First we'll talk about natural dyes versus synthetic dyes, and what it takes to prepare either for use. I'll go over some of the pros and cons of each.
Natural dyes are found all over the place. Plants provide a huge range of dying materials, from flower, root, bark, leaf, and berry. Indigo blue, saffron yellow, madder red, and woad used to produce greens, blues, and a blue-green are all prime examples.
There are insect made dyes as well, the best known being a deep red produced by crushing a particular type of beetle (cochineal). Also in the insect category is kermes dye, which was in use prior to cochineal. It also produces a very deep and clear crimson color, and was considered highly desirable through the end of the middle ages.
Shellfish have also been used to produce a stunning natural purple so difficult to obtain that it became known as royal purple. There have even been mineral-based dyes used at times, such as ochre, which is an iron oxide that produces a yellow to red/brown color.
Most natural dyes require some form of mordant, a chemical assistant to help the pigment attach itself to the fiber being dyed. Historical mordants range from iron to vinegar to the ammonia found in stale urine, as well as salt, tannin from oak galls, and natural alum.
There are several truly outstanding books about using natural dyes currently in print, from Growing a Dyer's Garden to the Chemistry of Natural Dyes to exact instructions on Gathering and Processing Natural Dye Stuffs. This is only a small selection of the vast range of instructional books currently available on the market, all of them written by true experts in their craft, and any of them can give you considerably more information than I possess on the subject.
Synthetic dyes are more widely used these days. Most everyone is familiar with the Rit Dye that you can buy at the local grocery store, usually found on the same aisle with laundry supplies. Cheap, easy to use, mass produced, and not requiring the use of extra chemicals or extra processes to apply color, synthetics have essentially completely replaced natural dye sources in commercial use.
Synthetic dyes are strictly lab produced, many of them petroleum-based in their inception. The first synthetic dyes - an organic aniline called mauvine developed in 1856 - was the result of a failure to produce synthetic quinine. Several other colors which were developed around the same time started life as attempts to find substitutes for expensive cochineal, indigo, saffron, and Tyrian purple.
These days you can find practically every color you can imagine, in shades ranging from nearly white to nearly black, in a synthetic form. With the exception of dyes used in commercial mass production of cloth, very few synthetic dyes that you can buy on the market need a mordant. In most cases, the dyes available for purchase by the general public already have any necessary mordanting chemicals incorporated into the dye when it is sold.
While the synthetic dye market doesn't have the absolute wealth of written material that natural dye does, it does offer this look at the science behind synthetic dyes. The Chemistry of Vat Dyes is written with teaching high school level chemistry students about various dye techniques in mind, and is a companion book to The Chemistry of Natural Dyes.
Pros and Cons
SyntheticsNo lie: synthetics are easier to use these days, come in a considerably wider range of color, and are frequently cheap and easy to find. There is also a convenience factor involved in synthetic dyeing that simply can't be found in natural dyes.
While a lot can be said for convenience when the world is in a relatively "normal" state, there's little room for it when SHTF. This is especially true when one is looking at reconstruction after such drastic circumstances as an apocolyptic scenario, or after a serious long term disruption of "normal."
Yes, packets of dyes are great, especially for colors that are difficult (if not impossible) to obtain from natural sources. However, they aren't essential, and would honestly take up room that would be much better spent on other items that are more useful and more difficult to replace with a natural source.
When weighing the usefulness and probable need for an item vs. its weight/space requirements and the availability of alternatives, synthetic dyes simply don't measure up. While they're certainly more convenient to use, easier to obtain under normal (or even mostly normal) conditions, and relatively cheap, the long term sustainability in a collapse simply isn't there.
There are other drawbacks to using natural dye sources, though. Most of them are messy processes; if you're looking to set color into fiber (cloth) then the articles of clothing that you're wearing are going to end up stained if you aren't either very good or very lucky.
Beyond that, several of the mordants used in the natural dying process smell rather bad. They smell so bad, in fact, that cloth manufacturing and dying areas were often on the edge of towns situated well away from any residential areas other than the absolute poorest and meanest accommodations. The smell is not going to linger in the cloth dyed by these techniques, nor is it going to linger in the area once the dye process is finished and things are cleaned up... unless, of course, you have a large enough manufacturing process going on that you have multiple, or daily, repeated dye jobs going on.
You simply can't escape the fact that the smell of the process is going to attract attention, which is important if what you're doing is attempting to fly under the radar and keep your presence in an area from being discovered. However, if you're in a long-term reconstruction situation, and situated in a position where cloth manufacture and dyeing is even possible and practicable, you probably aren't going to be nearly as concerned about keeping your presence a secret. and hiding your manufacturing location, either due to stability or numbers of people available for protection.
The third primary drawback to natural sourced dyes is time. It is time-consuming to collect plant materials suitable for use as dye stuffs, whether that collection is via wild-crafting or growing a dyer's garden in part of your garden space. Some plant materials have to be harvested at specific points in their growing cycle to be useful for dying. It takes time and experience to learn what sort of timing is necessary to achieve specific desired results (but that's true of many arts and sciences), and time is often in short supply in a long term survival situation. Finally, the amount of actual processing time needed for most naturally produced colors is much longer and considerably more labor-intensive than tearing open a package of synthetic dye to dump in a vat of water and leaving cloth to soak in it for an hour.
Natural dyeing, while it has those drawbacks, has a distinct advantage (besides the space and renew-ability issues) over synthetic dye: natural dyes don't tend to produce allergic responses in people. It is rare that you'll find someone who has a topological reaction to a naturally-dyed, natural fiber cloth. No allergic reaction means no down time to recover, and no need for potentially irreplaceable medications for those allergies.
I strongly endorse further study of expert sources, as well as keeping at least a couple of instructional books in your library (either actual or digital) for those who are interested in this aspect of reconstruction after a long-term SHTF situation. There's simply not enough space (and in my case, an honest lack of sufficient expertise that I freely admit) to do much beyond glossing over the pros and cons of this skill for long-term survival and long-term comfort after surviving in the first place.
Next time, I'll look at various types of looms for weaving cloth of various sizes, from lap held looms that are easy to construct, all the way up to looms large enough to weave rugs, wall hangings, and large pieces of cloth for clothing replacement.