Natural Dyes – The Colours of Nature

Natural Dyes – The Colours of Nature

The art of natural dyeing comprises a huge body of knowledge. Sadly, it has been fading ever since the discovery of tar-based pigments at the beginning of the 19th-Century. Natural dyeing methods and the intricate arts of natural textile design are fast becoming another relic of times gone by.

Unlike birds with their flamboyant feathery attire, human beings are not born with a naturally colourful outfit. The birthday suit varies in tone, but no matter what, it is pretty plain. We have to draw on our own ingenuity and creativity when it comes to designing our apparel.

A true game-changer in our human quest to stand out has been the discovery of how to use the colours of nature to our own advantage. The search for natural dyes is as ancient as it is universal. No matter which culture we examine, all have experimented and explored every conceivable source of pigments in their environment. Everything from shellfish to lichen, not to mention roots, barks, leaves, berries, fungi, and even flower stamens have been explored for their potential as a dye.

Body-paint

Even societies that traditionally pay little attention to clothing still use pigments to paint their bodies. Such body paints are typically obtained from ochre, chalk, and charcoal and usually used on special occasions such as rituals, healing ceremonies, or initiations.

A slightly more elaborate (and more permanent) type of body ornamentation is seen in the art of tattooing. But permanence is not necessarily always desirable. Being able to change design from time to time would certainly be nice. Certain vegetable dyes are used in this way. They last for a few days, at least, but not forever. before long they will wash off, thus leaving the ‘canvas’ clean for new designs. The best-known vegetable dye for temporary designs is Henna (Lawsonia inermis). Body painting with Henna is still widely practised in the Middle East and in Asia. It is an integral part of traditional wedding preparations.

In the West, Henna is mostly used as a popular hair dye, and nowadays also for temporary tattoos. In South America, indigenous people use Achiote (Bixa orellana), and Huito (Genipa americana), as body paint or dye.

Henna tattoo

Colour as code

But colours express more than just artful fancy. Practically all cultures associate certain colours with specific meanings. Colour is an essential key to the mysteries, which can unlock the significance of a whole complex of symbols. For example, the four directions are universally colour-coded, although different from one culture to the next. The colour encodes a whole network of associations – e.g. the East is the direction of the rising sun, of new beginnings, of birth etc. and its colour is often yellow, or white. The relevance to the topic of dyes is that the plants and materials which yield dyes have also become part of the symbol complex.

‘Show your true colours’

We still use colour in this way today, although usually in a secular context and more often than not, we are not even aware of it. We paint political parties red or blue, speak of ‘the grey (indistinguishable) masses’, or label things ‘green’, if they are eco-friendly. Different social groups still follow an unspoken dress-code – business people prefer greys, whites, beige, or dark blue, while Goths wear black. In the West, white is associated with purity, while in India, it is the colour of the dead and of ghosts.

Likewise, traditional costumes also convey much more than meets the uninitiated eye. Every piece of clothing signals a specific message informing those in the know as to the social and marital status of the wearer. This message was woven as pictographic symbols right into the fabric, or colour-coded into the design. Other items of clothing, worn only at certain times, e.g. during a hunting expedition, or for certain rituals, were covered in colour-coded protective symbols to act as spells.

Colour as a status symbol

Some natural colours are exceedingly precious due to the rarity of the substance that yields them. Royal purple is derived from molluscs, and not easy to come by. For a long time, it was a prerogative reserved for royalty to wear this colour.

Nor could an ordinary mortal afford it, given the extraordinary price tag. In Roman times (400AD) a pound of cloth dyed in royal purple costs the equivalent of $20.000! The mollusc was already endangered and very rare. And, as is often the case, the symbolic value drove up demand which in turn catapulted the price into an intergalactic orbit. As a result, the status association was reinforced.

Other colours, such as those obtained from walnut shells, or onion skins, or lichen were more easily available and widely used – despite the time-consuming process. Large amounts of plant materials had to be gathered; the linens and skeins of wool had to be prepared with a mordant to render them more absorbent and a fixative added in to fix the colour so it does not fade too quickly in subsequent washes.

The art of natural dyeing comprises a huge body of knowledge. Sadly, it has been fading ever since the discovery of tar-based pigments at the beginning of the 19th-Century. Natural dyeing methods and the intricate arts of natural textile design are fast becoming another relic of times gone by.

How to dye wool with natural materials

How to dye wool, using natural materials

Preparing the wool:

In order to prepare the yarn, it has to be gathered up into skeins and tied loosely but securely with a piece of yarn of the same material. The first step is to thoroughly wash the skeins. If you want to experiment at home, use natural wool as this is the easiest material to prepare.

