The Stories Behind the World’s Most Coveted Dyes

One of the worst threats to our natural environment comes from the clothes we wear. Every year, the textile industry dumps 625,000 tons of chemical waste — much of it from its factories’ synthetic dying processes — into waterways and lands, causing skin burns, cancer, and other ailments in humans, and killing local plants and animals. It’s estimated that discarded textiles occupy about 5% of the world’s landfills, and that one garbage truck’s worth of clothing is burned or buried in a landfill each second. Clearly, clothing has become too disposable.

But it wasn’t always this way. Clothing, and especially dyed garments, were once treasured items whose colors could take significant time, long distances, and untold fortunes to produce. “For most of human history, the dye stuffs, or the raw materials that made dyes, were some of the most valuable and contentious commodities in the world,” writes anthropologist and textile artist Lauren MacDonald.

Her new book, In Pursuit of Color: From Fungi to Fossil Fuels: Uncovering the Origins of the World’s Most Famous Dyes (Atelier Éditions, 2023), uncovers the surprising and consequential stories behind some of humankind’s most sought-after dyes. Anyone interested in history, nature, fashion, or color will enjoy MacDonald’s lively accounts of the materials that have colored and shaped human life for millennia.

Bayer alizarin factory, 1961 (courtesy Bayer AG, Bayer Archives Leverkusen)

MacDonald organizes her book according to a dye’s source material: flora, fauna, fungi, and fossil fuels, or synthetic dyes. The author explains that for thousands of years, high quality purples, reds, blacks, blues, and yellows have often been rare and difficult to produce, and have thus taken on powerful social meanings: wearers might embody a sense of wealth, royalty, piety, fertility, or other values according to their garments’ hues. We learn about the fascinating lengths that people have taken to achieve certain colors — urine, sheep’s blood, arsenic, and dung are included in some dye recipes — as well as the scientific innovations and synthetic replacements that came only within the last 150 years or so.

The dedication and importance of dying practices that MacDonald covers in her book are truly astounding. For example, until the late 19th century, cochineal farmers in the Americas — whose insects were used to dye nobles’ scarlet garments in the Aztec empire and later in Europe — protected their crop by bringing the female insects inside their homes during storm seasons, and by carrying the tiny insect with its host cacti high into the mountains to avoid inclement weather. In another chapter, MacDonald discusses the complicated history of Murex or Tyrian purple, a dye produced from the glands of carnivorous sea snails. The color was a favorite of Alexander the Great, and the dye that produced it was sometimes valued in its day as more expensive than gold.

Dyeing has been a part of human history for at least 26,000 years, and has had very real consequences on economies, societies, and ecosystems across the globe. The author doesn’t shy away from the darker side of dyes. Her book details the legacy of environmental pollution that began with the creation of the first synthetic dyes, the enslaved laborers who supported Britain’s indigo monopoly, and the German dye factories that later manufactured the chemical used by the Nazis in gas chambers during the Holocaust. In Pursuit of Color gracefully weaves together archaeological findings, scientific oddities, colonial injustices, and pressing current events, offering new insights into the textiles we live with and new reasons to appreciate what we already have.

9781954957008 Pursuit of Color Cochineal Smithsonian Cochineal Scan nmnhbotany 12918992
Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia cochenillifera), Opuntia cochenillifera L, Decker, B. G. 2230, US National Herbarium Sheet 3723988; Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
9781954957008 Pursuit of Color Indigo Blue print H. Fischer dye works Neukirch Lausitz. Heinrich Gertrud 1940. Image credit SLUB Deutsche Fotothek. CC BY SA 4.0
Blue printing at H. Fischer dye works, eastern Germany, 1940 (© SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek)
9781954957008 Pursuit of Color Shades On Feathers Bayer Science History Institute
Sample book with dyeing instructions and an 18-section foldout containing 143 dyed feathers (courtesy Science History Institute)
9781954957008 Pursuit of Color Aniline Aniline dyeing at the Barmen plant 1900 Bayer Archives
Aniline dyeing at the Barmen plant, 1900 (courtesy Bayer AG, Bayer Archives Leverkusen)

In Pursuit of Color: From Fungi to Fossil Fuels: Uncovering the Origins of the World’s Most Famous Dyes by Lauren MacDonald (2023) is published by Atelier Éditions and is available online and in bookstores.

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