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The colour purple

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The shop fronts of malls are often seen brightly advertising their latest wares by employing eloquently dressed mannequins. The dresses they wear, with styles ranging from minimalistic to extravagant, are often dyed with vivid colours. To achieve such vibrance, these textiles undergo dyeing, the process where colour is imparted into the fabric using special pigments called dyes. These dyes, ranging from natural to synthetic, are what give clothes and textiles their lucid colours.


However, our world has not always been so colourful. Before the discovery of the first synthetic dye in 1856, dyers mainly used natural dyes from various plant and animal sources. These natural dyes were limited in their palette; uncommon colours such as purple were exclusively reserved for the nobility. A particular dye, called Tyrian purple, was sourced from carnivorous sea snails and was highly prized.


Tyrian purple was an important pigment in antiquity. The ancient Phoenicians, who dealt with purple-dyed textiles, derive their name from Greek phoinike meaning purple country. To manufacture the dye, thousands of sea snails had to be processed. Large vats full of sea snails were left to rot, then boiled down over a period of days. This labour-intensive process made manufacturing the dye abhorrently expensive; indeed, historians of those times attest that the dye fetched its weight in silver. The expense needed to wear clothes dyed with Tyrian purple meant that for the longest time, they were exclusively worn by the nobility. This is also why purple is often associated with royalty.


Purple was not the only dye sought after. Indigo, a bluish colour reminiscent of denim jeans, was an important dye as well. Indigo comes from the Indigofera plant which grows in tropical regions. The dye was especially valuable in Europe, where it had to be imported all the way from India (thus the name of the dye). Indigo also became very valuable in medieval Japan. When the use of silk was prohibited to commoners, Japan began to grow cotton, which could only be dyed effectively by indigo. The value of indigo was so high that it was often referred to as blue gold.


Nowadays, modern dyes have mostly superseded naturally sourced dyes due to their superior consistency in manufacturing and quality. These dyes are usually sourced from petroleum and are based on real chemicals found in natural dyes. With more than a thousand synthetic dyes available, one can choose to wear a fabric of any colour imaginable. Along with natural dyes, synthetic dyes have shaped the human thought process and will continue to do so with evolving technology. With a rich past and a bright future ahead, the colourful history of dyes has only just begun.

Published: 2018-06-21 07:51:31