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Natural Colours from Plants

Originally appears in the Summer 2017 issue

Experimenting with plants to colour textiles is an exciting experience for all ages. As young artists watch a simmering pot of kitchen waste turn a T-shirt a deep, rich gold they are usually dreaming about their next experiment.

“This is really easy. It was fun to watch colour come from the onion skins. It gets darker and darker the longer it is on the stove. As soon as we started, I wanted to try and do this with beets or carrots next time.” (Claire Beresford, Grade 4)

Integrated curriculum is the aim for many public school systems, and the challenge for teachers is to develop or obtain resources that will support locally-relevant integrated teaching and learning. Life skills such as food preparation and clothing production have provided frameworks for learning opportunities incorporating traditional academic disciplines.[i] Natural dyeing can span the disciplines of chemistry, botany, history, and art. For example, an understanding of chemistry is required to successfully transfer colours from plants to textiles. Students can learn the basics of botany as they experiment with different plants. Curiosity and exploration, the underpinnings of science, underlay the experimentation with potential dyestuffs. History brings in a rich tapestry of stories based on the cultural trade of popular dyestuffs throughout time. Underpinning all of these ‘subjects’ is artistic expression. To achieve certain patterns and effects, students will become artists, learning about colour and light.

There are many paths to follow when developing an integrated unit based on natural dyeing. This article will start you on the journey with basic principles and a hands-on exercise, aimed at grades 4 to 6. This exercise is based on one of the most commonly-used natural dyes, derived from the skins of the common yellow onion. Simmering the skins in water will extract the colour. The deeply-coloured water bath can then be used to impart rich, earthy tones to fibres such as cotton and wool. With simple precautions, this process is safe for young students as is outlined below. If you want to go further, there are many good reference books available. Several are listed at the end of this article.

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Annamarie Hatcher teaches Integrative Science at Cape Breton University in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Her courses are imbedded in the geology and ecology of the natural environments of Cape Breton. This article stems from this background blended with her hobby of handspinning wool fibres for locally-sourced textiles. The author would like to thank Rod and Claire Beresford for testing and visually documenting the onion skin dyeing procedure.