Lessons to Dye For

Colorful Inquiry

"Imagine the kinds of looks my second graders must have gotten when they asked the grocery store clerk if they could clean the onion skins out of the vegetable bin," reports Cambridge, MA, teacher Bisse Bowman. "But the foraging was fun for them because it was part of our exploration of using plant colors to dye cloth."

Colors from plants have been used throughout history to enhance people's lives -- for decorating animal skins, fabrics, crafts, hair and bodies. They've been used to distinguish serf from master and to serve as banners in war. Your classroom garden, vacant lot, school grounds, and local grocery store can provide fuel for investigating the ways in which plants have enriched and continue to color our world. In doing so, your students can explore plants up close, design inquiry investigations, explore chemistry concepts, and have an intriguing lens for learning about history and other cultures.

As part of a "from sheep to shirt" project, Bisse's students collected local urban plants that they read or suspected might produce colors when used as dyes. Their harvest included wild grapes, sumac, tansy, black walnuts, onion skins, and marigolds. Throughout the several-month unit, students pulled apart wool yarn to explore and compare its fibers with synthetic ones. They created dye baths from a range of plant materials, made predictions about the colors that would emerge, and experimented with different dyeing techniques and materials.

"After several rounds of dyeing," says Bisse, "one student remarked: 'You know, it looks real easy to get yellow and green, but hard to get red and purple from plants.'" This launched a discussion about the historic importance of red and purple dyes, which were often reserved for royalty, and inspired a local search for plants that might produce these colors. Students decided to try blueberries for dyeing, but were surprised by the dull gray result, and equally chagrined that blue chicory flowers failed to produce blue dye. "We did have many successes," Bisse reports, however. "Students also learned that it's okay to make predictions that turn out to be wrong since that's the trial-and-error part of scientific inquiry." Before moving on to the weaving phase of this thematic unit, Bisse's students created sample yarn books from the 36 colors they'd produced.

Plants, Crafts, and Cultures

"My fifth graders had been studying native and indigenous plants and people," relates Norwalk, CA, teacher Lisa Morris. "I had found a poster depicting a colorful Navaho weaving and identifying plants that had been used to dye the strands. This sparked our interest in researching native plants that we might gather and use to do some dyeing of our own." After doing some research, Lisa's students either grew or collected sunflowers, marigolds, lupines, onions, spinach, and raspberries. Using hot plates, they simmered crushed plant parts for one to two hours, dipped white string in the various dye baths, then used their earthy hues to create friendship bracelets and simple card weavings. "We kept this activity very simple, and decided not to use a mordant to 'fix' the dye," Lisa reports. "The colors still came out well and lasted for a long time -- even some of the smells like raspberry lingered on the dyed materials!" She adds that the hands-on dyeing experiences provided a useful backdrop for exploring an activity that was a craft and way of life for indigenous people. As a follow-up to the classroom project, Lisa sent home a piece of string with each student and a challenge to find and experiment with a new plant-based dye. Her classroom scientists' discoveries, she reports, ranged from coffee to ketchup!

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