Making Vegetable Dye Is Fun

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Connie Goldin ©2011, Mom to Madre

As part of a challenge to see how many toys can be made from regular household items, I decided to make dyes from fruits and vegetables. I had done this from produce one year long ago with my kids. We used beets, red cabbage, onion skins and spinach to dye Easter eggs. The colors on the eggs were so subtle and beautiful. The cabbage made a perfect Robin’s egg blue.

This time, I went to the local organic store to find brilliant yellow and deep ruby beets. I wasn’t sure I’d find them at the supermarket. I also picked up a bag of spinach, and three big carrots. When I got home, I found some red plums that were past their prime and a handful of small purple potatoes to add to the ingredients. I was skeptical about the plums since their inside was almost white and I was quite excited about the purple potatoes. As you will see, I had it backwards-the plum makes a gorgeous pink color and the potatoes yield a very pale mauve dye. It’s still pretty but is almost an variety of “off white.”

I put each vegetable, cut into big pieces, in a pot and covered them with tap water-no salt, vinegar or additives-and boiled them for about thirty minutes. I got experimental with the carrots and the spinach and dropped a piece of white towel in while the vegetables were cooking to see if that technique made a difference. It seemed to make the weak green and orange colors dye a little stronger.

After boiling the cut vegetables, I drained them through a colander into bowls. I placed strips of a white cotton towel and a few strips cut from a white cotton handkerchief into each color pot. I had one egg to experiment with and it went into the purple potato dye.

The dyes all worked. I’m not impressed with spinach, carrots or purple potatoes for dye making. Beets and plums are great. However, I let the yellow beets cook too long and the color turned from yellow to brown. I recommend checking the color by dipping in a spoon after about 15 minutes. Recently I cooked artichokes and didn’t throw out the water I cooked them in until the next morning. When I poured it into the sink, it was a brilliant green. If artichokes weren’t so expensive, they’d be a good vegetable to use for making dye.

Making dyes from fruits and vegetables is a nice art project and science activity. It is worth trying this sometime with your kids. After all, nature is the original source of all of our colors and dyes since the beginning of time. It’s nice to to able to show this to children.

The project also provides an opportunity to introduce new vocabulary words. Here are a few to introduce to your school-age kids: pigment, tint, hue, seep, saturate, colander, mauve, sepia, coral, khaki, celadon, and root vegetable, to name a few.

If you don’t overcook the vegetables, they are fine to eat. I wouldn’t eat the ones with the towel cooked in them, however. My husband enjoyed eating both the purple potatoes and the red beets but said they needed salt. Maybe I’ll add salt the next time I make dyes to see what happens.

The dyes turned plain white wool yarn and cotton twine into lovely soft colors.
The dyes turned plain white wool yarn and cotton twine into lovely soft colors.
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