Children can use fruits and vegetables to mix their own dyes for creative projects.

Natural Plant Dyes & Activities for Children

by Andrea Godbout

Common fruits, vegetables and nuts have colored fabric and cosmetics for thousands of years. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers were sometimes called “Butternuts,” because their gray uniforms were dyed using butternut hulls, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Children can easily gather berries, vegetables and other natural products to mix dyes to use as coloring for their own creations.

1. Making Natural Dyes

Head to the grocery store or to the backyard to collect fruits, vegetables or flowers for your projects. Beets, cranberries and strawberries will make red or pink dye. Yellow can come from onion skins, marigolds or daffodil flowers. The blue in blueberries, mulberries and grapes mixes up into a batch of deep, rich color. Think of plants or foods that stain your tongue or fingers and they will probably work as dyes. Cut up or crush your plants. Put them in a non-reactive pot or container with enough water to cover and leave them to soak overnight. Stainless steel pots work well for dyes. In the morning, simmer the mixture for about an hour and add water to keep the plants covered. Strain the dye through a wire sieve to remove the solids and let it cool.

2. Dyed Eggs

Dyeing hard-boiled eggs with natural dye is a quick and easy project for small children. Let the children place some raw eggs into a pot of cold water. An adult can boil the eggs and take them out to cool. Place them gently in the dye and rotate them until they are a shade you like. If you have more than one color of dye, you can try dyeing half the egg one color and the other half another. A variation would be to dye an egg one color, let it cool and tint it again in a different one to see how colors blend to make new ones.

3. Tie-Dye

Tie-dyeing is a surprisingly easy way to turn a plain white shirt into a neon colored fashion statement. Natural fibers like cotton, linen and silk absorb dyes best. Gather about 20 strong rubber bands. Use the rubber bands to tie up spots on a clean white shirt or pillowcase. Make sure the rubber bands are tight enough to keep dye away from those areas. Dip all or part of the shirt in the dye for 10 to 30 minutes until you have achieved the desired color. Carefully remove the garment from the dye and rinse in cool water until it runs clear and hang it up to dry. Wash a newly dyed piece alone the first few times to keep fresh dye off other clothing.

4. Dyeing Yarn for Needlecrafts

When a child is learning to knit or crochet, dyeing yarn can be a creative bonus. You will need a skein or two of pure wool or cotton yarn. Acrylic and other synthetics won’t take the dye. Do not wind the yarn into a ball; just keep it tied in one or two places so it won’t come apart and tangle. Dunk the yarn in water to dampen it, then roll it up in a towel. Submerge the damp yarn in the dye bath. Let it soak until you find the right shade and then remove carefully and rinse in cool water. Hang the yarn up to dry and then wind it into a ball.

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