All the natural oils in the wool have to be removed, so use a mild flaked natural soap, so that it will dissolve easily in hot water. Rinse the wool with several rinses of hot water to wash out all the soap.

Mordants

The washed yarn is now ready for the mordant bath. Depending on the mordant different shades of colour can be achieved using the same plant material. Commonly used mordants are alum, copper sulphate, iron sulphate, tin or chrome, which are toxic! (Keep out of reach of children!)

Due to this toxicity, some people prefer to do without. But without the mordant or the fixative the dyes are not colour-fast. They will run very easily in the next wash.

To produce a stronger colour one can ‘over-dye’ the skeins, i.e. submit them to several treatments in the dye bath. Only do this with yarn, not with finished pieces of textiles, or knitted jumpers since they will shrink in the hot dye bath.

The most commonly used mordant is Alum, which is another way of saying ‘potassium aluminium sulphate’. Sometimes the wool is subjected to several different mordants to achieve a different shade of colour.

Equipment

Dyeing does not require a whole lot of equipment, but as the mordants are toxic, it should always be done outside.

Tools:

  • large pot
  • stick, or large spoon.
  • Gloves

Set them aside as dedicated utensils for this purpose only.

Never use them for cooking after you have used them for dyeing.

Ingredients:

  • 4 oz aluminium sulphate
  • 1 oz cream of tartar
  • 1 lb wool
  • Water

Method:

To mordant the wool follow this procedure:

Place the aluminium sulphate and the cream of tartar in large pot of cold water. Stir well to dissolve the powders. Once the powders are fully dissolved place the wool into pot and slowly bring the mordant bath to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for 1 hour. If the wool is very fine and soft, less mordant and a shorter boiling time is sufficient.

After 1 hour, take the pot off the heat, drain and gently squeeze out the liquid. (Wear gloves!) The wool can be dyed right away, or it may be dried and stored for later use.

For the dye bath, it is usually best to use fresh plant materials, but make sure you either pick them from your own garden, or from a place where the plants are in plentiful supply.

Use about 1 lb of plant material per 1 lb of wool skeins.

Place the plant materials into a muslin bag and tie securely.

Place the dye pot on the stove, ¾ full of water.

Add the muslin bag of dye material and submerge it well.

Place the skeins of wool into the pot and slowly bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and allow to simmer for about one hour.

Stir occasionally.

After an hour, turn off the heat, but leave the skeins in the water until it is cold, or when you deem the colour to be just right. Lift out the skeins (a pair of metal tongues will help), and rinse in water of the same temperature.

When the water runs clear, you can hang the skeins up to dry. (A suspended rod will do fine)

Fix a light weight to the bottom of each skein to prevent crinkling.

CAUTION: Mordants are mineral based substances that are highly toxic. Such substances must be handled with due care. Wastes must be discarded properly. Wear protective clothing (especially gloves) and avoid inhaling the fumes. Dyeing should preferably take place outside.

The information given here is for educational purposes only.

Some common dye plants:

Plant

Part

Colour

Mordant

Madder (Rubia tinctorum)

roots

deep red

alum

Woad (Isatis tinctoria)

leaves

blue,

Somewhat complicated process involving a real chemical cocktail. Woad (Indigo) dyes by oxidation, the trick is to get the dye bath right. Indigo is a fast dye that fades very little in sunlight or in washing.

Weld (Reseda luteola)

whole plant

lemon yellow,

alum

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

berries

shades of blue and purple,

alum

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

berries, leaves

purple and violets green

alum

Blackberries (Rubus fructicosus)

shoots berries

black/grey blue//grey

iron alum

Bracken (Pteris aquiline)

young shoots roots

yellow/greens orange/yellow

alum

Heather (Calluna vulgaris)

shoots

olive/yellow

alum

Fig (Ficus carica)

leaves

lemon yellow

alum

Birch (Betula alba)

leaves

yellow

alum

Privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium)

leaves

yellow

alum

Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

whole plant

yellow

alum

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

flowers

yellow

alum

Canadian Golden Rod (Solidago Canadensis)

flowers

golden yellow

chrome

Pine (Pinus sp.)

cones

orange/yellow browns

alum iron

Onion (Allium cepa)

skins

golden brown

alum

Walnut (Juglans regia)

shells

pinkish browns

no mordant

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

rhizome

yellow

no mordant

Fiber Plants

Fiber Plants

SpinningDeep within the womb of the earth mother, beneath the roots of the cosmic World Tree ‘Yggdrasil’, lies the abode of three old wise women. Known as ‘the Norns’, which means ‘the fates’, they govern the thread of life: Urd (Earth) spins it, Verthandi (Becoming) measures it, and Skuld (Fate) cuts it. No-one, not even the gods, can overrule them. Every soul that enters the world receives their personal thread. And with that, they are equipped and ready to weave their own little patch of the tapestry of life.

