The Truth About Natural Dyes: Do They Fade?

I frequently get asked questions regarding natural dyes, mostly from people who care about sustainability and want to support petroleum-free dyes; however, they are concerned that natural dyes may not last as long as the synthetic dyes used ubiquitously today. So I decided to make a short series of blog posts to respond to some of these questions and hopefully address and allay some concerns about natural dyes by laying out the facts.

Question 1. Do natural dyes fade?

Naturally-dyed hanging in the series Storie della Passione (cir. 1500s-1700s, Genoa). Dyed with woad, a plant  containing the same blue pigment as indigo. (Photo: Archivio Fotografico dell’Servizio Strutture).In short, all dyes fade. Whether synthetic or natural, the dyes will fade over time. It is the rate of fading that we focus on, making sure that our natural dyes last for the life of the clothing.

There are two main factors that impact the longevity of natural dyes: the dye plants used and how the garment is cared for. Fortunately, we have the first part covered, and the second is very easy to do.

Sustain uses the best natural dyes. With the ability to reach cultures and peoples all over the world, we have access to the best natural dyes across the globe, so we get to chose the strongest dyes that last the longest. Dyes such as indigo, madder, and plants high in tannins like oak, are known for their colorfastness (i.e., their ability to maintain their color). We specifically use dyes known to last a long time, so they can easily survive through multiple washings, sun exposure, etc. If you have ever been to a museum and seen colored articles from before 1860 (when synthetic dyes were invented), you would see first hand how long natural dyes can last. We use these exact same natural dyes.

Naturally-dyed carpet from the late 1700s from Rabat (Museé National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, Paris,  Arts of the Maghreb Collection, inv. no. 19774.19).In caring for plant dyed clothing, we recommend storing the clothing in a dark place when not being worn (like a closet or drawer) and washing using a gentle cycle with a mild detergent. This will help lessen the stress on the naturally-dyed fabric to keep the colors stronger, longer (this is actually true of any dyed fabric).

With this, naturally-dyed clothing can live a long and colorful life, without harming our environment (or skin). From an environmental perspective, synthetic dyes actually last too long, taking about 50 years to degrade in nature1, and during that time they can have toxic and harmful effects on the surrounding environment. Natural dyes, on the other hand, will naturally biodegrade in months in the natural microbial environment of a compost. 




1 "Dyes-Environmental Impact and Remediation," Luciana Pereira and Madalena Alves, Ch. 4 (2012).