Whether it is a vivid yellow jumpsuit, a faded blue shirt, a minimalistic monochrome gown or a colourful floral saree, the element that stands out the most in these outfits is the colour of the attire. Sporting colours is not only fundamental to our self-expression, but is also a reflection of mood and personality.

But, have you ever wondered what goes into the making of these clothes - from spinning, weaving, dyeing and printing to finally finishing it?

Well, a slew of synthetic dyes filled with chemicals are used to add colour to apparels, both in case of soft pastels and fluorescent ones. According to the United Nations Environment Program, textile dyeing is the biggest offender in the fashion industry and the second-largest polluter of water globally.

Image credit: Natural Dye House

The trend continues even today. Most of the textile factories and mills use synthetic and artificial colourants which are made from petrochemical sources. And, when these are discharged into water bodies, they become unfit for consumption. Besides, there is every chance for this polluted water to enter the food chain and cause harm to plants, animals and the environment as a whole.  

Natural dyes on the other hand which are extracted from plants, animals and minerals are both eco-friendly and non-toxic. As a matter of fact, some of the most beautiful hues can be created with the help of flowers, leaves, barks, nuts and fruit rind. Shades of bright yellow from marigold or turmeric, rich green from spinach, sooty brown and black from the barks of Acacia Catechu are some common colours and their sources.

Natural Dye House, a Tirupur based natural dyeing company which specialises in all kinds of natural dyeing services, leverages several elements from nature to add colour to clothes. Raaja Rajan M, the co-founder and CEO of the venture explains,

“We use  pomegranate rind to obtain a deep red colour and harda, a fruit that is found at Kumaon in Uttarakhand to get a yellowish tinge.”

The application of natural dyes on textiles dates back to over 5,000 years. A cloth dyed with madder or Rubia cordifolia, a flowering plant belonging to the coffee family, was found in the Indus river valley at Mohenjodaro. This is a piece of evidence that proves the significance of natural dyes in ancient India.

Before the industrial era, artisans, weavers and textile makers were only relying on these types of natural dyes. But now, synthetic and chemical dyes are ruling the market.

Why are synthetic dyes dominating the market?

The textile industry is extremely water-intensive. According to the Water Footprint Network, dyeing of clothes itself consumes 2.4 trillion gallons of water around the world every year. And, the ratio of water to the production of garments is 200 tons to 1 ton in most manufacturing facilities.

That is not all. The handling and processing of most textiles results in the generation of chemicals and contaminants that eventually land up in the environment. A report published by The World Bank, points out that around 17 to 20 percent of all the water pollution in the world is mainly caused by the colouring and processing measures adopted by the industry.

One of the personnel at Natural Dye House dyeing the clothes.

The same report highlights the presence of around 72 hazardous chemicals including hydrogen peroxide, sodium silicate, sulfides and other cationic materials in the water discharged after synthetic dyeing. While the metals present in the effluents affect human health, the inorganic salts lead to degradation of soil and water quality, and even threaten the existence of aquatic creatures.

While most textile companies are indifferent to all the damage, the Tirupur-based enterprise Natural Dye House wanted to do something about it.

“In the early 2010s I observed that many of the textile clusters in cities like Tirupur, Salem and Erode in Tamil Nadu were releasing tons of pollutants in water bodies. Due to this, TDS levels started going up and groundwater became tainted with contaminants. Coming from a family which has been associated with the textile industry, I knew that one of the major contributors to this was the use of synthetic dyes. So, with the objective of doing good to the environment, I set up Natural Dye House along with Dr K H Prabhu,” says Raaja Rajan, Co-founder and CEO, Natural Dye House.

Rajan spent the initial few years in research and development. And, after putting in a lot of time and effort, he came up with a mechanised process to dye clothes from natural items. He kicked off on a small scale, but today, the company has the capacity to dye 7,000 kilograms of fabric at its processing unit in Tirupur. The company also has a large client base including international firms such as Feed Projects, H&M, Ahlens, etc.

Presently, Rajan’s venture is one among the few entities that offers natural dyeing services. It is peculiar to note that though natural dyes were being used even before industrialisation took off, their application is still nascent in the Indian textile industry.  

One of the prime reasons for this is that the cost involved in producing natural dyes is twice as much as synthetic ones. And, designers, textile firms and fashion brands are unwilling to pay more from their pockets.

Image credit: Pranj Concepts

Aditi Jain, Founder of Pranj Concepts and a freelance textile designer talks about the inconveniences people face after buying naturally dyed outfits.  