‘We are the weavers, we are the web’

Many traditions consider spinning and weaving sacred activities. The Kogi Indians, for example, who live in the Sierra Nevada of Colombia, have a most intricate cosmology. They pass it on by weaving its symbolism into their cloth. 

The art of spinning is a meditative act. As they twist and roll a mass of fibers into smooth thread thoughts and prayers are meshed and entwined with the yarn. In Kogi cosmology, spinning is a sacred act that aligns the inner order with that of the universe. The spindle represents the equivalent of a ‘lingam-yoni’ symbol, the male and female aspects of the universe, joined in an act of creation. The wooden shaft represents the Axis Mundi that connects heaven with the underworld. The disk at the top, called ‘the whorl’, symbolizes the world itself. The Kogis imagine the Sun-God as a ‘transcendental weaver’, who weaves the tapestry of life on his cosmic loom. The four corners of the loom represent the equinoxes and solstices, which mark the cornerstones of the year. Every year he weaves two pieces of cloth, one for himself and one for his wife, the Moon.

Coded messages

All over the world, weavers encode the symbols of the old mysteries and weave them as patterns and symbols into their fabrics and clothes. Textile designs often convey very specific messages about the social role of the wearer, their ancestry, and their marital status. In other words, it reflects one’s place in the world. 

Thus, fiber plants play a hugely important role. They are not merely a material resource or commercial crop but as the stuff with which we ‘weave the web of life’. In such a cosmology, humans beings are co-creators of the cosmic design and we shape our world accordingly. 

Ancient beginnings

It is not known when humankind first learned how to extract fibers from plant materials and to spin them into yarn. But archaeological evidence suggests that weaving and spinning can be traced back at least 5000 years. Egyptians mummies were wrapped in sheets of linen and we know that even the Neolithic lake dwellers of what is now Switzerland already cultivated flax. Hemp was used in China at about the same time. 

What exactly is a Fibre?

Fibers are structural elements of a plants’ anatomy. One could say, they are the equivalent of our connective tissue. They give them strength, support, and resilience to withstand the wear and tear of wind and weather.

All plants has fibers, but not all of them are suitable for producing yarn. Most are too short or too brittle. Some are just right but can be difficult to extract. Processing fibers to make yarn is a lengthy and complicated process.

sisal fibersCollecting the plant material

The first step is to collect plenty of suitable plant materials. Tall, herbaceous plants such as stinging nettle or hemp work well. Their fibres are long and not too brittle. Harvest takes place when the plants are at the peak of their development.

Retting

The next step is to separate the fibers from the decomposable plant matter. This is done by a process known as ‘retting’. To prepare the plants, the leaves and stalks are stripped off and discarded.

The remaining stalks are then cracked and submerged in water until the non-fibrous parts rot away.

The retting procedure varies slightly, depending on the specific source plants. Once the soft parts have rotted away the fibers are left behind. They must be washed, ‘combed’ and thoroughly dried before they can be processed further .

The rise of synthetic fibers

The discovery of oil brought in a new era of synthetic fibers that made natural fibers too work-intensive and expensive to compete. By now they have become ‘luxury items’! We don’t spare much thought on all the ingenious methods that our ancestors have developed in order to keep warm. But, in recent years, we are re-discovering the advantages of natural fibers: they can be grown sustainably, ddo not depend on oil and are biodegradable. They also make fabrics that ‘breathe’, which means, less sweating.

Natural fiber products are also used as an important source of insulation material that regulates indoor temperatures’, can ‘breathe’ and is non-toxic.

Flax Flowers
flax bundles

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)

Flax or linseed is the source plant of linen. It is one of the oldest fiber plants known to humankind. Flax likes a mild, somewhat humid climate. In the past, it was grown as far north as Scotland and as far south as Egypt, where flax shrouds were used to cover the mummies.

The plants are retted to extract the fibers. These must then be cleaned and brushed before they can be spun into a yarn. Flax fibers are very long and do not break easily. Instead, their resilience increases when they are wet. The quality of the yarn varies widely. It may be spun into an almost silk-like thread or, left coarse, it can be used for making canvass or carpet backing. Natural linen is buff to grey colored and can be bleached in the sun. It does not dye easily, as the fiber is hard and naturally resistant. Bleaching deteriorates its quality, reducing its strength and weight. Linen appears stiffer and harder than cotton and wrinkles more easily, which may be why it has gone out of fashion. However, linen conducts heat better than cotton, making garments feel ‘cooler’. Its smooth texture resists dirt.

