Textile Dyes: History, Toxicity & Pollution

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you like colorful clothing? Do you know how textiles get their color? In this lesson, explore the history of textile dyes. Learn how some can be harmful to people and the environment.

What Are Textile Dyes?

Bright, colorful textiles are all around us and they make the world a very appealing place. But have you ever wondered how fabric gets its color? Most of it is through the use of textile dyes.

Textile dyes in water
Textile dyes in water

Textile dyes are substances used to color fabrics. The dyes soak into the fabric and change it chemically, resulting in color that stays permanently through repeated use. Today, more than 10,000 substances are classified as textile dyes, and different kinds of dyes work better on specific kinds of fabric. Most of our clothing and home furnishings are colored with synthetic, or man-made, dyes.

But the history of textile dyes starts thousands of years ago.

History of Textile Dyes

We know that people such as the early Egyptians used dye to color textiles. The oldest dyes came from natural sources like plants, berries and roots, or animals like mollusks and insects. Blue came from a plant called indigo, and several shades of red came from smashing insects (yes, bugs) such as kermis and cochineal. A very prized and rare natural purple dye came from crushed snails in the Mediterranean region. Some natural dyes produced vivid colors but many tended to fade over time.

Synthetic dyes came along in the 19th century when William Perkin, a young British chemist, was trying to create synthetic quinine for medicinal use. He was experimenting with a substance called coal tar, a type of oozy liquid that's a byproduct of processing coal.

In 1856, Perkin stumbled onto a synthetic mauve, a type of purple, and realized its potential as a dye. Other scientists followed his lead, and in 1869, an artificial red dye was successfully created. Many other dyes also came from coal tar, which means they're connected to fossil fuels.

This rise in the development of synthetic dyes came around the same time as the growth of industrial fabric production. Effective synthetic dyes were eagerly accepted in the expanding industry. Germany became a leader in dye production. By World War I, the Germans manufactured most of the synthetic dyes used in the textile industry. From then on, most mass-produced fabrics were colored with synthetic chemical dyes. Natural dyes were largely forgotten, except in places where the synthetic dyes were unavailable, or where people kept traditional ways of coloring textiles alive.

Textile dyes in a marketplace
Bags of textile dye

Toxicity and Pollution of Textile Dyes

This reliance on synthetic dyes means our clothing is colorful and inexpensive, and has color that lasts for a long time. But synthetic dyes can also cause problems. The dyeing process involves a lot of water, and not all places have effective ways of cleaning the water before it goes back into the environment. Wastewater from textile dyeing is a huge pollutant around the world. Some dyes don't ever degrade in water. Others that do degrade produce harmful substances as they decompose. Additives used during the dyeing process include harmful substances such as alkalis and acid. Wastewater from textile dyeing also affects plant life in the water, because many dyes have substances that decrease photosynthesis, the process by which plants get nutrients.

Azo dyes, a class of synthetic nitrogen-based dyes that produce bright reds, oranges and yellows, are one of the most commonly used groups of dyes. They're cost effective to produce, but some of them can be dangerous and have toxic and carcinogenic effects. Other classes of synthetic dyes are also known to be carcinogenic, causing diseases such as kidney, bladder and liver cancer.

Workers dyeing textiles in a German factory, early 20th century
Workers in a German textile factory

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