“In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.” Rachel Carson
Recently on a social media page devoted to fiber arts a person posted that they were “attacked” by natural dyers at fiber event because their wool was colored with synthetic dyes. I do not know this person and I would have no reason to doubt their word. I do suspect the word “attack” may be a little strong and used for dramatic effect. Immediately there was a long string of commentary and it was very anti- natural dye, anti-mordant and overwhelmingly these comments were made by people that had, in fact, never actually dyed anything naturally. This is not the first time I have seen something like this happen. The majority of fiber artists use synthetic dyes and appear to feel uncomfortable with those of us who use natural dyes exclusively. The major theme repeated is how mordants are not safe. Natural dyes are dangerous! In that particular thread there were even very random criticisms like this- (paraphrasing) “I am an avid hiker and enjoy being outdoors. I use synthetic dyes because they are safer, faster and I don’t have all that time to spend looking for plants!” That one gave me pause. How pleasant would it be to collect plant material while you are hiking. The point is there seems to be strong a kneejerk reaction to natural dyes often without actual facts.
Mordants are mineral salts used to create a bond between a fiber molecule and a dye molecule. Most commonly used are iron, copper, tin, alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) and chrome. The toxicity of these metals is all relative to their concentrations and that is often where the confusion lies. There are many things we ingest that can prove toxic in larger amounts. As a small scale natural dyer, I use relatively small amounts of these metals. (About 3 tsp. per lb.) If I use appropriate amounts of mordant per lb. of wool that I dye, I am left with 30-70 % left in the dye water exhaust.. I simply store the leftover dye vats and reconstitute them with 1/2 to 3/4 the amount of the mineral salt that I initially used. There is 0 negative impact to the environment. 0 dye effluent released in to the environment.
Synthetic dyes are derived from coal tar, a carcinogen. They are touted as “safe.” There is a company called Greener Shades that purport to be completely metal free and safe. This makes everyone happy and many people use these dyes unquestioningly. I am certainly not trying to pick on any one company! The question that is never asked by dyers is where do these dyes come from, how are they made, where are they made, who is making them and what exactly do they contain. The textile industry is very secretive! Recently an herbalist/soap maker and new friend of mine shared info about Wen cosmetics on her Facebook business page. Wen claims to be all natural but in reality is far from it! There are many companies like this. I commented about greener shades dyes and posed the same questions about how they are made etc. I must have struck a nerve. Another alpaca farm near me posted their own commentary on their business page after reading mine.
“When you call out a company,in a public forum such as facebook,clearly naming them and commenting with untruthful statements AND doing that on your friends business page…are you daring or just stupid??”
While I would question the wisdom of calling someone stupid on your own business page, as I don’t think it endears potential customers to your brand, I am using the direct quote to emphasize the hyperbole that often is expressed when one questions synthetic dyes.
We need to ask the questions! We are told that glycophosate (Round-Up) is safe. People use it without worry to slay weeds. We are told it does not persist in the soil, yet there are studies that prove it does! An MIT professor believes it may be an underlying cause of autism. We should ask where synthetic dyes are made and who is making them. We know much of the textile industry has moved overseas where there are relaxed pollution standards and many very low wage earners available to work in textile factories. They are exposed to many dangerous compounds and there does not seem to be much corporate responsibility in regard to their well being.
I believe it is too simple to just blast mordants every time someone mentions natural dyes. I dispose of zero waste water, I grow many of my own dye plants and I source ethically when needed. To my mind, this makes mordants far safer and much better for the environment. While I do realize we live in a world where it is impossible to avoid synthetically dyed clothing, I think fiber artists and knitters, could become a bit more open to the idea of natural dyes in their work. We all want to know where our food comes from. Should we not know where our dyes come from.
Food for thought: From fibershed.com
- After agriculture, the textile industry is the #1 polluter of fresh water resources on the planet.
- Recent 2012 report: Textiles are the 3rd largest fresh water polluter in China, ranking above mining and petroleum refinement.
- Microscopic plastic debris from washing clothing made of synthetic fibers is accumulating in the marine environment. Download a study on this important issue: Microplastic-Study
- According to a recent year-long investigation of the world’s largest dye factories, alkylphenols and PFCs were found in toxic levels in China’s two major fresh water river deltas. These hormone disruptors are hazardous even at very low levels. Both chemicals are man-made substances that persist in the environment and can have potentially devastating effects as they accumulate up the food chain.
- 2,000 synthetic chemicals on the marketplace are used to soften and process clothing after farming and dyeing processes are complete: The synthetic compounds used are attributed to a range of human disease—including chronic illness, auto-immune disfunction and cancer.
- Even the most ‘eco-friendly’ synthetic dyes contain endocrine disrupters and the most commonly used dyes still contain heavy metals—such as cobalt, chrome, copper, and nickel in neurotoxic concentrations.
- Labor is sought for cost first and foremost—not for quality—leading to massive exploitation and many unstable jobs.