Hiyahiya S History Of Knitting The Serendipitous Discovery Of Synthetic Dye

Accidents do happen but they usually don’t entail a positive result. William Henry Perkin certainly wasn’t looking to paint the world when he was attempting to improve the medication of Malaria. But after subsequently failing to synthesise quinine for the treatment of the deadly disease, he performed some further experiments on other elements.

One of these experiments involved mixing aniline with alcohol, producing a substance with an intense purple colour known as mauveine. The ramifications were immediate; purple dye was incredibly rare in 1856 as its production involved the mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of several species of predatory sea snails – a dye known as Phoenician purple due to its original origins.

William Henry Perkin

William Henry Perkin in his study,

The rarity of purple at the time led to its extravagance and, therefore, being a colour for royalty and religious leaders. The timing of William Henry Perkin couldn’t have been better, as the British Industrial Revolution was already being driven by the textile industry. The potential to manufacture mauveine as a synthetic dye had never been higher.

Perkin still had problems. Raising the capital to invest in the manufacture of his discovery, adapting it for use with cotton, as well as gaining acceptance from commercial dyers. But his dedication certainly paid off, convincing his father to invest in the business venture and persuading his brothers to help him build a factory got things spinning. He invented a mordant for cotton; gave technical advice for the dye’s use and application; and publicised his invention to the greater world.


The colour of mauveine.

Demand increased when Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie began wearing garments of a similar colour. When the crinoline became fashionable, everything fell into place and Perkin became rich from his serendipitous discovery. Soon after mauveine was discovered, other dyes were made from aniline to produce a large variety of colours, many more of them thanks to Perkin himself.

Perkin would later die of pneumonia in 1907, but his impact on the world has been a colourful one which would have left our lives a lot more grey without. These days, purple is accessible to everyone and sea snails can be left to the whims of life on the seabed. However, synthetic dyes do have a terrible impact on the environment, polluting waterways and diminishing the photosynthetic activity of algae, decreasing the food in the fragile ecosystem.

Festivals like Holi have benefited from the greater availability of colours from the production of synthetic dyes, but the risk to the environment has resulted in a return to natural dyes from the past. A full circle might be on the horizon.