Monday, February 11, 2013

kids at the faire: Introducing Natural Dyeing

We are surrounded by color. Not just by colors we see, but also by the colors that must be discovered. There is a hidden palette in the natural world that we often take for granted. The process of creating natural dyes is a great opportunity to get a glimpse of the secret beauty that surrounds us. Dyeing with natural materials is also an opportunity to teach a lesson to children about the medieval world.

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.
Jewel tones like emerald and purple, girly colors like pink and chartreuse, even rich blacks, were all achievable dyes for medieval clothing. Each certainly came with a price, and non-nobles did not always have access to such bold colors, but they made up for that through processes that created teal, purple-gray, magenta, and of course, beautiful ranges of blues, yellows, reds and greens.

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)
The item needs mordant to set the dye. Luckily, fruits and vegetables can be set with either salt or vinegar. Place either 1/2 cup salt and 8 cups water (fruits) OR 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water (veggies) into a pan with your item. Make sure the item is completely submerged. Scale the ratio up as needed if your item is too large for the mordant amount.

Linen in the salt water bath, coming up to a boil.
Boil the item for an hour. Let it cool, wring it out and set aside for your dye. (It works out well to actually have your item in the mordant while you're boiling your dye as described below.)

 Blackberries in good condition (not over-ripe).
With your kids' help (as much as you feel they can do), either chop or crush the dye item you've chosen, and measure how much you end up with. You will need 2 parts water to every one part dye stuff.

Cut blackberries in water on the heat.
Put the dye stuff and water into a pan over heat. Boil for an hour. (This is a good stage to talk about medieval colors, so your child is away from the stove.)

After boiling for an hour, the berries were blanched and plump.
Let the pan cool a bit to make it safer to handle, then strain out the dye stuff, keeping the liquid.

The blackberry dye after straining.
Place the mordanted item into to dye (careful- don't splash!), making sure that the dye can work in to all parts of the item. I ended up a bit low on the dye, which means I needed to at least double the dye amount at the start.

Linen in the dye immediately after placing it in and turning it once.
Longer soaking times will result in darker or deeper dyes. Soak until you achieve a color your kids like. I soaked the linen for about 15 minutes, until it looked like it wasn't going to get any darker. The color is likely to fade after the first machine wash, so be sure to explain that beforehand. Stronger mordants (such as alum or iron) hold dyes much better, but all natural dyes are susceptible to fading from their initial colors straight out of the bath.

After about 15 minutes, the dye was a deeper shade on the linen.
Rinse the item in cold water, hang dry, and you're done!

The newly dye, still wet linen hanging to dry.
My 2 cups of blackberries produced a pale, berry purple dye. The photo is a bit pink, but it's more of a rose color, with definite purple undertones.

The final, dry linen- a pretty berry-toned lavender.
For more in-depth information on period dyeing, check out Drea Leed's Medieval Dyeing Resources.