Sustainable Clothing: All About Dyes

Oct 21, 2019 | Gardening, Slow Living, Sustainable Apparel

Walk into any clothing store these days and look around. Garments are available in a vast array of colors, from black, white and neutral tones all the way to neon brights in any hue and everything in between. To the modern day consumer, it’s perfectly normal and expected to have a wide selection of colors to choose from when making a purchase. We value color choice as an expression of our personality and individual taste. But how often do we stop to consider where the color actually comes from, and how all of those garments are dyed?

Synthetic Dyes

Unless clearly stated otherwise, most clothing you buy today has been subjected to synthetic dyes. Synthetic dyes were created in the 1850s, and were a revolutionary way to produce long lasting colorful garments on the cheap, according to Regina Lee Blaszczyk, professor of business history at the University of Leeds. Before this discovery was made through an accidental chemical process in a lab, clothing was dyed using substances found in nature, particularly plants.

Synthetic dyes have come a long way since 1850. We now know that the way most of them are made  (using petrochemicals, aka plastic!) is extremely toxic for the dye handlers and  super harmful for the environment, particularly the waterways of developing countries where garment production is prevalent.  For a closer look at these toxic and inhumane processes check out an excellent documentary called River Blue.

Fiber Reactive Dyes

Fiber reactive dyes are not naturally derived. They are synthetics, but they are considered a more sustainable alternative than most of the synthetics used today. Why? They require WAY less water to produce their color, and their toxicity levels are significantly less than normal synthetic dyes. More conscious clothing brands are turning to this process for less impact on the environment and human health. Learn more here.

Natural Dyes

Natural dyes aren’t created in a lab, they are directly derived from plants and vegetation. Natural dyes are (mostly) non toxic, and are safe to wear on your skin. If a company says they use natural dyes, it means not only that their workers are safe from harmful chemicals but that the clothing you are wearing  is free from the harmful substances found in many synthetic dyes.

Because natural dyeing is a slower, more involved and more expensive process, you can be sure that the fast fashion industry uses synthetic dyes exclusively, with little or no exception.  But in learning about natural dyes, you can help shift the industry by creating a demand for a  more sustainable alternative to fabric color creation. Look for naturally dyed clothing from small boutique and artisan apparel companies, and use your buying power to feel good about what you’re wearing.

You can also have a lot of fun experimenting with natural dyes yourself. There are many techniques, but we’ll be teaching a bundle dyeing workshop at our Lady Farmer Slow Living Retreat in November, where you’ll learn how to use heat to transfer color from various plants onto fabric. In addition to this, you’ll have several other workshops to choose from, including food fermentation basics, sound healing, clean beauty and yoga.

Come play with us and enjoy and entire weekend of slow living, wonderful food, fun and community in the beautiful Catoctin mountains of Maryland, November 15th-17th. Get all the details and register here!

DIY Bundle Dyeing by Jessica Marquez for Design Sponge












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