Meets the learning standards for grades 4-5 (can be adapted)  
Media Type:  Watercolor/Natural Dyes
Subject Integration: Fine Arts, English Language Arts, Social Studies, Science 
Formal Lesson Plan and TEKS information (coming soon)

Materials: writing materials, watercolor paper/manila paper/heavy craft paper, a variety of vegetable/plant scraps and/or spices, and mordants (e.g. baking soda, salt, cream of tartar, vinegar, tea, copper, alum), water, brushes, cups/

Natural Dyes made from vegetable scraps and spices.

This lesson provides 10 new vocabulary words: 

  • Sustainable
  • Lineage
  • Authentic
  • Interconnected
  • Saturation
  • Reaction
  • Pigment
  • Mordant
  • Fixative
  • Regalia
  • Tradition

Let’s hypothesize about what botanicals might be the natural sources of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple pigments!  

Explore this article by the US Forest service that lists the plants and pigments used by Native Americans, as well as the use of mordants.

Activity 1 (requires adult supervision)

Gather a variety of vegetable/plant scraps and spices to experiment in making your own dyes (*make a separate batch of dye from each type of plant material. Do not mix-and-match for this project) 

Cover the plant material with water in a 1:2 ratio (1 plant: 2 water) and simmer on the stove or a hot-plate for 1 hour. 

Allow liquid to completely cool before straining into a container with a lid for later use. 

Activity 2

Create a variety of mordants by mixing available additives into hot water (*make a separate batch of dye from each type of mordant [e.g. salt, vinegar, baking soda, cream of tartar, alum, tea, copper]. Do not mix-and-match for this project)  

Use shallow containers to saturate sheets of watercolor paper in each of the different mordant solutions. Labeling is crucial for staying organized in this project! 

Allow each piece of paper to dry on a flat surface where it won’t be in danger of encountering a different mordant. You will need to organize your papers and clearly label which mordant was used. 

Activity 3

Time for Scientific investigation and reasoning! Learners will label and test each batch of dye on a single dry piece of paper that was not soaked in mordant. This will be the “control” sample. (use a separate brush for each dye to avoid cross-contamination) 

Repeat the test on each paper that was saturated with a different mordant.  

The papers need to lay flat to dry for several hours for colors to fully develop. 

What are some of your observations and discoveries? Which mordants created the strongest reaction? Based on the ease of clean-up, why would a fixative be important for natural dyes? Which (if any) dyes don’t require a fixative? Can you pursue independent study about the possible reasons for these results?

Activity 4

Read the article, Can Indigenous Knowledge Move the Fashion Industry Forward?  and select two of the featured designers for this exercise. 

Write a short essay about how the work and philosophy of the designers incorporate lineage, regalia, sustainability, interconnectedness, and authenticity. Be sure to appropriately refer to the designers by their specific indigenous identities.  

Share… Reflect! 


Review of Vocabulary for this Lesson:

Sustainable- able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed. 

Lineage- a group of individuals tracing descent from a common ancestor 

Authentic- of undisputed origin; genuine 

Interconnected- mutually joined or related 

Regalia- The emblems and symbols of royalty, such as the crown and scepter. 2. Magnificent attire; finery. (indianyouth.org has beautiful photos and additional information here: Powwow Dances and Regalia – Indian Youth ) 

Saturation- the state or process that occurs when no more of something can be absorbed, combined with, or added. 

Reaction- an action performed, or a feeling experienced in response to a situation or event. 

Pigment- the natural coloring matter of animal or plant tissue. 

Mordant- a substance used to set (i.e. bind) dyes on fabrics  

Fixative- a substance used to keep things in position or stick them together.