Garden Craft Project: Making Plant-based Dyes

By National Gardening Association Editors

Throughout history humans have used natural dyes to distinguish social classes (serfs and masters), for ceremonial purposes (the Navajo), decoration, and fashion. Here are some guidelines to help kids try their hands at this ancient craft -- with a little adult help, of course.

Materials List

  • Collected dye plant material -- try a variety of fabrics and yarns: plant fiber (e.g., cotton, linen) and animal fiber (e.g., wool, silk)
  • Natural fiber to dye
  • Enamel pot
  • Water
  • Vinegar
  • Cheesecloth or old stocking
  • Rubber bands
  • Stove


Choose your dye sources. You can find them in a garden, collect them in the wild (be sure there is an abundance of what you forage), pick them off the sidewalk, or buy them at the grocery store. You'll need at least a one-to-four ratio of fresh plant material to fibers. Plant-based fibers may require more plant material to brew a dye bath strong enough to color them.

Here is a short list of plant material and the general tint they produce to get you started. Personalize your investigation by including your favorite plants, flowers, or seeds and trying to predict what color will ensue:

alder leaves (yellow) parsley leaves (yellow)
birch leaves (yellow/tan) tomato plants (pink/blue)
red cabbage (blue) turmeric (orange)
carrot tops (green) black-eyed Susans (yellow)
elderberries (blue/gray) mint leaves (yellow)
spinach plants (green)

Brew the dye bath. Shred plant material to expose more surface area from which pigment can be extracted. Cover the plant materials with water in an enamel pot, simmer them about an hour until the plant looks bleached, then strain the dye bath through cheesecloth or an old stocking to remove plant material (optional).

Pretreat your fibers. To help pigments bind better to fibers, dyers treat them with mordants such as vinegar or alum. For convenience and working with children, this recipe calls for non-toxic vinegar as the mordant. Use1 tablespoon vinegar to every 2 cups water. Bring water and vinegar to a boil, add pre-moistened fibers to ensure penetration, and let it simmer for an hour. Next, cool and rinse fibers to remove vinegar. Add them to the dye bath and stir occasionally until desired color is set - 30 minutes to an hour. (You can experiment with leaving them in the bath for different lengths of time to investigate the spectrum of tints and hues that sticks). Rinse dyed materials with progressively cooler water and hang them to dry.

The rest is up to you! Try experimenting with other plants and flowers, or "tie dying" (wrapping fabric with rubber bands before dyeing to create patterns).

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