You will need
- Something to protect surfaces (for example, newspaper or tablecloths)
- Disposable gloves
- Access to water
- Natural dyes (see examples below)
- Natural white cotton fabric (avoid synthetic fabrics)
- Kitchen equipment, including pots and pans, a kettle, sieves, a chopping board, measuring cups and a large container or jar
- Utensils, including a wooden spoon, tablespoon, tongs and a knife
- Access to stoves or kettles
- String or rubber bands
Before you begin
- As this activity takes a long time, it may need to be run across more than one session, or at a camp.
- If needed, have everyone bring along to the session(s) a plain cotton T-shirt, sock or pillowcase that they wish to dye. Remind them to wear clothes to the session(s) that they don’t mind getting stained.
- You may need to use kitchen facilities for this activity, as you need to heat up lots of water and keep it simmering. Remember to risk assess all facilities used for the activity and make sure you have enough leaders and helpers to supervise everyone using them. If using boiled water from a kettle, the fabric will take much longer to dye and the dye ingredients should be cut as small as possible and left in the solution for more time.
- Cover the work surfaces you’re going to be using with old table covers or old newspaper. If you’re short of time, you could also prepare the fabric for dyeing beforehand.
Prepare your fabric
- It’s easiest if everyone splits into groups of between two and four people and then each group works on a prediction, batch of dye and a type of fabric between them. Each group should check they’ve got what they need and gather at their work surface.
- To prepare your chosen fabric, mix half a cup of salt with eight cups of water and bring it to the boil. Add the fabric and leave to simmer in the solution for at least half an hour, stirring often, before dyeing. Anyone using vegetable-based dyes should mix one part vinegar with four parts water instead of salt, add the fabric, leave to simmer and stir in the same way, before dyeing.
- Remove fabrics carefully from the hot water with tongs and place them in a sieve. Supervise this bit closely! Run under some cool water from a tap. When cool, wring out the excess water.
- The fabric is now ready to be tied. Using a copy of the ‘Tie-dye folding instructions,’ everyone should use rubber bands or string to tie it up tightly to create their pattern.
Prepare your dye
- To prepare the dye, put on the gloves and begin cutting the natural materials into small pieces on your chopping board. Put the pieces in a pot and pour over water. This is usually two parts water for every one part of the material, but for powders like turmeric, use three or four cups of water for every one or two tablespoons.
- Bring the mixture to the boil and simmer for at least half an hour. The longer it simmers, the more colourful the dye should turn out.
- When done, carefully strain the dye into a large container that the fabric fits into, and leave to cool.
Dye your fabric
- It’s time to dye the fabric. Everyone will need to wear gloves. Place the tied-up fabric into the container with the dye and leave it to sit for a while.
- Once the fabric has turned the desired colour, carefully remove each piece of fabric from the dye and rinse it with cool water. Do this until the runoff water runs clear.
- Remove the rubber bands or string and hang the fabric to dry. Hang the fabric outside if possible. Think about covering the floor beneath any fabric drying inside.
- Groups should record their results, feedback to each other and see if their earlier predictions were correct.
In this activity everyone worked together in groups to bring a new lease of life to a plain t-shirt or piece of fabric. Ask everyone whether they enjoyed working together in the activity. What were some good things about working with other people, and what did they find difficult about working in their groups? While waiting for their dyes to simmer everyone could think of other ideas for projects they could work on together to upcycle other items or bring some more colour to other areas of their community.
Using natural dyes may take some time, but the materials for doing it are all around us. Wherever you are, so long as you’re able to boil some water and soak your fabric, you should be able to find materials to use as dyes in nature. Why is it better for the planet to use the dyes nature gave us, and not synthetic ones made from chemicals?
Supervise young people, and only do science activities that are advised and age appropriate for your section. Test activities first, to make sure you’re confident you can lead them safely. Use protective clothing where necessary.
- Fires and stoves
Make sure anyone using fires and stoves is doing so safely. Check that the equipment and area are suitable and have plenty of ventilation. Follow the gas safety guidance. Have a safe way to extinguish the fire in an emergency.
Teach young people how to use cooking equipment safely. Supervise them appropriately throughout. Make sure it’s safe to use and follow manufacturers’ guidelines for use.
Check for allergies before you begin. Make sure you have suitable areas for storing and preparing food and avoid cross contamination of different foods.
- Sharp objects
Teach young people how to use sharp objects safely. Supervise them appropriately throughout. Store all sharp objects securely, out of the reach of young people.
- Outdoor activities
You must have permission to use the location. Always check the weather forecast and inform parents and carers of any change in venue.