In the 21st century, we're used to having a full spectrum of colours in our wardrobes and around our homes. But we owe this vibrancy to discoveries in chemistry over the last 200 years, which started a synthetic dye boom.
The synthetic dye boom started with mauveine, the purple dye discovered in 1856 by 18-year-old chemist William Henry Perkin. Within decades synthetic dyes were available in almost any shade you could imagine—bringing with them a fashion revolution, but also environmental consequences.
How were dyes made before synthetics?
Before mauveine and other artificial colours, natural products were used for centuries to dye materials.
Woad—a yellow-flowered plant—was cultivated by the ancient Britons and was also used in the medieval era to dye fabrics blue.
Much later, in 1758, Cuthbert Gordon (bap. 1730, d. 1810) patented a process to make a purple ‘cudbear’ dye from the native lichen plants (commonly known as orchella weeds) of Scotland.
However, as European imperial powers colonised the world, the natural resources of other countries were plundered to meet the European appetite for coloured fabrics.
Extracts from the leaves of Indigofera tinctoria made the eponymous indigo dye. Cochineal insects native to the Americas became the sought-after scarlet dye carmine.
Mauveine, too, was entangled in the story of European colonial aggression. Under the instruction of August Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818–1892), Perkin had been experimenting with aniline, a colourless aromatic oil derived from coal tar, in an attempt to synthesise quinine.
Quinine, a natural product derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, was in demand because of its antimalarial properties. Having an antidote to malaria would strengthen Europe’s colonial grip.
However, instead of synthesising quinine, Perkin discovered how to make the purple dye mauveine.
The impact of early synthetic dyes
Although not the first chemist to make an artificial dye from aniline, Perkin was astute enough to realise the commercial potential of his purple product.
Tyrian purple was an ancient dye, very expensive because the shells of thousands of Mediterranean sea snails produced only a tiny amount. Wearing purple was therefore favoured by the wealthy as a mark of high social status.
Perkin initially called his mauveine 'Tyrian purple'. As the author Simon Garfield has noted, this shows Perkin was thinking about how to make his dye appeal to the market.
Empress Eugénie of France (1826–1920), a leader of fashion, also favoured the colour. Ultimately Perkin settled on the name mauveine because the word mauve was then associated with Parisian haute couture.
By August 1859, according to the satirical magazine Punch, London had succumbed to 'the mauve measles'.
Mauveine made Perkin a fortune and other chemists followed suit. Perkin’s research supervisor Hofmann, who had at first criticised his student for leaving his quinine researches to pursue the commercial manufacture of artificial dyes, later synthesised his own aniline dye, rosaniline.
why use aniline?
Aniline is a starting material for many industrial chemical products, including synthetic dyes and agricultural chemicals. It can be extracted from coal tar, which was a big waste product in the 19th century, making it readily available to chemists.
According to Laura Kalba, the explosion of aniline dyes onto the market led to an era of fashion characterised by chromatic vibrancy and variety, contrary to the staid images of Victorian fashions conjured up by the monochrome photographs we associate with the era. The success of the chemists’ aniline dyes allowed for a kaleidoscope of colour in the fashionable world.
Take a closer look at the early synthetic dye samples in our collection:
Drawbacks to the new artificial dyes
There was a crucial problem with the aniline dyes—they were liable to fade.
In 1882, William Morris (1834–1896), whose ideas greatly influenced the Arts and Crafts movement, even accused the artificial aniline dyes “of destroying all beauty” in the art of dyeing.
One of his main criticisms was how easily the dyes faded:
The fading of the new dyes is a change into all kinds of abominable and livid hues.
Enter Scottish textile manufacturer James Morton (1867–1943) who, along with his wife Beatrice Emily (née Fagan, 1871–1958), was a disciple of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Mortons furnished their house with hand-crafted oak furniture and wallpaper designed by Morris and Charles Francis Annesley Voysey.
In 1897, James contracted Voysey to design woven textiles exclusively for the Morton company for a minimum of five years.
One day around 1904, Morton was walking along Regent Street in London to check on his wares in Liberty’s shop window. He was dismayed to discover that the colours on his tapestries had faded beyond recognition. He was even more shocked to learn that his tapestries had only been on display for a little over a week.
Developing fast dyes not fading dyes
James Morton resolved to make 'fast dyes' that would not fade, even if that meant sacrificing the variety of colours available to the consumer.
He sent out sample testcards of dyed fabric to his brother-in-law, Patrick Fagan, who was working for the British colonial civil service in India, with instructions to leave the fabric exposed to direct sunlight for weeks and even months at a time.
Morton’s testcards demonstrated that some dyes fared better than others on exposure to sunlight. Based on the results of his investigation, Morton employed a young Scottish chemist named John Christie to synthesise dyes based on the chemical structures that had proved to be more stable to sunlight.
Morton named these dyes 'Sundour': dour in Scot’s can translate to stubborn or hard to move—Morton’s dyes were “sun stubborn.”
How fast dyes influenced fashion and design
Morton sold his fast-dyed textiles to high-end fashion houses like Burberry, who marketed his products on the promise that the dyes were 'indelible'. The adverts that Burberry placed for the fabrics in high-society magazines The Queen and The Field in the spring of 1913 even mentioned the tests Morton ran in India.
Testimonials from Morton’s customers evidence their satisfaction. In 1928, one couple sent the company a Sundour-dyed curtain that had been purchased for their yacht in 1913—this curtain had weathered the sea spray and sun throughout the First World War, had been washed, and had still retained its colour.
Morton described his colour palette as 'modest' compared to the variety of hues that had been made available by the aniline dyes of the late-19th century. He even reverted to using older mineral dyes for light brown and buff colours, as he found them to be more permanent than their artificial counterparts.
Morton and his modest palette of fast dyes served as a foil to the seemingly unending variety of bright but impermanent artificial dyes of the previous century.
The legacy of synthetic dyeing today
Many of James Morton’s dyes and the processes used to manufacture them would now be classed as environmentally harmful. Indeed, the textile industry today continues to use chemicals that are harmful to the environment in its pursuit of fast fashion. The World Bank estimates that up to 20% of global water pollution results from textile dyeing and treatment.
But there are chemists out there who are attempting to make more sustainable dyes. For example, a team at the University of Cambridge is making dyes that are non-toxic, biodegradable and durable.
Turning away from artificial aniline dyes and back to nature, the group is inspired not by natural pigments, but by the way light interacts with stacks of transparent layers: they make dyes that mimic the innate structural colour of the green dock beetle, the blue Pollia berry and even bacteria.
Find out more about fashion and synthetic dyes
- Science Museum blog, Can a colourful future be sustainable?
- Science and Industry Museum blog, The world's first synthetic dye
- Racked, The history of green dye is a history of death
- Maryland Historical Society, The dyes of death
- Open University, The birth of (synthetic) dyeing
- Scientific American, Dye me a river: How a Revolutionary Textile Coloring Compound Tainted a Waterway [Excerpt]
- David, Alison Matthews. Fashion Victims: The dangers of dress past and present. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
Garfield, Simon. Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World. London: Faber and Faber, 2000.
Kalba, Laura Anne. Color in the Age of Impressionism: Commerce, Technology, and Art. University Park, PA, USA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017.
Morton, Jocelyn. Three Generations in a Family Textile Firm. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.