Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love blue. Cobalt, sapphire, indigo, navy, ultramarine, aquamarine, cyan, cerulean, cornflower, blue green: all the blues in the crayon box and MORE! But not feeling blue, nooo. When life gets a little discouraging, I know it’s time to throw Tubthumping (or my current favorite song) on repeat and bounce around the room for a while.

Simmering dye pots.
Red cabbage leaves and turmeric boiling away to make dye.

That’s usually enough to get rid of blue twinges. The slightly deeper mood that struck the other day needed stronger measures. So I spent 7 hours with 33 10-year-olds on their school camping trip, at Rob Hill in the Presidio.

My son’s class is studying Native American culture this month. Looking over the schedule of their 2-night camping trip at Back to School night, wondering how to help after he told me I wasn’t allowed to camp with them (sniff sniff, my baby is growing up!), I noticed the camp project of making natural dyes and tie-dying T shirts. Making natural dyes + tie-dying?? FUN. Sorry kiddo, I’m coming to camp! (He decided that was ok, as long as I didn’t stay OVERNIGHT.)

A little research online turned up lots of good information on tie-dying with natural dyes and tie-dye patterns. We decided to use red cabbage and turmeric so the kids could see 2 types of dye sources as well have 2 color options. It would have been fun to use berries, but we stuck to dyes which both use vinegar as a fixative (berries require a salt bath).

Shirts in the dye.
Stirring the shirts in the dye.

The kids ripped cabbage leaves, spooned in turmeric, and stirred the pots. They exclaimed when they saw how the color leached out of the cabbage, and the yellow turmeric turned to a mustard color as it boiled. They looked and listened when told about how to put the rubber bands on their shirts (surprising how many wanted the “twirl” design), and some needed a little help getting the rubber bands on tightly. They poked at the shirts while they steeped in the dye, looking at how the T-shirts picked up the dye. After their formal activities (Math Munchies and Plant Detectives being the other 2), they played and worked in their journals until dinner time.

I wasn’t ready to leave. And the purple dye wasn’t sticking as well as we’d hoped: after rinsing, the shirts were almost as pale as at the start. So I stuck around, and the shirts continued steeping, and every so often they got a poke and a stir.

The yellow shirts, on the other hand, took the dye very well. Rinsing and taking the bands off them was like unwrapping a present: no idea what you were going to get, each one different from the next. They turned out very well.

Turmeric-dyed shirts
First batch of turmeric-dyed shirts.

So why was 1 experiment successful and the other less so? I suspect we experienced fixative failure, with too many shirts in too little fixative (1 bottle of vinegar gets used up fast at 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water in 10 quart pots!). Note for next time: MORE VINEGAR!

I’m inspired to do a little more experimenting with natural dyes. I stuck some white yarn in the dye pots, so we have some purple and yellow to play with. So maybe some brown, from coffee grounds or tea bags? I read artichokes will give you green. And maybe we should overdye those cabbage shirts with a different color…

…maybe with dye made from hyacinth flowers, say, or blueberries…

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