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What's it all about?

In the days before people learnt how to make dyes from chemical reactions, the only way to dye cloth was using natural dyes. This is a really easy way to make some natural vegetable dyes, and use them to dye some cloth. Our students have gone on to experiment with tie-dyeing or batik when they've made them.

It all smells really nice, too, especially the raspberries!

What is here?

Select to view the Acrobat file (131K)You can:

  • Download the Acrobat file on this topic (131K - this identical to the one we use, including the students' worksheet in colour), or




Sarah Cage of the Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers kindly contacted me with some excellent and detailed advice on natural dyeing: select here to see her advice (48K pdf file).

Photo of the dyers' workshop

Mrs Walton's wedding bouquet bites the dust!

Photo of painting wax for batik


Student notes

Put some onion skins into a beaker and some beetroot slices into another beaker. Add about 100cm3 of water to each beaker. Carefully boil for 15–20 minutes to get the juices out. When the dye is ready, let the beaker cool for a few minutes. Filter the cooled liquid into a clean beaker. This is your dye bath.

Using tongs, put a piece of cotton into a dye bath. Carefully boil them together for 10 minutes, stirring them with the glass rod from time to time. Take the materials out of the dye bath using tongs. Leave them to dry.

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Teacher notes

This is a very easy way to prepare dyes, using standard laboratory techniques and natural sources. It makes a good introductory activity and makes the lab smell nice for a change! We have tried a variety of sources, including raspberries, onion skins, beetroot and red cabbage. All give pleasant, though not vivid, colours. We have tried some flower petals, too, but most (including the remains of Alison’s wedding bouquet) seemed to make a sort of brown colour. Colour extraction works well if the plant material is cut up finely and not heated in too much water.

We provide the students with squares of unbleached calico (this should be washed first as there is usually a finish on the material which inhibits thorough wetting and uptake of the dyes). This can be dyed simply by immersing it in a beaker of the dye solution, but our students have experimented further with tie-dyeing and batik.

Tie-dyeing works best if the string is wound very tightly around the material, and the material is not left for more than 30 minutes in the dye bath. Batik works especially well. We use a can of molten candle wax, which is painted over the undyed cloth with a paint brush. The cloth is then dyed, dried, and the wax removed by scraping or rolling the cloth to reveal the undyed areas. These can be left undyed, or the cloth can be put into a different dye bath to obtain multi-coloured effects.

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Technician notes

For 5 groups of students:

15 x 250cm3 beakers
5 x 100cm3 measuring cylinders
5 x glass rods
5 x tongs
5 x Bunsen burners, tripods, gauzes
5 x filter funnels with filter paper
5 x stands, bosses, clamps

In the lab:

Pieces of pre-washed, unbleached calico
Can of candle wax (warmed over a Bunsen burner – teacher to supervise)
Assorted paintbrushes
Drying line with bulldog clips

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