See also: Flax – Linum usitatissimum

cotton
cotton field

Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum)

Cotton is still the most important fiber plant of all. I mention it separately because it is a story of its own. Cotton derives from various species of Gossypium, and belongs to the Mallow family. Unlike the other fiber plants discussed above, its fibers do not derive from the stem but from the seeds, which grow inside a capsule known as a ‘boll’. The seed is surrounded by a soft, fluffy material called ‘lint’, which consists of fibers that can easily be spun into thread.

Cotton is a tropical crop of enormous commercial importance. It has also been at the center of the dark and ugly business of the slave trade and all the pain and misery and injustice that it entailed.

Cotton is very productive and lucrative, but also a very labor-intensive crop to grow. The invention of the ‘cotton gin’ (cotton engine), made the process much easier. A cotton gin is a machine that automatically separates the cotton fibers from the seeds, which made the whole process far more efficient. Today, cotton processing, including the picking, is largely done by machines.

Cotton has become problematic in other ways, though. The plants are highly susceptible to numerous bugs, which means that they are subject to intense agrochemical treatment. Cotton is in fact one of the most heavily sprayed crops (8-10 times per season): 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants.) is sprayed on cotton. The intensive industrial crop production also depletes the soil which means, more agrochemicals in the form of fertilizers are needed to compensate.

In recent years, disease and insect-resistant Gene-manipulated varieties have been created, which are now taking over the original chemically dependent varieties. In the US, a huge proportion of cotton is now produced by GM varieties. Deceptively, these cotton varieties are hailed as environmentally friendly, because they supposedly do not need so many chemicals. However, trial plantings of GM cotton in India and Indonesia have failed to prove resistant to insects. Meanwhile, consumers are beginning to become more aware of these issues and are looking for eco-friendlier alternatives. Organic and fair trade cotton is now available, but have to compete against other natural fibers that are easier to produce without the chemicals.

See also: Cotton

Nettles

Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)

The common stinging nettle is another traditional fiber plant, although most people only know it as a troublesome weed. Its long resilient fibers have long been used to make cloth and garments. But as a source of fiber, they have gone through several cycles of popularity. The last time nettle was ‘in fashion’ was during WWII, when cotton became scarce in Germany.

After the war, interest in nettles as a fiber plant has waned in favor of cheaper synthetic fibers. But like Hemp, nettles have also started to make a come back as people are looking for more natural textiles. While hemp and flax fibers are tougher and more hardwearing, nettles produce the finest quality yarn. Currently, Nettles are again under experimental cultivation in Germany. The plants are resilient enough not to need any chemical treatments or fertilizer. In fact, no chemicals at all are used in the processing and the end product is a very soft, silky textile that is immensely resilient to wear and tear.

Nettles thrive on nitrates and can be used to ‘clean’ over-fertilized land. However, most people, including many farmers, consider nettles a bothersome weed and are few willing to grow it. Yet, that might change once they ‘cotton on’ to the fact that under EU regulations it is the only crop permitted to grow on subsidized ‘fallow land’.

In an effort to increase yields, a team of Italian, Austrian and German researchers have joined forces in order to produce new, high-yield varieties of nettles and to come up with solutions that would make the retting process less time consuming and more efficient. Famous Italian fashion houses are ready to launch new lines of fine quality designer nettle knickers and other fashionable items – all they are waiting for are steady and sufficient supplies of nettle yarn.

See also: Stinging Nettles

Jute (Corchorus capsularis and C. olitorius) and Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus)

These two members of the Mallow family produce a strong, but coarse fiber. Jute is mostly used for sacking and carpet backing. The fiber is not as strong as hemp or flax and is susceptible to rot. It can not be spun into a fine grade yarn and thus does not find use in the textile industry.

Kenaf, a close relative of Jute is mostly used in the manufacture of paper, although in Africa, where it is native, it is also used for making rope and rugs. It loves hot and humid climates, but is adaptable and will grow as far north as southern Illinois. However, in cooler climates, its seeds do not mature. Kenaf is a very viable and sustainable alternative to Pine used for paper production. Considering that every American consumes about six 30-year old pines in paper per year and the per-acre yield of Kenaf is 3-5 times higher than that of Pine, Kenaf is the obvious environmentally-friendly choice. Kenaf is resistant to most bugs and may be grown organically. It also takes less energy to pulp and does not require chlorine for bleaching. The quality of the paper produced from it is very high.

