Smithsonian Voices

From the Smithsonian Museums

The Power of Color: Using Synthetic Dyes as a Dating Tool for Museum Textiles

The desire to apply color to a surface is intrinsic to human nature and humans have searched for natural sources of color since prehistoric times. They found out that some minerals could be ground to obtain a fine powder, and this was the origin of the mineral pigments. But they also found out that some plants and animals (insects and mollusks) could yield color when mixed with hot water, and this was the origin of natural dyes. Pigments are suitable to be applied on surfaces by mixing them with a binding medium. Dyes can be applied to fibers in several ways in a water solution. This discovery led to one of the most spectacular forms of art and craftsmanship: dyed textiles.