Turmeric - crafts

Turmeric rhizomes yield a bright yellow dye which is used as a colouring for foods, textiles, paints and even people! Its primary use is in crafts as a fabric dye.

Dyes

To prepare the yellow dye, the dried or fresh rhizomes are ground to a paste with water. The resulting dye has always been popular during the Hindu festival Holi, which people celebrate by covering themselves with bright dyes. Now synthetic dyes tend to be used instead, but these can be harmful to the skin. Making natural dyes from plants like turmeric is safer.
A photograph of dyed cotton yarns one of which is probably coloured using turmeric housed in Kew's Economic Botany Collection.
Image: The orange cotton yarn was most probably dyed using turmeric.

Few people still use traditional dyeing techniques in South Asia, but turmeric dye gives a yellow colouring to silk, cotton and wool. The yarn or fabric is dipped into the liquid, or the dye can be painted directly onto fabric.

Another ingredient called alum might also be added. Alum works as a mordant and helps the dye to bond with the fabric. Even using alum, turmeric dye tends to fade over time. Various shades of yellow can be made, depending upon which other ingredients are used and how much turmeric is added.

Colour intensity

The colour of turmeric can vary depending on whether the liquid it is mixed with is alkali or acid. In an alkali solution it will turn red, but if acid is added to neutralise the alkali then the colour will change to yellow. This can be seen in traditional dyeing techniques where acid might be added at various stages. For one technique in Calcutta, turmeric and Fuller's earth was used. This makes an alkali solution, so acidic lime juice was added to neutralise it. Other acids which were used include sour milk, dried mango in water or tamarind water.

Turmeric is also mixed with other dyes to make different colours. Traditionally when dyeing silk yarn, the yarn would first be dyed with turmeric to give a richer colour. Orange colours can be made in different ways using yellow turmeric paste, red pigment from safflowers and acidic mango rind in water. To make green, cloth can be dyed yellow with turmeric and then blue with indigo or vice versa.

Paints

Turmeric is also used to make a yellow paint for various folk painting traditions in Madhya Pradesh.