The medieval world was full of color in a way the modern world is not. Not duller colors, or less beautiful ones. They had discovered the secret world of natural colors. They used plants, minerals, and in some cases animals to create vibrant hues in their clothing, paintings, ceramics and homes. All from nature. No petroleum by-products in the batch.
|Medieval colors. British Library, Harley 4431, fol. 71v.|
Now, I'm kind of odd, but when I was a child, I was always amused when we had beets for dinner and they left a pretty dark pink spot on my plate. I felt the same way about the yellow stain a dandelion left on my arm when we sang the little piggy song and I was the unfortunate recipient of the "wee wee". Then there was the time my mom used brewed tea to stain some crumpled paper to "age" it. With no real exposure to natural dyeing as a child, I still noticed it, and was fascinated by it. Imagine how much my mind would have been blown if I'd seen that a hank of yarn boiled in some mums would turn the yarn almost neon!
For the sake of both safety and attention span, teaching young children about natural dyes is best accomplished through more observational teaching than hands-on practice. Children can get a sense of ownership of the process if you include them in the initial prep stages and then with finalizing your dye results at the end.
Natural dying is an incredibly varied operation. The dye stuff, the item you're dyeing, the fixing agent (called mordant), even the time of year, all play into the color you will get. This is certainly an A&S topic worth considerable study, but if the point is to introduce the secret color world to your children, it shouldn't be complicated or take too much time. Food-based dye stuff is a good option. Good dye-producing foods are easy to pick up at the grocery store. Three food items that produce great dye colors are blackberries (purple), blueberries (pink), and onion skins (golden yellow). I'll show you blackberries below.
Dyeing with food:The first step is to prepare your materials to be dyed. This will only work with natural materials (which is perfect for medieval A&S, right?). A couple 100% cotton T-Shirts would be great take-aways that your kids can show off. (In the photos below, I'm dyeing a piece of off-white 100% linen.)
|Off-white linen before dye (sorry it's a bit of a dark photo)|
|Linen in the salt water bath, coming up to a boil.|
|Blackberries in good condition (not over-ripe).|
|Cut blackberries in water on the heat.|
|After boiling for an hour, the berries were blanched and plump.|
|The blackberry dye after straining.|
|Linen in the dye immediately after placing it in and turning it once.|
|After about 15 minutes, the dye was a deeper shade on the linen.|
|The newly dye, still wet linen hanging to dry.|
|The final, dry linen- a pretty berry-toned lavender.|