See also:

Jute

Kenaf

 kenaf-an ecological source for paper.pdf 

Ramie (Boehmeria nivea)

Ramie is also a member of the nettle family. It is sometimes called ‘the flax of the east’ as it is most common in parts of Russia and Eastern parts of Asia. When woven into fabric its qualities are much like flax in terms of luster and strength. It also creases easily and has a similarly smooth texture. Ramie textiles are particularly renowned for keeping their shape well, but it is not a very flexible fiber, which makes it prone to breaking, e.g. in crease-folds. Unlike flax, it takes well to dyes. Fine quality Ramie fabric has a silken appearance. It is usually blended with cotton to create mixed-material garments. Ramie’s disadvantage compared to other fiber plants is the fact that it needs to undergo a chemical process in order to remove a gummy substance from the fibers. On the other hand, it is extremely productive and can sustain between 3 and 6 harvests a year, depending on weather and growing conditions.

See also: Ramie

hemp
hemp rope

Hemp (Cannabis sativa)

A book could be written about the virtues of this invaluable plant that has served humanity for at least 7000 years. In fact, several excellent books have been written about it, but I will limit myself here to its value as a fiber plant. Hemp has the longest, toughest, and most resilient fibers of any plant, making it particularly useful for tough ropes and canvass that must withstand great pressures, wear and tear. Like Jute or Flax, Hemp is an annual plant. It is not fussy as regards growing conditions and actually, it benefits the soil. Until recently (even during WWII) it was widely cultivated throughout Europe, the United States, China, and India. However, since approximately the middle of the last century, it has come under fire because of its psychoactive properties. Cannabis (sativa var. indica) contains THC, a psychoactive resin. However, the fibers of this subspecies are too short, so it is never used for making yarn. Fiber hemp (Cannabis sativa) on the other hand, does not produce any significant amounts of THC. Yet, this confusion has been used to rationalize the suppression of commercial-scale hemp production. As a result, plastic and artificial fibers have proliferated – as we now know, to all our demise. At last, we are becoming more aware of the negative impact of plastics on the environment and it is high time that we switch to natural, sustainable and bio-degradable sources of fiber.

To extract the fibers, the stem, which can grow up to 4m tall, is stripped of all the leaves and branches. When planted closely together the individual plants don’t grow as high, but the resulting fibers are of a finer quality, better suited for making garments.

Hemp is an ideal fiber plant, not just for hard-wearing rope or material, (the first jeans were made from hemp), but also as a source of fiber pulp for the paper (the first dollar notes were printed on hemp paper). It is inexcusable that in this day and age, when deforestation is a massive threat to biodiversity and exacerbates global warming, forests, including old-growth forests, continue to be cut down for the sake of ‘throw-away’ commodities, such as paper and even toilet paper when hemp would be the logical alternative. Thankfully, Hemp is beginning to make a come-back.

See also: Hemp

coocnut

Coconut (Cocos nucifera)

Nobody knows exactly where Coconuts originated, but it is thought likely that they spread from the West Pacific. By now it has become a true world traveler that has colonized all hot, tropical coastal regions of the world. Coconuts can travel very long distances since they are resistant to saltwater. The waves carry them across the sea to distant shores.

Wherever they grow, Coconut trees have been revered as a source of food, oil, medicine, and fiber. Coconut fiber is derived from the husks of the nuts, which are harvested both green (unripe) and brown (mature). Both types are available throughout the year since each nut takes 12 months to mature and the tree flowers and fruits continuously up to 13 times a year. In Thailand and Malaysia harvesters have trained small monkeys to help them with the task of getting the nuts, a practice that is now considered unethical

The unripe green nuts provide a softer more pliable type of fiber than the brown, fully mature ones. Brown Coconut fiber is quite coarse. It lends itself to be used as a hard-wearing flooring material, upholstery, mattresses, brushes, and sacking. White coconut fiber is used for rope and cordage. Coconut fiber is the only natural fiber that is resistant to seawater.

See also: Coconut

Sisal

Sisal (Agave sisalana)

Sisal is a hard-wearing fiber derived from a species of Agave that is native to Central America and Mexico. Agave sisalana is a sterile hybrid, which suggests that it has long been used as a fiber plant in Central America. Its exact origin is not clear though Agaves are native to Central America. Its name derives from the port town of Sisal, in the Yucatan, from where it was first exported. Today it is grown not only in Mexico but also in China, Brazil, and Africa, with Tanzania being the world’s largest producer.

