The Blessings of Chemical Dyes

The last century has been a golden age for colour.  There has been such a surplus of pigment and dyes for so many decades that we have become numb to this reality.  All colours are simply available.  The colour of your bedding, bathroom or t-shirt only reflects personal choice and nothing else. It wasn’t always this way.  Go back a few hundred years and the search for colour spanned oceans and continents, formed trade monopolies and was a main signifier of wealth and power.

Before synthesized colour pigments were invented colours had to come from somewhere and be derived from something.   Aztec beetle farms, Mediterranean Sea snails and Buddhist lapis lazuli mines were once the gate keepers of their respective hues.


Sassoferrato, The Virgin in Prayer, 1640–50. & stacks of raw Lapis Lazuli stones

The origin of the colour ultramarine comes from a mineral found deep within the Hindu Kush of central Afghanistan.  The largest and purest deposit of Lapis Lazuli (Latin for ‘the blue stone’) is located here. For most of history this was the sole source of the most vibrant blue pigment known to man.  Thought of as a precious stone, it’s actually a mixture of minerals. A laborious process of milling and washing is needed to extract and purify the vibrant blue powder within.

The stone was used in Egyptian tombs, inlaid within mosques in Istanbul, inset into Han Dynasty jewelry, and finally, used sparingly in European renaissance paintings. By the time the pigment made it to Europe the price was astronomical. There are records showing that ultramarine pigment was held under lock and key to ensure the colour wasn’t being overused by painters on commissioned work. 

These unregulated mines in Afghanistan are still in use today, although rarely (if ever) for creating pigments.  Instead, some of the stones from the corrupt mining practices under the Taliban are ending up  in crystal healing stores across the Western world. The stones may be beautiful, but the reality of these mines is anything but.

An Afghani miner carrying a Lapis Lazuli stone on his back

Tyrian Purple

Yarn dyed with Tyrian Purple. & a Murex Sea Snail 

The colour of kings!  Tyrian purple was the most expensive dye of the ancient world.  Wearing even a small detail of Tyrian purple fabric was once a symbol of immense wealth. 

The origin of the colour comes from two varieties of snail found at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.  Both the Murex and Thais sea snails were cracked open and squeezed to extract a single drop of liquid held within their hypobranchial gland. The most vibrant purple was formed by mixing the liquid of the two gastropods together.  It was then added to a vat of stale urine and allowed to ferment for 10 days before fabric was added.

This was devastating for the aquatic ecosystem.  Since each snail only contained one drop, it took 250,000 snails to make one ounce of dye.  The piles of shells discarded over the millennium are so large they reformed entire sections of the coastal landscape.   Miraculously, these sea snails managed to survive this devastating fashion trend.


Illustration of Dactopius Coccus & the pickley pear cactus

In 1777 the French government financed a covert mission to send a spy into the Spanish colony of New Spain (Present day Mexico).  Their goal was to find the secret source of the expensive red dye known as Cochineal.  After years of searching, the agent was able to smuggle the truth back to France. It came in the form of a cactus leaf covered in tiny insects.  The bug was Dactopius Coccus, just bigger than the size of a pinhead and dined exclusively on the prickly pear cactus. Making a dye out of them was as simple as grinding the insects in a mordant.  The result was one of the most vibrant natural dyes the world had ever known.

The history of farming the bugs dates to the Aztec and Inca Empires, both of which used and traded the dye extensively throughout the Americas.  The bright red colours were the envy of the conquistadors who had never seen fabric in such rich shades of red.  Along with gold and silver, Cochineal became one of the major products the Spanish extracted from their colonies.  The natural environment of prickly pear cactus was conveniently contained within the Spanish empire, giving them complete control over the trade. Records show that in 1572 Spain imported 72 tones of dye from Lima alone.  That’s roughly 10 billion insects.

Cochineal farming is still being practiced.  The dye is now mainly used as food colouring. It gives the red shade to your M&M’s and Cherry Coke, deceivingly hidden under the label ‘E120’. However, their days may be numbered. Vegan activist groups are slowly chipping away at this creative food labeling, causing more brands to turn to other colouring options.

Illustration of a Cochineal farm under Spanish rule 

In Praise of Alchemy

Modern chemistry started upending the business of pigments at the turn of the 19th century. Chemists got to work cracking the secrets of colour.  Little by little, labs started finding formulas for every shade the human eye can perceive.  

When the French chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet found his recipe for ultramarine in 1828 (aptly named French Ultramarine), the pigment, pound for pound, was 2,500 times cheaper than its Afghani equivalent. The synthetic version of Cochineal undercut the Spanish empires monopoly on the colour, further weakening the oppressive colonial power. Lastly, because of an accidental lab spill that formed a vibrant purple goo, there is one less strain on the aquatic life of the Mediterranean (doing away with the practice of using urine for colour fixing has also been a blessing).

We live in a colour utopia that our ancestors could have only dreamed of.  When designing a rug, I’m free to choose any colour under the sun.  Price point or supply doesn’t cross my mind.  Thanks to the development of synthetic dyes every hue is available to everyone.

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Nature is healing, we are the virus!


AWESOME newsletter! Congratulations on such well expressed piece!


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