Natural Plant Dyes

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Students will learn that plants are a source of natural plant dyes and paints. This is a good lesson to show how pioneers or early civilizations may have used plant dyes to color cloth.

By Kim Swanger [Kim is a K-3 art teacher at Lakeview and Central Elementary Schools in Council Bluffs, Iowa.]

What You Need:

  • crock pots
  • beets
  • spinach or kale
  • black walnuts in the shell
  • dry onion skins
  • paint brushes
  • paper
  • Optional: KinderArt Coloring Sheets

What You Do:

  1. Discuss with the students that before we had synthetic dyes, people had to make their own paints and dyes using plants and other resources available. Show the students the nuts and vegetables you have and ask how the pioneers may have used these materials.
  2. The night before the painting lesson, place beets, spinach or kale, walnuts, and onion skins in separate crock pots with enough water to barely cover them. Cook all night. The following morning, the water in each of these pots should have turned into natural dyes. The beet water will be magenta, the onion water will be amber, the spinach or kale water will be a light green and the black walnut water will be brown.
  3. Pour a small amount of paint into bowls and ask students to smell them. Discuss which vegetable made which paint.
  4. Provide brushes and paper (plain or coloring pages) and permit students to paint using the natural dyes.
  5. After the painting experience, ask students what other natural materials might make dyes the pioneers could have used. Experiment with student suggestions.

Note: If black walnuts are not available, VERY STRONG coffee or tea makes an adequate brown dye. Berries can also be used to make colorful dyes. Currently, red dye is commonly made from a parasite that lives on cacti.