“Clothes which are dyed using organic items tend to fade out quickly if not maintained well. Using harsh detergents, rigorous washing and direct exposure to sunlight and heat can diminish the colour. A lot of consumers stay away from naturally dyed clothes because it needs additional care,” she quips.

When it comes to attires pigmented with synthetic dyes, the same is not the case. So for obvious reasons a number of textile companies tend to sway towards natural dyes.

Embracing natural dyes

Despite some downsides, unadulterated colours from organic sources have an inexplicable charm and beauty. Natural dyes are fully sustainable since they can be derived from renewable sources and harnessed without causing any harm to the environment.

Unlike artificial or chemical colouring agents, they are non-allergic and have antimicrobial properties. Another principal reward is that fabrics can be naturally dyed without producing a lot of waste. Gauri Kuchhal, Founder of AyurSatwa, a Jaipur-based producer and supplier of natural dyes emphasises this.

“Sustainability involves reducing and reusing waste as much as possible. And, natural dyeing is a process that stands for the same. Even the water that is used during the course of natural dyeing can be redirected to hydrate plants and crops since the pigments that are left behind are harmless to the natural ecosystem”, she notes.
Dyes being made and processed at Aranya Natural.

The process of making natural dyes is elaborate, but exquisite. For instance, Aranya Natural which is a dyeing unit in Munnar has water filled basins, drying areas and a row of tables where people with disabilities work to add organic colour to fabrics.

Aranya Natural was established in 1994. The venture focuses on turning tea waste into dyes that colour georgettes, silks and chiffons for some of the world’s top fashion houses. Though it began as a rehabilitation project as part of Srishti Trust in a shed at Tata Tea’s Nettimoto estate, today Aranya has its our own boutique where shawls, stoles and garments made out of tie-dye, in varied patterns of shibori and itagimi are displayed and sold.

“We follow a 100 percent natural process. For the majority of dyes, we source raw materials that are natural and local. Eucalyptus grandis, eupatorium (nilgiri kozha) and ageratum are some of the plants we rely on. Another major resource we leverage is the tea waste that is generated in factories during processing,” notes Geetha Mathew, Program Coordinator, Aranya Natural.

Challenges along the way

While designers, textile mills and fashion brands in India are gradually shifting to natural dyes, there is a long way to go. This slow rate of adoption can be attributed to many challenges.

“Setting up a natural dyeing unit involves a lot of time, effort and resources. And, the business itself is not very economically viable. It has been a little over three years since Natural Dye House was incorporated, but, we are yet to become profitable. So only people who are really passionate and driven to make dyeing sustainable can make it big, create an impact,” adds Rajan.

The textile industry in India has an immense raw material base and manufacturing strength. In 2010, the country had around 2,500 textile weaving factories and 4,135 finishing units in the country.

One of the clothes naturally dyes by Srishti Trust's Aranya Natural.

Well-established and large scale textile production houses generally have set standard operating procedures and systems in place. Moving from synthetic to natural dyes involves a huge transformation and there is a sense of inertia and unpreparedness to go through it.

Natural dyeing is an age-old practice that involves both skill and technique. However, most of the know-how has diminished over time due to insufficient documentation especially with regard to procurement, extraction and processing.

“It is really hard to carry out natural dyeing at a commercial scale because it needs a lot of manual labour and time. Small scale set ups and designers might be able to pull it off though. Over and above all this, today, a new category of pigments called Azo-free dyes have emerged and are gaining acceptance. These are more low impact and eco-friendly in comparison to the conventional synthetic ones,” says Aditi.

How can fashion go green?

Sustainable fashion is picking up in India as more and more brands are taking cognizance and recognising the need to protect the environment. Nonetheless, a large part of the population is still shopping for clothes at the click of a button or buying it impulsively while walking through stores. They are not bothering too much about whether they are environmentally sound or not.

“If we have to go green, the community has to be made aware of sustainable fashion and its benefits. This can be started right from schools and educational institutes. And, if the government begins to offer low interest loans and subsidies for units engaged in natural dyeing and introduces pension schemes for the artisans, natural dyeing units and sustainable brands can grow even more,” says Geetha.

Some resources and links to help you learn more about natural dyeing:

Indian designers shifting to natural dyes
The use of natural dyes is gaining momentum in India with designers shifting to sustainable fashion.
India, a key country with regards to sustainable fashion
Fashion’s future is often created by reinventing the past and finding fresh inspiration in tradition.