Student Essay

"Where Do Colors Come From?"

This unit describes the chemistry and history of dyeing. People have always used dyes and bleaches to color and whiten fabrics. For a long time, people made dyes from plants they found around them. Different geographical regions had different plants from which to extract dyes and different techniques for dyeing. As contacts among groups increased, these materials and techniques were passed along. While the techniques for fixing color on fibers change over time, the process and its chemistry does not change much.

18th century dyeshop, 1750. Denis Diderot, A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia
of Trades and Industry,
v. II. (Charles Gillespie, ed.
New York: Dover Press, 1959).

On the eve of European colonization of the Americas, bleaching and dyeing depended on craft skill gained by lengthy apprenticeship, and each was the work of male specialists who usually carried out their labors in separate establishments. Because the preindustrial, presynthetic phase of the wet processing of textiles depended upon natural ingredients, the men who practiced these arts had to know (even if not in a formal sense) as much biology as they did chemistry to understand the properties of their materials--which came from plants, minerals, and animals. The manufacture of natural dyes required a good deal of skill, especially the more complicated dyes like indigo. Indigo was produced through a process of controlled fermentation over a number of days. Like the brewer, the dyer learned sophisticated ways of managing bacterial action without any knowledge of bacteria. Similarly, bleachers used their sense of taste to test for acidity, without more "modern" methods of chemical analysis.

Indigo, Indigofera tinctoria

Indigo is probably the oldest natural dyestuff ever used. The indigo plant is about three feet tall when it is harvested and the dye composes about 0.4% of the weight of the plant. To produce a usable product, this small amount of dye, which is a compound called indoxyl, must be removed from the plant. Over fifty species of three different plant families, widely scattered over the world, contain enough of the dye to be worth cultivating, but tropical varieties were especially prized for the quality of the color they produced.

Harvesting indigo, India 1900. Courtesy of Anthony Travis.

It was exactly the quality of colors from tropical dyestuffs like indigo that made them economically valuable to Europeans, and that helped trigger the imperialist rush to explore and subdue Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The best indigo came from India and Africa, for example, while the vibrant reds produced by the cochineal beetle came from Central America. Exotic products from far away places also gave birth to the mercantilist theory; colonies provided a wealth of natural products for the imperial center, and a market for its finished goods. There was the justification for global expansion, and the military power to sustain it.

Navajo Beeldlei (blanket), Ca 1868. Smithsonian Institution.

In America, Native Americans, especially the Navaho and the Hopi, were expert dyers long before the arrival of Europeans. The American colonists used the dyes and methods brought with them from their European homes, but over time they turned to dyes made from native plants to supplement those imported from Europe. From a very early time, dyes and dyeing involved European-Americans in an international economy. During the early 19th century, dyeing became a specialized skill (much like the carding of wool) and sometimes moved outside the home to a special site. While most women maintained some skill at dyeing and continued to dye many fabrics at home, large pieces of cloth for domestic use and fabrics needed for manufacturing, began to be dyed (or bleached) by a professional working outside the home.

A young William Perkin, 1852.
Courtesy of the American Association
of Textile Chemists and Colorists

In the middle of the 19th century, European chemists sought to manufacture dyes in the laboratory rather than depending on plants. Scientists produced the first synthetic dyes using somewhat haphazard cooking experiments, often focusing on derivatives of coal tar. Gradually European dye manufacturers began to work closely with chemists in technical colleges who applied new theories to the chemical understanding of both natural and synthetic dyes.

BASF label, Ludwigshafen, Germany, 1900.

By the early 20th century, Germany controlled the production of synthetic dyes and the rest of the world imported most of their chemical dyes from Germany. Germany used the chemical research and development capability first evolved in the dye industry to move into other areas including pharmaceuticals, photographic materials, explosives, and synthetic rubber. The outbreak of World War I found Germany very strong in materials made by chemists and the United States cut off from dyestuffs. American companies, primarily Du Pont, moved quickly to fill the vacuum left by the cutting off of German supplies, and soon American companies found that the dyeing industry brought them the same knowledge and profits it had brought the Germans.

Copyright © 1998 The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.

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Last Revision: 6/5/98