While progressing in our Eco-friendly series of Natural Pigments, lets continue our trip of exploring some more sustainable ways of coloring or dying a fabric.

In previous post we discussed about ECO-FRIENDLY PIGMENTS AND DYES which were exclusively PLANT-BASED. We checked out herbal colors and vegetable dyes extracted from parts of plant like flowers, woods, nuts, seeds, berries, barks and roots. Now in this post we will go through some common ANIMAL BASED ALTERNATIVES for synthetic dyes.


Animal dye is a source of natural dye extracted from the secretions and dried bodies of animals or Insects or microbes. In China, dyeing with plants, barks and insects has been traced back more than 5,000 years. The history of animal dyes dates back to Mayan Civilization. However, microbial dye is certainly a recent approach. A large number of different species of bacteria, yeast, mold and algae produce pigments for economical dyes.


Animals produce some biological pigments which are used for the extraction of colors. These dyes always been a synonym for luxury and became highly popular due to their brilliant and permanent dying properties as compared to plant based dyes.

Here are few most popular Animal -Based dyes imparting brilliant colors to the fabric :

1. Tyrian Purple


Tyrian purple is the first in list when it comes to animal-based pigments. This dye shares an ancient history with Romans since 4th century BC. The name Tyrian refers Phoenician city, Tyre, Lebanon, a town where this dye was first produced around Bronze age.

This beautiful purple dye was first extracted by Phoenicians and thus this dye is popularly known as Phoenician red, Phoenician purple, royal purple, imperial purple, or imperial dye. The first written record of Tyrian dye is mentioned in texts from Ugarit and Hittite sources, which indicate that the production of Tyrian purple began in the 14th century BCE in the eastern Mediterranean.

It is extracted from the mucus secretion produced by snails, known as ‘Murex’. These are sea snails in the family Muricidae, found in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Tyrian purple was considered very expensive as it was difficult to make and the color turns to be vibrant and brighter with the passage of time. It did not fade. This highly prized dye soon became a symbol of status and Roman citizenship. The production of Tyrian purple was tightly controlled by Romans and later on by succeeding Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I clad in Tyrian purple, 6th-century mosaic at BasilicVitale, Ravenna, Italy

The Phoenicians also produced royal blue dye or hyacinth purple, which was made from a closely related species of marine snail. These dyes were sources of color for fabrics as well as historical parchments.

2. Cochineal Dye

SOURCE: Cochineal Insect (Dactylopius Confusus)

Cochineal is an ancient natural dye producing shades of Red, Crimson and Pinks. History of Cochineal dye travels back to 11th and 12th century Peru and Mexico. Ancient texts suggest the presence and collection of cochineal beetles for dyes by pre-Incas.

Cochineal is a scale insect native to tropical and subtropical south America which lives on cacti , feeding on plant moisture and nutrients. The insects are collected by brushing them off the pads of prickly pear cactus. The insect produces carminic acid, which is treated to produce carmine, a dye that was used in North America in the 15th century for coloring fabrics.

The color produced from this insect source is intense and and shades of purple can be obtained using alum as a mordant. It set more firmly on woolens than on the fabrics like cotton, agave and yucca fibers.

Cochineal is still used in many products. It is commonly used in red lipsticks, and is one of the few red pigments allowed to be used in eye shadow. Further, the color additive used in Cherry Coke is also made from cochineal.

3. Kermes Dye

SOURCE: Kermes vermilio

Kermes is another animal origin crimson red dye derived from Kermes insects, native to the Mediterranean region and live on the sap of the Kermes Oak.

Picture credit: Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE (Scale Insects (Kermes ilicis) on Holm Oak )

This red dye was popular for dying silk and wool in medieval times by Greeks and Romans. Its colorfastness made it an extremely popular dye by the 14th and 15th century and kermes scarlet red color gain the title of “by far the most esteemed, most regal” color for luxury woolen textiles in England, France , Italy and Spain. 

At the Neolithic cave-burial site at Adaouste, archaeologist found the JAR OF KERMES at the northeast of Aix-en-Provence. Kermes imparts wonderful colors to especially to silk and wool. textiles dyed with kermes were described as dyed in the grain.

4. Tekhlet Dye

SOURCE: Hexaplex trunculus

This Indigo dye is popularly known as Murex trunculusPhyllonotus trunculus, or the banded dye-murex, it is a medium-sized sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Muricidae.

Naturalis Biodiversity Center -Muricidae – Mollusc shell

This species living in the Mediterranean sea and Atlantic Coast secrets a mucus from its hypobranchial gland which is used to create an animal based Indigo dyeTekhelet. One of the dye’s main chemical ingredients is red dibromo-indigotin, the main component of  Tyrian purple.

Some wool dipped in techelet solution, turning blue in the sunlight outside P’til Techelet in Israel.

The dye has a huge historical importance and mark its presence in Mediterranean cultures, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Jews and Greeks.

5 Lac

SOURCE: Kerriidae or lac insects

Lac is a resinous secretion of a number of species of Kerriidae or coccus laccac found in India, China, Thailand, Bhutan, Nepal and Mexico. Thousands of lac insects colonize the branches of the host trees and secrete the resinous pigment. Due to its high commercial value, LAC is widely cultivated in Asia. Lac Insects on a Babybonnet Branch

Lac extract yields a warmer and soft range of colors- Crimson reds, Burgundy, Plum purples and Deep purples depending upon the mordant used. The lac dye has great colorfastness on both silk and wool. It was used in ancient India as a wood finish, skin cosmetics, wax, and dye for wool and silk. In China it is a traditional dye for leather goods.

In India, the leading producer of lac is Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, and Maharashtra. Lac coated branches are cut and harvested as “sticklac”. It is crushed, strained, and washed to remove any impurities. Once cleaned, It is then usually pounded into a powder, and soaked, strained and boiled. 

These were some Animal-based sources that are renewable and sustainable sources of natural pigments. These are more reliable than Plant-based sources due to their wide presence and fast insects and bacterial growth. Natural dyes are biodegradable and disposing of them doesn’t cause pollution. However, using these sources as food colorants may not be suggestive due to their harmful effects on the human body when consumed. They may cause allergies and inflammation with exceptions such as carmine found in lipsticks, will not cause harm or health problems when ingested.

Other than above insects, there are also microbial and fungal pigments obtained from kicroorganisma. We will discuss it in some other post.

We will proceed further with the series and find out about Fungal based and Mineral-Based sources of dyes. Till then enjoy sustainability and stay safe.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.