Agaves are succulent desert plants with long, fleshy, blue-green, sword-like leaves that grow in a rosette formation on a short stumpy stem. The fibrous sheath surrounding the inner xylem of the leaves yields the fibers. Sisal is not as resilient as other fibers and can deteriorate quickly during processing. The leaves are harvested by hand and are quickly decorticated as the leaf pulp is washed away. Sisal is ideally adapted to arid growing conditions. It is used for matting, rope, netting, or blended with wool to make carpets, etc.

See also: Agave sisalana (PROTA)

Outlook: future uses of fiber plants

While this article discusses fibers mostly in terms of textiles, a new and exciting use of natural fibers is emerging, in the automobile industry, of all places. Some of the leading car manufacturers are beginning to heed what Ford discovered almost a century ago – natural fibers can make a damn good car. They are not only used for the obvious – upholstery of seats and covers but also as filling materials and to replace other parts currently made from plastic or glass. A ‘bio’ plastic is already being produced from Kenaf and Hemp.

There is a lot of scope for utilizing sustainably produced natural fibers that could make a huge contribution to reducing our emissions and preserving forests. There are as yet unimagined and exciting possibilities in the world of natural fibers and I for one am certain that they will play a crucial part in readjusting the natural balance for a sustainable future.

What are Essential Oils?

What are Essential Oils?

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are all around us and anyone, who has ever stopped to sniff at the roses has experienced them directly. Essential oils are aromatic compounds of plants, which not only occur in the flowers but may also be found in the leaves, roots, or seeds. Interestingly, essential oils that derive from the same plant, but from different parts of that plant can have quite different scents and very different properties.

Although they are collectively known as ‘oils’, essential oils are chemically very different from fatty oils (such as olive or almond oil). Chemically, essential oils belong to the huge family of terpenes, which are ubiquitous in the plant world. Terpenes are very complex and some form enormously long-chained molecules. Most essential oils tend to have a rather shorter sequence, known as monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, or form ring-like structures called ‘benzene rings’.

Biologists think of essential oils in terms of their function – they regard them as ‘the chemical weapons’ of the plant world: they repel insects, or fight bacterial or fungal attacks. They may also play a part in the ‘sex-life’ of a plant, acting as ‘plant pheromones’ that are supposed to attract and seduce their pollinators.

Those of us, who see plants as living beings, rather than as chemical factories or sources of raw materials, consider essential oils as the fragrant essence of the plant’s soul. Their ethereal nature, concentrated as scent, is the means by which plants communicate with the world around them.

In human anatomy, the olfactory center is situated in the oldest part of the brain, which has its seat in close proximity to the area that stores emotional memories and instincts. Scents speak to us on a pre-verbal and non-rational level, which is why our reactions to them tend to be so instinctive. This explains why perfumes can be so effective in attracting the opposite sex, or why certain smells can conjure up such intense emotions and memories.

Essential Oils

Medicinal and Therapeutic Properties of Essential Oils

Medical professionals are more interested in the therapeutic properties of essential oils – many oils show antibacterial, fungicidal, relaxant, stimulating, antidepressant, and other effects that have been utilized for thousands of years. But some years ago, essential oil research has given rise to a form of therapy known as Aromatherapy, that relies solely on the use of essential oils.

Aromatherapy offers a very holistic approach since it can affect the mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and a skilled aromatherapist will take all three into consideration when blending their oils.

The specific oils are usually delivered via a massage, but a client may also be instructed to use an oil diffuser or other application to benefit from the scent.

Nowadays, Aromatherapy cosmetic ranges are available for various skin types and conditions. But this practice has become a bone of contention with regulators since fragrance components are regulated under different rules than therapeutic agents.

Antique Perfumery

Ancient Origins of the Uses of Scent

The origins of Aromatherapy date back to ancient Greece, Egypt, and India. Archaeological remains of ancient stills and perfume vials have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the ancient world, fragrances were very important. Long before people had figured out how to capture the ethereal scents of plants, they burnt fragrant resins, roots, and seeds to perfume themselves or to make fragrant offerings to the Gods. The word ‘perfume’ literally means ‘through the smoke’.

It was believed that the Gods derive their nourishment from the scents that were sent to heaven in the form of incense. To burn incense was to honor the Gods and to invite their benevolence and protection. To neglect the ritual of incense burning meant the abandonment of the Gods.

