Dyeing Across the Curriculum

By Eve Pranis

Fran Ludwig, Science Consultant from Lexington, MA, reports that the plant dyeing students tried during a study of colonial crafts sparked lots of questions worthy of classroom investigation: What happens if we leave it in the dye bath longer? Will dyes work differently in different types of fabrics? What flowers might make good dyes? Will different parts of the same plant produce different colors? Can we dye other materials like wood, shells, etc.? Questions like these can lead to fruitful investigations that allow students to think and act like scientists as they explore the mysteries of plants and colors. Consider having an initial dyeing experience with your class, then asking students: What do you wonder about colors from plants? What variables do you think influence dyeing? Which would you like to investigate?

In addition to the science investigations suggested above, dyeing with plants provides opportunities for integrating learning across the curriculum. For instance, consider having students...

  • Write about or generate a list of the ways in which plant colors enrich our lives.
  • Write or tell stories depicting how early humans might have discovered plant dyes.
  • Research the history of dyeing blue jeans. Were they ever dyed with natural plant pigments?
  • Observe and describe how "natural" colors compare with synthetic colors.
  • Grow some fiber plants like cotton or flax, and research how fabrics are made from them.
  • Learn about the meaning and use of colors by different cultures.
  • Find out about synthetic dyeing in the textile industry. Research why some people promote undyed or naturally dyed fabrics as environmentally "friendly."
  • Discover which plants in your area were used as dyes by indigenous people.
  • Create a plant dye recipe book.
  • Arrange your own dyed materials according to the color spectrum.
  • Create products from your dyed yarn or fabric. Weave on simple looms, create friendship bracelets, make God's Eyes or make a sampler featuring dye plants matched with the pieces of yarn or material dyed from each of them.
  • Apply plant colors directly to create natural paintings. (Donna Hayes' sixth graders in Aurora, OH, create watercolor-like paintings using their fingers to press and rub flower petals, leaves, rotten logs, and other plant-based materials on drawing paper.)
  • Create plant color indicators for acids and bases using your homemade plant dyes. Dip a white coffee filter strip into one of your plant dyes, then dry it, and dip it in vinegar, and observe the resulting color. Do the same, but this time dip the strip in a baking soda solution. If they turned different colors, you can use plant-dyed strips like litmus paper!

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