The Evolution of Textile Dyeing

Dyes have been in use for thousands of years, the earliest documented use of dyes was as early as 15,000 BC when cave paintings using pigments such as black, white, yellow, and reddish pigments were used for cave paintings.

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of dyed textiles which date back to the New Stone Age, or Neolithic Period, which took place around 10200 BC. During an excavation in the Timna Valley in Isreal which took place throughout 2013-14, fragments of dyed wool were recovered.  And linens found in the tombs of Ancient Egypt have also shown evidence of textile dyeing.

It is thought that textile dyeing become more prominent when the first true civilisations emerged and indeed flourished in the Middle East, Asia and Egypt. As civilisations grew, so did populations, and the desire to distinguish between gender and class, became more pronounced, natural dyes became widely used.

Find out about our Dyeing Processes here: Our Dyeing Processes 


Natural Dyes

All textile dyeing done in ancient times, and right up until around the 1850s, was done with natural dyes, meaning they are derived from natural sources, such as insects or animals, plants or vegetables and minerals.

Animal Dyes – Animal dyes generally come from insects or shellfish, but lichens, a truly bizarre and complex organism, which is an organism made up of two separate organisms, a fungus and an algae which have a symbiotic relationship, can also be classified in this category, 

Mineral Dyes – The earth holds a wide variety of minerals, sometimes found on the surface of the earth, and at other times found deep underground in mines. By scratching at the surface of any mineral-laden rock, and then mixing the resulting powder with oil or water, a dye is created.

Plant Dyes – The easiest to find and develop of all the natural dyes are those derived from plants and trees, with leaves, roots, and bark being used. 


A Dye to Die For

Royal or Imperial purple was previously known as Tyrian purple, as it was derived from the sea snails in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it was the ancient city of Tyre that became synonymous with its manufacturing. 

Producing a vivid, bright, and colourfast shade of purple, it quickly became the most expensive dye of the ancient world. Such was its demand, that Byzantine emperor Theodosius I declared that it was only to be used by the noble classes, anyone from the lower classes caught wearing purple ran the risk of being executed.

Dyes were widely used as a display of wealth and status, the rich and powerful could afford the bright hues and vivid colours, while the “working class” would generally be wearing greens, blacks or browns, the cheaper, more readily available shades.


Synthetic Dyes

Right up until the mid 19th century, when the first synthetic dyes were discovered, this shade of purple, and indeed almost all other bright hues remained highly sought after, and highly priced.

While picric acid, which produces a bright yellow when dyed with silk, was the first official synthetic dye, the man regarded by the industry to be responsible for the rise of synthetic dyes was William Henry Perkin. 

While studying chemistry, in his quest to synthesis an anti-malarial drug, he accidentally created “Mauve” which quickly became a fashion phenomenon. The black residue left behind by his experiments on coal tar, when dissolved in methylated spirit created a purple solution, which could be used to dye textiles.

This was something of a “Eureka” moment within the textile industry, and it sparked an American gold rush style frenzy of activity, with every man and his dog wanting to discover the next shade. This led to a boom in the textile dyeing industry, and around the time of the industrial revolution, commercial and commission dyers began to shape the textile industry that we know today.


The Rise of Commission Dyers 

Suddenly, there was a demand for low cost, readily available and easy to apply dyes, which led to the creation of synthetic dyes as we know them today. There is no almost no colour that cannot be achieved with synthetic dyes, and this resulted in regular folk now having access to the colours that were previously beyond their reach.

Where there is a demand, there is almost always a supply. And commission dyers working out of dyehouses around the world filled that demand. 

Through the years, as more and more research and investment went into the development of synthetic dyes, they became more sustainable and lessened the detrimental impacts on the environment. 

At Pincroft, we have over 130 years of commission textile dyeing experience, and we are proud to be at the forefront of the textile dyeing industry.

Find out more about us: We are Commission Textile Dyers, Printers & FinishersAt Pincroft, we’re your Commission Dyers, Printers & Finishers 

We are Pincroft. And we thrive on flexibility and innovation to offer the quality that positions us as one of the world’s most advanced facilities for commission fabric dyeing, printing and finishing.

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