-a-vis the performace of clothes and their colours.
Today, with a world population of around six billion, arable land is considered more essential for food production rather than vegetable sources for natural dyestuffs.
Commercially (and to a more environmentally-aware consumer), natural dyestuffs present more problems than synthetic ones:
- they require the use of metallic/vegetable mordants for fixation which create waste
disposal issues with vegetable-based impurities and toxic metal mordants in dyehouse
waste water run-offs
- they generally are worse performers with regard to colour yield and colour fastness.
- the view that natural colourants from natural dyestuffs provide an eco-friendly
alternative is not borne out with a cradle-to-grave analysis of their cultivation,
production, extraction and the application methods needed to fix them to textile
All of which leaves synthetic dyestuffs more economically-efficient and with better eco-credentials in a world legislating to preserve its very existence.