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 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 :

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 passage of time. It did not fades. 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.

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 suggests the presence and collection of cochineal beetles for dyes by pre-Incas.

Cochineal is a scale insect native to tropical and sub tropical 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.

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 color fastness made it 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.

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 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.


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 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 color fastness on both silk and wool. It was used in ancient India as wood finish, skin cosmetic, 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. 


New studies and development in the color industry, opens up the new possibilities of extracting dyes from Microbes like Bacterial and fungi. These pigments overcome the disadvantages of plant based pigments such as non-availability of plants throughout the year, color extraction from endangered species, color fading, pigment stability and solubility. DYEING TEXTILES WITH BACTERIA

Microbial pigments are becoming popular worldwide due to :

  • Rapid growth of microbes in cheaper medium
  • Easy processing / color extraction
  • Independence of weather conditions
  • Antioxidant, antimicrobial and anticancer properties
  • Bio-degradable
  • Broad area of application mainly in food, dairy, printing, textile and pharmaceutical industries

The significant source of colors in microorganisms are carotenoids which are yellow, orange, red or purple pigments used as nutrient supplements, food, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries as dyes/colorants.

Carotenoids can be produced by numerous microorganisms. Few of them are:


Micrococcus is a gram positive Bacteria found in soil, water and dust belonging to Micrococcaceae family. Micrococcus roseus is the bacteria used for extraction of the carotenoid pigment with antimicrobial, antioxidant, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory properties.  Isolated colonies on a TSA plate are circular, 1.0–1.5 mm in size, slightly convex, smooth, and pink in color. Micrococcus roseus bacterium

Chromobacter violaceum

Chromobacterium violaceum is a Gram-negative bacteria of Rhizobiaceae family. It is a saprophyte found in soil and water in tropical and subtropical areas.

Violet colonies of Chromobacterium violaceum

The pigment produced from the violet colony is violacein [3-(1, 2-dihydro-5-(5-hydroxy-1H-indol-3-yl)-2-oxo-3H-pyrrol-3-ilydene)-1, 3-dihydro-2H-indol-2-one] which have a strong bactericidal, trypanocidal, tumoricidal, mycobactericidal and antioxidant activity.


Rhodotorula is a genus of single-cell yeasts. Colonies of Rhodotorula can be found in air, soil, lakes, ocean water, milk and fruit juice. They create pigmented colonies of pink to red color.

Rhodotorula mucilaginosa colonies on sabouraud agar 

These hues of Reds are carotenoid compounds produced by the yeast; these natural dyes can be extracted from Rhodotorula /Rhodosporidium and used in the food and vitamin industries.


Monascus purpureus is a species of mold that is purple-red in color and thus popularly known as Red yeast.

This fungus is used in the form of  red yeast rice, of China called as angkak. Red yeast rice has been used as staple food and food additive for centuries in Asia and Indonesia. In Japan red rice is known as beni-koji and its pigments are widely used for food coloring.

Red Yeast Rice

Monascus species are known to produce well-known azaphilone pigments . In fact, various pigments derivatives with improved color range of orange-red to violet-red can be produced by Monascus fermentation in the presence of different amino acid .


Phaffia rhodozyma is a pink yeast discovered by Herman Phaff in 1960.  One of the most remarkable features of P. rhodozyma is the pink to orange color of its colonies due the production of carotenoid pigments.

The main carotenoid pigment produced by P. rhodozyma is astaxanthin, a compound not formed by any other yeast species. Astaxanthin is economically important because it is an aquaculture feed component needed for pigmentation of fish and crustaceans.


Sarcina is a gram positive, non-motile bacteria , spherical in shape and are various members of the genus are found in soil, mus, cereal seeds and may be found in the skin and large intestine. Sarcina lutea (yellow)

They produce yellow color pigment carotenoid by nature. Studies are going on with the  mechanism of photo‐protection by the carotenoid pigments of Sarcina lutea and three induced mutants.

These were some Animal based sources which are are renewable and sustainable. 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 them don’t cause pollution. However, using these sources as food colorants may not be suggestive due to their harmful effects on 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.

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

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