Exclusively natural dyes were used from the Neolithic (after transition to agricultural way of life) to approximately half of the 19th century. Among the longest used dyes belong Rubia tinctorum (or related species, for shades of red, probably originally from Asia but naturalized in the Mediterranean and Western Europe, the oldest (over 3000 years) evidence is from India, also from Egypt and it is mentioned in the Bible) and Carthamus tinctorius (from its flowers we can get even two dyes, yellow and red, the oldest evidences are from ancient Egypt, it was also known in India and China; thanks to the Arabs it was brought to Western Europe and England through Spain, it was used mostly in the 16th – 17th century) and three plants used in particular for blue color: Indigofera (Indigofera tinctoria or other species of this genus, documented as early as from the 4th century BC in India; indigo was imported to Europe through the Silk Road); Isatis tinctoria (expanded from southern and western Europe, evidenced by findings from the Neolithic period from Provence or eg. from year 800 AD in Norway; literature (Plinius) speaks about its use for coloring bodies by the Celts; in the Middle Ages it was even forbidden to import indigo in an effort to support local production of Isatis); in China and Japan, people used Polygonum tinctorium for blue dyeing. Combinations of these and other dyes could lead to very dark, almost black color, or shades of green and purple. Red dye – the best one being the “royal purple” – has been since antiquity extracted from marine snails Murex truncatus and brandensis; because of difficulty of obtaining this dye (8500 snails were needed for 1 gram of dye), it was counterbalanced by gold. Another source of red is also interesting – being made from insects, specifically from dried female of “Coccus cacti”, it is called “cochineal” dye and it is still being used in present times as, among other uses, food or cosmetic dye; although in America it was known already around 1000 BC, it came to Europe only after the discovery of America. Until then, people produced since antiquity in the Mediterranean so called kermesic or cardinal red from so called galls created by similar insect species on certain types of oak; in Europe this color had been since 1464 reserved exclusively for high church dignitaries. Centuries-old tradition, but primarily in Asia, has a spice called turmeric (Curcuma longa, yellow dye). For centuries, henna (Lawsonia dermis) has been used as dye in India, North Africa and the Middle East; it gives yellow-orange to brown color and it is also used for drawing on skin (documented in ancient Egypt, too) and as hair dye.
From year 925 AD there is an evidence about establishment of the dyers’ guild in Germany. In 1429, book on dyeing was published in Italy. In the area of today’s Czech Republic, dyers’ profession branched into “blackdyers” (black, blue, brown) and “beautydyers” (yellow, red, green). Many plants were grown here and were not imported (Rubia tinctorum, Isatis, even saffron).
Although artificial dyes give always specific color guaranteed in advance, they remain the same even after some time and working with them is fast, these days, traditional materials and techniques start to be used more again not only among living-history enthusiasts, but also because they are environment friendly.
Dyeing by plants can be used on all natural materials. Materials for dyeing must be first washed and cleaned properly. Specific procedure of dyeing depends on type of dye. Beside the dye plants, one should have suitable mordants that help to achieve good shade and color stability and which is used before dyeing, during the process or afterwards. There are natural mordants such as vinegar or urine (for dyeing with indigo, even fermented urine was used so eg. in Prague, dyers settled aside from the other craftsmen from the 18th century on an “Dyers’ island” that is called “Slovanský ostrov” today), otherwise mainly metal salts are used (alum, stannous chloride, blue and green vitriol), as well as tartar, soda, ammonia water etc. Some plant dye well even without mordants (walnut tree – leaves and unripe fruit – brown; turmeric – yellow; saffron (Crocus, originally used in ancient Persia and mentioned in the Bible, thanks to the Arabs it spreaded to France, Italy and Germany in the Middle Ages as a dye as well as spice); Carthamus tinctorius (mentioned above).
Here are some examples of plants used for dyeing and achieved shades (if there are more colors mentioned it means using or not using of mordants): onion peel – yellow, brown, orange; nettle – shades of green; oak bark – brown and grey-brown; blackberry – fresh sprouts – yellow-green, ripe fruit – purple-blue; Reseda lutea – yellow and yellow-orange, olive; Isatis tinctoria – blue, purple; Genista tinctoria – yellow; Rubia tinctorum – root: red; Ligustrum vulgare – fruits: pink, bark: yellow; leaves: green; Rhamnus cathartica – green; Tanacetum – light green; red beets – orange; blueberries – dark blue, purple … In literature, however, you will find dozens of plants that can be used in combination with different mordants to reach hundreds of shades.