When essential oils were discovered, they were at first primarily used as perfume. Good scents delight the Gods. But just where and who first discovered the art of perfumery is lost in history. There are references to perfumes in the Bible, but they are not the oldest by any means. There are also Babylonian and Sanskrit references, but the most ancient actual archeological evidence has been unearthed in Cyprus at a site that dates back to the Bronze Age. The huge site, that covers about 4000m2 indicates that perfumery was practiced here at an industrial scale.

The Egyptians were also masters of the art and scent was part of every aspect of their culture. (Some claim that this was merely to cover up the stench of rotting food or feces and that strong scents were used to cover up the stench. However, this may say more about our modern prejudice, and may not necessarily fit the ancient reality. It would fit the image of life in Medieval Europe, though.)

In Egypt, fragrant roots, barks, berries, and resins played an important role in their cult of the dead. Huge amounts of these special and precious substances were used to embalm the bodies of the departed royals so they would be well received by the Gods. Perfume vials were even placed with the bodies as funeral gifts.

 

How Essential Oils are produced

Essential oils are very volatile. They can evaporate at room temperature. Some have a very low ‘flashpoint’, which means that they must be extracted very carefully so as not to lose some of their complex aromas, or causing an explosion.

Essential oils are soluble in both fatty oils and in alcohol. they are usually captured by steam distillation. But some can also be cold-pressed.

Although essential oils are ubiquitous and occur practically in all plants and plant parts, the actual quantities they produce tend to be minuscule. Thus, vast amounts of plant materials are required to produce even small amounts of essential oils. Essential oils are extremely highly concentrated and their power should never be underestimated.

Distilling Essential Oil

Extraction methods

Enfleurage

This is the oldest and simplest, but also the least efficient method of extraction. This method is particularly suitable for the fragile flower petals. In this method, the plant materials are macerated in a scentless fatty solvent base. It can be done as a cold or hot process. Heat facilitates the release of the essential oils, but it can also easily destroy them. In this process, a large glass surface is covered with a blend of the solid vegetable fat that has been mixed with the plant material. After three days the spent plant parts are removed and fresh material is added and macerated for another 3 days. The saturated fat is now called a ‘pomade’. To extract the essential oil the fat is ‘washed out’ with alcohol, which is then evaporated in the next step, leaving a pure essential oil behind. Some fragrant parts remain fixed within the solid fat residue which is sometimes used in soap making.

Distillation

This is by far the most common process of essential oil extraction. There are several different methods, although all of them basically involve heat and water. The more elaborate process is done by heating water and passing it as steam through a vessel that contains the plant materials. The steam causes the oil glands to burst and carries the volatile substance with it. A cooling coil is attached to the other end of the vessel, which causes the steam to condense and drip down into a collection vessel. The essential oil and the water separate and the oil, which has a lower density than water, floats on top and can be siphoned off.

The old alchemists used a similar but simpler method. They placed plant materials and water in the same vessel, which was then heated so that the oils would be released into the water. As the water heats up and turns into steam it is captured by the cooling tube, where it condenses and separates as in the example above. This is the oldest method of extraction and some sophisticated versions are still widely used.

The problem with this method is that the heat may be too intense, thus destroying some of the more fragile components of the essential oil, or worse, the kettle can run dry, which would burn the herbs. In the worst case, the still can crack or the resulting oil will smell burnt.

Flowers are almost invariably too delicate to be subjected to this process, as it destroys many of their aromatic components. Sophisticated technological advances have made it possible to distill at very low temperatures, repeating the process several times – a time-consuming process, which makes it expensive.

A byproduct of steam distillation is the so-called hydrosol (flower water): the distilled water, which retains some of the fragrance, is often used in cosmetics.

Solvent Extraction

Some essential oil components are extremely fragile, which makes it very difficult to extract them by distillation. In such cases, a solvent such as hexane is used. The hexane dissolves the essential oils as well as other extractable substances (e.g.wax and pigments). This solution is then filtered and subjected to low-pressure distillation, which produces a highly fragrant, waxy substance known as a ‘concrete’. The hexane has thus been ‘cleaned’ and can be used again.

In a further extraction process, this time using heat and ethanol, the concrete is broken down. The essential oil combines with the alcohol, leaving the wax behind. However, the resulting mixture still contains some waxy parts and other impurities and must be further purified and separated. It is a lengthy process involving freezing and agitating the mixture, which promotes the precipitation of the wax particles. The resulting oil is called an ‘absolute’. Most flower oils are produced by this process and are available as absolutes. But Aromatherapists don’t like working with them as they still contain some solvent particles and impurities. Perfumers are less fussy. They work with alcoholic extracts all the time.

