Arlene Marturano

Mixing dye from your garden

Gardening with kidsApril 18, 2013 

Indigo creates a blue hue

Dye gardens can stain your hands, the knees of your jeans and garden gloves, but it will make an indelible mark on your life.

For younger children, the dyeing process introduces fundamental chemistry concepts in a simple fashion.

Older elementary children will enjoy planting a rainbow row dye garden as one phase of learning about the textile industry in South Carolina.

As far back as the first century, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described plant sources of dyes: blues from indigo and woad, red from madder, yellow from saffron, golds and browns from acorns and walnut shells gathered or grown by alchemists.

Many common weeds, wildflowers and trees found on school grounds yield parts for the rainbow of colors desirable for tie-dye. Dandelion roots and goldenrod shoots produce brown dye. Sassafras leaves and bloodroot create orange. Red comes from hibiscus flowers, pokeweed berries and sycamore bark. Fruit of the Oregon grape and sweet gum bark give purple. Dock root, dandelion flowers and willow leaves produce yellow. Oak galls and walnut hulls make black.

Culinary and medicinal herbs including yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, peppermint, chamomile, sorrel, onions and fennel exude colorful fabric dyes. Cut flowers such as zinnias, sunflowers, dahlias and marigolds double as dye flowers.

There are the obvious cultivated garden plants that yield wonderful dyes: carrot tops and roots, red cabbage, spinach, beets; don’t forget edible berries like strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, grapes and mulberries.

The leaf, flower or fruit color you see isn’t always the color you get when the dye is cast. This makes dyeing a magical and mysterious process which children love. They are experimenters and the surprises and the suspense build with the addition of each new and different plant part added to the dye vat.

In a tie-dye class with kindergarteners during a study of cotton clothing, students first traipsed through the woods, garden and schoolyard picking leaves, flowers, fruits, herbs, nuts and bark and digging roots to test as potential dyes just like early man did.

The second class involved brewing the dye. Children shred the plant material into small pieces to expose more surface area to release color. Shredded plants are placed in a heavy enamel pan and covered with water, and brought to a boil before simmering for an hour. They then strained the dye bath to remove plant material.

Our third class is devoted to preparing the cotton muslin to hold the dye. Dyers use a mordant to bind the dye and fibers. The safest mordents for children are alum, a pickling spice and vinegar. Add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar to every 2 cups of water. Bring vinegar water to a boil before adding presoaked fabric to simmer for an hour. Lastly, cool and rinse fabric to remove vinegar.

For a tie-dye effect bind the fabric with string or rubber bands; the tied area blocks the dye. Place the rubber-banded fabric in the dye bath for 30-60 minutes until the desired color is set. Then rinse fabric in cool water and hang up to dry. The fabric can be retied and submerged into dye baths of other colors to create new color combinations and patterns.

Arlene Marturano is an educator, consultant, master gardener, and freelance writer. Read more of Arlene Marturano’s garden writings at and www.scgarden

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