Fabric dyeing dates back to several thousand years BC according to ancient Chinese manuscripts. The process of using natural dyes to color textiles has been used by people from every continent on the planet; it has been celebrated as an art and exploited as a dominating global industry. The most famous and highly prized color in ancient history was purple, found on textiles worn by Alexander the Great and Tai Kang of the Xia Dynasty dating back to 1070 BC. This color was considered luxurious because it comes from the tropical Murex Snail. There were so many snails needed to produce an ounce of dye that only royalty could afford it.
Fabric dyeing became popular in London, England around 1100 AD; many guilds were formed attracting aspiring fabric dyers from neighboring countries like France and Italy. By late 1100, fabric dyeing became a substantial trade in London gaining the attention of foreign countries. Prior to the 19th century, people boiled crushed fruit, vegetables, berries and minerals to extract dye that could then be rubbed onto the fabric. This was not very effective since the colors were not fast to water and often bled in the rain and with perspiration.
There are three basic ways to color a fabric; the first is by staining the cloth, which is a method by rubbing or soaking the dye into the cloth. The second is pigmentation, where the color is fixed to the surface by an adhesive. The third is by dyeing, where the color is deposited to the fabric with an insoluble formula containing the dye.
An innovation in coloring occurred in 1856, when English chemist William Henry Perkin discovered the process of manufacturing dyes in a textile laboratory. The dye was made from material found in coal tar known as the indanthrenes, and led to the production of synthetic dyes that are now mass produced and used for fabric dyeing in textile dye houses around the world. This discovery proved that dyes could be produced synthetically and it was no longer necessary to gather natural products for use as colorants. In addition, the color is more consistent from dye lot to dye lot.
In 1716 seaweed was discovered as an effective means of bleaching cloth in Scotland. Near the end of the century, chlorine was used in place of seaweed, which is still used today.
There are many different methods of dyeing fabrics used by modern factories; typically a factory will specialize in fabric dyeing processes similar to the way a doctor specializes in their area of expertise.