CO2 Extraction

This is a newer method of extraction and much ‘cleaner’ than solvent extraction. CO2 is gaseous at normal pressure, but at high pressure, it transforms into a liquid. In this liquid state, it can be used to extract volatile oils. When the CO2 is depressurized, it reverts to its gaseous state, leaving no trace behind in the essential oil. This process has made it possible to extract oils from plants that previously had never been distilled. It is no possible to extract essential oils from calendula, coffee, or even rosehip seeds, to name but a few. CO2 extracts are more complex as it allows for more of the fragrant components of a given plant to be extracted. Some of the waxes are also extracted, often producing a rather pasty substance.

Potentially this is the cleanest method of extraction, although in some instances the plant material is first subjected to hexane extraction to produce a concrete, which is then processed using the CO2 extraction method. This method is often used in floral CO2 extracts, such as Rose or Jasmine. The equipment needed is also quite expensive, which is reflected in the price CO2 extracted oils.

Cold-Pressed Oils

This process can only be used for plants that literally ooze with essential oils, such as citrus fruits. Their peel is so densely covered with oil glands that mere pressure is sufficient to extract them. In this process, the peels of the citrus fruit, (e.g. orange, bitter orange, lemon, lime, mandarin, tangerine, and grapefruit) are chopped into small pieces and subjected to pressure, while simultaneously being cooled. (Intense pressure produces too much heat, which would destroy the oils). The resulting liquid is a somewhat watery essential oil. This hydrous component is the reason why cold expressed citrus oils don’t keep as long as other oils.

Essential Oil Diffuser

Uses of Essential Oils

Essential oils are used in a myriad of household products: as a flavoring in the food industry, and fragrance for cleaning materials, soaps, detergents, and cosmetics. At the higher end of the market, they are the foundation of perfumery. Unfortunately, many natural oils are replaced by synthetics – which are supposed to be aroma identical, but of course, are not. There is a chemical reason for this that is too complex to explain here. Suffice to say that man has just not yet been able to reproduce nature’s tricks. Although chemicals can be produced with much greater consistency than pure essential oils, they lack the complexities and depths of their natural counterparts.

The specific qualities of the oil vary depending on the growing conditions of the plants that are used, harvesting times, and the weather conditions that a particular batch has been exposed to – much like good wine, essential oils have a ‘vintage’. No two oils will ever smell the same.

Safety

Despite their widespread use, there are a number of safety concerns. Essential oils are very highly potent and some of their components may be carcinogenic, phototoxic, photosensitizing, or allergenic. Currently, there is a raging conundrum over ‘safe levels’ of certain chemical components within various products as well as over particular oils themselves.

This hysteria is due to the fact that scientists have a tendency to regard the action of component parts as equal to the sum total of all parts. In other words, it is assumed that if an oil contains a certain compound, say a ketone, which is lipolytic, mucolytic, and sedative, the oil that contains ketone as a component will also have these characteristics. But in real life, the sum total of the ‘component parts’ creates a unique synergy, which may or may not actually produces any of these effects. As essential oils are extremely complex compounds, containing both known and unknown components, it is impossible to judge their effects and safety from an analysis of its known parts alone. Another problem is the fact that essential oils are tested on animals with the assumption that the metabolism of rats and humans are sufficiently similar to draw parallel conclusions. While that is sometimes true, it is not always the case and some oils that may be toxic to rats can be perfectly safe for humans, or vice versa.

Certain precautions should always be taken:

  • Use oils only in dilution, and, if you are unfamiliar with a particular oil and don’t have any experience with its effects on you (everybody reacts differently), use the skin patch test: dilute the essential oil in base oil and apply to a small area of the inner arm. Wait at least 6 hours to observe your skin reactions. If you notice any adverse signs (e. g. itching, redness, rash), do not use the oil.
  • Some people may even be sensitive to diffused oils. If you notice any ill effects, e.g. difficulties in breathing, headaches, itching, etc. do not use the oil in an infuser either.
  • Remember that a little goes a long way. Even just one drop of essential oil can contain the equivalent power of a kilo of its source plant.
  • People who use essential oils professionally, e.g. perfumers or aromatherapists, or people who make their own cosmetic products should be especially careful:
  • Keep essential oils well away from children or animals
  • Work in a well-ventilated area
  • Wear goggles (to safeguard against splashing)
  • Don’t handle essential oils in the presence of naked flames,
  • Before heating them to any degree take note of their flashpoint.
  • Certain oils must be avoided during pregnancy and while nursing or if suffering from certain medical conditions (e.g. hypertension)
  • Anybody who wishes to use essential oils for medical reasons should consult with a qualified aromatherapist.

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