Natural vs. Synthetic Dyes: A Primer

Natural dyes have been used since the beginning of organized society, developed so humans could paint their bodies, clothes, houses, weapons and religious icons.  The colors were obtained from plants, animals, fruits and earth.  In Mexico, they include indigo, cochineal (the bug parasite of the prickly pear cactus paddle), moss, nut shells and leaves, wild flowers, tree bark, and even a sea snail that emits a deep purple ink.  Natural dyes are scarce, higher priced, and require a monch longer, more complex process to produce.

For example, to make red using cochineal requires one day to grind the grain of the cochineal bug (cultivated on the cactus for three months), one day to prepare the wool, one day to mordant the wool, and one day to dye the wool.  This does not factor in the three-to-six  months of time required to “grow” the bug on the cactus.

To produce a synthetic red dye takes one day.  Color variation and intensity is controlled by adding more dye to the solution.  It is not the complex chemistry that is involved in the natural dyeing process.

My friend Eric Chavez Santiago, director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, says that he has experimented with formulas using cochineal and a variety of acids and bases, including ash and lime juice.  “I’ve been able to document over 100 different colors using cochineal, shades ranging from pink to red to purple to orange.”  With a synthetic dye, one flat, consistent shade is standard.

Intensity and Brilliance

Natural dye color variation and brillance is achieved by mixing different mordants with one batch of skeins, manipulating the PH of the dye baths, investing hours of time for one color.  Colors obtained from natural sources tend to be earthy and subtle.  Synthetic dyes often produce garish, stark or muddy colors.  Wool rugs prepared with natural dyes are colorfast and will last a lifetime.  Colorfastness can be tested by rubbing the surface of the weaving (if the weaver lets you) with a damp cloth.  If the dye does not transfer, there is a good chance that the color is permanent.

The Price Difference

Natural dye materials are scarce and expensive.  For example, cochineal is more costly per ounce than gold.  Synthetic dyes are readily available at low cost, resulting in a less costly rug to produce.  Density of weave also adds to quality and therefore to cost.  A low cost rug will likely be woven with synthetic dyes, on brittle, machine spun (not hand-spun) wool, and have a looser weave.

Health and Wellness

The chemical fumes that are breathed in from the vapors of the dye pot are toxic.        Sulfuric acid is potent and can burn the skin. If it splashes into the eye a person can go blind. Because people dye at home and there are not regulations around the use of chemical dyes, most people don’t take necessary precautions to use a face mask. As a result, over time many develop respiratory problems and lung cancer. A movement toward the use of natural dyes is also a good public health step. If you buy a rug dyed with natural materials, even though it may be more expensive, you know you are making a difference for a healthier life.

We encourage you to be informed, know your rug weaver, and ask to see the dye pots (not just a demonstration of lime juice squeezed into the palm to dilute a few grains of cochineal).  Know before you buy.

13 responses to “Natural vs. Synthetic Dyes: A Primer

  1. That’s ok. Thanks for you time. The search contiues!:)

  2. Thanks for your reply. I have seen baja hoodies on the internet made with this fabric, but I’m not sure if the company produces it themselves or not. I found an older website about mexican textiles that said this style of weaving is done at, “San Juan de Rio, Soledad Azompa, Veracruz a wool weaving village.” But I cannot verify that. Are you familiar with this place perhaps?

  3. Hello, I had been looking for a Mexican herringbone fabric for a long time now. One source I found showed a village or two in the Oaxaca region that does this style of weaving but I haven’t been able to verify. Can you shed some light on this? Do you know of anywhere in the region I might be able to find this style fabric?

  4. Buenas tardes, Norma! Thank you for the wonderful work you are doing in bringing people to explore, learn in and love Oaxaca. I am writing because I am looking for a source of natural dyes in Oaxaca- especially cochineal, marigold, and indigo. I tried contacting Tlapanochestli after looking at Eric Chavez Santiago’s research paper on them, but wasn’t able to get a response. Do you have any ideas about how I could buy some of these dyes from here in California?

    I am hoping to use them for my project, Mending Patriotism, which is a series of quilts made from clothing cast off by migrants attempting to cross the US-Mexico border. My hope is to incorporate these natural dyes from Oaxaca in order to bring attention to one of the root causes of emigration– people losing land-based livelihoods.

    Please let me know if you have any ideas about where I can obtain natural dyes from Oaxaca.

    All the best, and I very much hope to come to one of your workshops down there someday!
    Juna Muller

  5. Hola, buenas noches!!
    me gustaría saber si ustedes me pueden ayudar a conseguir añil indigofera suffructicosa allá en Oaxaca, me econtre con está pagina esta súper padre, gracias y saludos.

    • Florencia, I have asked Eric Chavez Santiago, the education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, about where to get Oaxaca indigo. He has looked around the city of Oaxaca and says there is none available this time of year. I know it is grown and dried on the coast of Oaxaca. I don’t know a source there, but maybe someone else does. I am sorry I cannot help you further.

  6. The piece not mentioned here is that synthetic dyes are derived from coal tar and the factories producing them as well as dying textiles with them are some of the worlds largest polluters and creators of greenhouse gases. I also strongly disagree that it takes four days to dye something with cochineal. I grind my insects, simmer for 45 minutes and let the pot sit overnight to be used the next day. While doing this I am usually also dying with other natural material. I think people should be encouraged to try natural methods.

  7. I learned to weave in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato many years ago.
    We didn’t use natural dyes, but fiber reactive ones. Cochineal has always been expensive. I have been thinking of experimenting with other natural sources like hibiscuss (jamaica) for reds, onions and coffe for browns and annato seeds for red- oranges tones as environmental friendly alternatives. I would apreciate your coments.

    • Dear Marines, cochineal continues to be very expensive. That is why the wool rugs dyed with cochineal are more costly and not many weavers use it, as you know so well. I have not heard of using hibiscus or annato seeds but I have myself used coffee and onion skins for the dye bath with some success. I will ask Eric Chavez Santiago the director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca if he has heard of using these natural materials for dyeing. If you wish, you can write to him directly at Do you use wool or cotton as your weaving material? Are you using a backstrap or floor loom? We are interested in your process. Keep us informed. Saludos, Norma

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