Dyeing throughout my life!!

It’s that wonderful time of year once more: time for gathering natural resources and finding colour.  And due to the marvellous weather we had back in the Spring that so suited pollinators, what a spectacular and abundant year it is now for fruits and seeds!

Felicity Thomas has previously shared with us stories of her practice as Head of a very outdoor-oriented Nursery School on several occasions (see here and here), and now shares another of her lifelong fascinations and passions – deriving colour from and in partnership with nature.  I’d say that a Froebelian approach is the connecting element!

Exploring natural dyes holds a superb collection of important elements: real life, real experiences, connection to nature, the magic of alchemy, chemistry, cause and effect, experimentation, craft and, especially, children revelling in the enthusiasm and genuine engagement of the adult – so setting the scene for Companionable Learning.

This is the way young children have learned from adults throughout our evolutionary history (the book The Sacred Urge To Play by Penny Brownlee and Kimberley Crisp provides a very good exploration of this) – children are designed to be interested in (and want to do) what adults do and are interested in.  In the child-led/adult-directed debate, this is the wonderful middle-ground sweet spot for the adult role, engaging children’s curiosity and providing access to worlds not yet encountered.

Dyeing throughout my life!! by Felicity Thomas

‘D is for Dyeing’.  This was the title of an article in Nursery World in July 2020 and it immediately caught my eye.  Here was a nursery, Rachel Keeling Nursery School, using exploration in nature in a Froebelian way.  Children were encouraged to explore and experiment with a pestle and mortar to extract colour from plants and leaves they foraged for around them.  The children were supported to think about connectivity when they discussed the colours they made from the plants “raspberry and beetroot make pink”.  They were making links between the original plant and the colour it made.

They were also inspired to create design through learning how to tie and dye and to add to this design as they wished by using a variety of different resources.  This is children being active in decision making and doing what fascinates them; Froebel called this self-activity.  The staff said this led to interesting conversations, challenging questions and sustained concentration.  All these skills are so important for meaningful learning and a successful life.  They are at the heart of a Froebelian approach.

I am a retired Froebel trained teacher but still develop and embed my Froebelian knowledge through writing and being a Froebel Travelling Tutor.  I also have a passion for using and learning about natural dyes and am still excited about my findings today.  As a small child I was fascinated by nature and as a pensioner I still am!  I am a forager for making food, building and creating colour.

Encouraging children to see the multiple ways in which nature can enrich and enhance our lives puts the natural world and our planet at the centre of their learning and developing understanding.  Encouraging children to want to know more because of the adult’s passion and curiosity, roots a seed of learning that will not be dislodged by more prescribed or formal education.  Froebel said,

“To have found one quarter of the answers [to his own questions] by his own effort is of more value and importance to the child that to half hear and half understand it in the words of others.” (Froebel, The Education of Man, 1826:86)

Children at the Nursery School I worked in loved collecting the berries from the trees and bushes in the Autumn.  A pestle and mortar were available for them to grind.  Old saucepans and bowls were used for mashing berries and leaves with a potato masher. We had a round Perspex water tray, which was great for dyeing as the children could look from above, from the sides and underneath to see the colour.

We put in old sheets and let them soak overnight.  There was great excitement to see if they had changed colour the next day.  We also used string and tied the sheets all over to make little ‘ponytails’.  The children were fascinated by the circular patterns that this produced.  As shown in the Rachel Keeling Nursery School, this simple activity can inspire children in their growing understanding of colour, shape, pattern and link these things to what they observe in nature.  The spiral patterns of a tie and dye experiment can be found in sunflower heads, snail shells, the way hedgehogs and wood lice curl up when threatened.

Science is about observing, collecting information or samples, preparing, doing, predicting, observing again and recording.  I dye woollen fibres to spin, weave and knit with – here is a page of my log book.  I have taken a piece of dyed fibre and stuck it in the book, writing to the side the process I have used.  The dark grey fibre on the right hand page says:

Blue-faced Leicester washed and put in a dye bath of crushed blackberries and a teaspoon of cream of tartar.  Moderated later with iron water” (I used rusty nails in rain water for this).

This picture shows some graded colours, using rhubarb leaves (yellow) and varying modifiers on Grey-faced Leicester fleece.

I have also made and dyed fibre for Gift One from Froebel’s Gifts: the soft spheres for babies.  The upper side soft balls are made from bought wool and the lower side are from my spun wool and natural dyes.  From bottom left these dyes are: turmeric, blackberries, tandoori spice, red gerbera flowers, nettles, onion skins.

It is so important to help children make these links and build on their knowledge so that they are eager to learn more.  Rachel Carson, author of The Sense of Wonder and also Silent Spring, so wisely said,

“The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.  Once the emotions have been aroused, a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love – then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response…  It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate”  (Carson, A sense of Wonder, 1956:56)

A lifetime of passionate foraging, experimenting and interacting deeply with nature has taught me so much about learning – and I couldn’t agree more!

Some great plants to grow in the nursery garden for dying are:

  • Common Yarrow (very plentiful and can be found anywhere) – gives pale yellow through to olive greens.
  • Pot marigold – yellow through to pale brown
  • French Marigold – similar colours as above
  • Yellow cosmos – golden yellow to greyish
  • Dark flowered Hollyhock (which is great to grow because of its ‘architectural’ appearance) – gives mauve – maroon to almost black
  • Dahlia (great for wool dying) – use the leaves and stems to give warm yellow to warm green
  • Lady’s bedstraw (grows extensively in Scotland – lovely again for wool) – use the root which is similar to madder and gives peach through to reddy brown.
  • Woad (beautiful blues but tricky to do, also a magnificent plant but grows like a weed so it is advised to take all the seed heads off the plant after they have turned blue black).  You can dye with the leaves to get beautiful blues and the seeds will give muted colours of lavender through to aqua-marine.  This was the only dye plant for blue in the middle ages in this country and remained so until the 16th century when Indigo became available.
  • If you have an Oak tree this is a wonderful dye source: ground bark gives beige – dark brown; leaves give cream – olive brown; acorns give kaki – dark pinky brown; oak galls give taupe – dark grey green.

There are of course loads more but I have tried to give a variety of colours.  Lots of plants will give yellow or green. It also depends on the mordant or modifier.  There are many lovely books on this subject, but my favourite is ‘Wild Colour’ by Jenny Dean (Mitchell Beazley 2018).


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