Natural Dye “Jungle Paint” Fail + Success

From the July 22, 2019 Vitamin Sea Playgroup

Let’s start with what didn’t work . . .

Natural Dye – Tie Dye FAIL
So I had dreams of picking random flowers and plants throughout our property and producing beautiful tie dyed items! Pinterest pins abound promised a beautiful array of colors just from red cabbage alone! Since my goal was to do this activity with toddlers, I really wanted everything we used to be “taste friendly!”  . . . however . . .

There are several things to consider when attempting to use natural dyes as a tie-dye activity for a playgroup full of littles! 

  1. To prepare most dyes you need to heat whatever it is you are using, so you’ll need to use the stove or make a fire. Not really a toddler friendly step.
  2. Most dyes require a “mordant” which is usually a chemical (there goes “taste friendly” right out the window, LOL). This chemical works in between the fabric and the dye as a “molecular glue.” Most fabrics and natural dyes do not “stick” together, so they need help forming a molecular bond between the fabric and the dye. When done properly you can wash the fabric and all the color won’t wash out.
  3. Some dyes aren’t “wash-fast” or “light-fast” As soon as the dyed item hits daylight or is washed, it begins to fade. So you have to be ok with whatever you are doing not being permanent (depending on the dye you are using). Try fast forwarding those beautiful pinterest pins through a month of outdoor play and you’ll have very little color left in the item! Some items pictured in pinterest are even wet so the colors look more vibrant . . . as soon as the item dries the color is already faded.
  4. Some tutorials ask you to keep the item soaking in the dye overnight which isn’t good for a 2 hour playgroup activity unless these are kiddos you see everyday and can make it a two part activity that they finish the next day

Those considerations aside, I decided to give it a go solo, to see if tie dye with natural dyes could be adapted for our playgroup.

I started with Red Cabbage and Tumeric. Red cabbage sells at the grocery story here for around 200 – 300 vatu. I boiled it and it immediately filled the pot with beautiful purple water!

Exciting! Red cabbage is also pH sensitive, and it changes color when you change the pH of the dye. Common household items you can use to do this are vinegar which is more acidic and baking soda which is more of a base. Add vinegar and the red cabbage starts to turn pink. Add baking soda and it starts to turn blue or green!

I didn’t mess with the color changing yet, and decided just to try dying with the straight purple. I read and followed this Martha Stewart blog post. It turns out I totally misunderstood her post! I thought she lists that if you boil fabric with vinegar and water before dying it – that the vinegar is the mordant. In retrospect, I think you need a mordant AND the vinegar. Before realizing this, I went ahead and pre-treated fabric by boiling it in vinegar and water.

I then let it soak in the purple cabbage overnight. As soon as I added the pre-treated fabric with vinegar into the purple cabbage dye, the dye immediately started turning pink! Oops! So if pretreating fabrics with vinegar – be prepared for color change! I also soaked a few pieces of fabric that I hadn’t pre-treated just to see what would happen. The dye stayed purple.

^ The fabric on the right side of the image was pre-treated with vinegar, which is why the dye has changed to pink. You may also ask why the fabric on the left is wrapped around a toilet paper tube! It’s a tye die folding method you can read about here.

I followed the same steps with tumeric – pre-treating fabric with vinegar and then letting it soak overnight. The next morning, this is what the fabric looked like when I pulled them out of the dye:

Even though it looks a little purple in the picture, at the end once I hung up the fabric to dry – the purple dye didn’t really stick to the fabric. The fabric went back to its original color as soon as it started to dry. This is just some unknown white fabric from the store, and it most definitely isn’t cotton but I’m not sure what it is. The good news was that the tumeric stuck to the fabric! Even after rinsing it, it stayed! Woo-hoo!

Tumeric makes for great color! You can buy tumeric in the local market here if you don’t have it growing at home. On Maewo Island and here in Port-Vila I’ve heard Tumeric being called “local curry.” If you don’t want to go through the entire process of pestle and mortaring the tumeric – you can buy it already ground up in the bottle.

Since this first result wasn’t that great, I tried again, wondering if the type of fabric I was using would make a difference. One of my toddler’s onesies was stained so I figured I’d give it a shot since it’s 100% cotton. I put it in the purple dye and it turned a beautiful shade!

I thought I had nailed it! Added a little tumeric and created this really fun pattern!

I’ve read that you should wash items dyed with natural dye by hand and with dish soap. So I did.

And almost all of the purple came out! But a lovely shade of yellow from the tumeric was still there. So I hung it to dry . . . and the sun basically turned it brown.

I noticed that the dish soap I think interacted with the cabbage color to turn a little blue. Either way at the very end I ended up with a onesie that just looked like a diaper had exploded.

I’ve read that you should let naturally dyed items cure for up to 2 weeks before you wash them! I may try that next time. Also rusty nails can be a mordant . . . something to try with my toddler – let’s go find mommy some rusty nails!!!

All in all it was a fun series of science experiments and I’m keen to keep trying! A friend also clued me in that adding garlic could stop mold from forming on items you’ve dyed – after all we are using FOOD for paint and we live in the tropics! So add that to the list of things to consider . . . interestingly after 2 weeks my cabbage paint was definitely done for as it became moldy.  But the tumeric paint was still going strong and we kept using it.

Now onto what worked: Natural dye as PAINT!

So, forget the tie dye, which we didn’t end up doing at play group, even though I did have some fabric set aside in case we went that direction. We just ended up painting together.

We used tumeric again, as it works great as paint. It sticks to really any kind of paper, so just throw some in a cup with a little water, hand your kiddo a paint brush and some paper or a piece of cardboard and they’ll have fun brushing it all over the place.  Or better yet, use an old soap bottle to squirt the paint.  So much fun!

There’s a beautiful blog post where someone mixed tumeric with coffee to make a whole series of shades and painted this croissant. I definitely don’t expect that kind of art from my toddler, but if you want to paint your own picture while your kid is painting away . . . well, you could actually make something!

Most households in the outer islands won’t have tumeric powder on hand – although they might have access to the tumeric in the garden. One thing a lot of families did have when we were on Maewo Island was curry powder. I used that as well mixed with water and it worked as a great paint for our toddler – it’s just a little bit lighter in color than the tumeric and tastes a bit better than tumeric if they stick it in their mouth.

^ Curry powder + water = paint!

I also tried painting with the red cabbage dye. When using paint brushes on regular paper, it didn’t color the paper at all! As I was testing it before playgroup I did soak the paper in the cabbage juice for an hour or so and it turned a lovely shade of purple.  On a hunch I tried painting the words “Secret Message” in vinegar on the paper first, to see if that part would turn pink due to the pH shift while the rest stayed purple.  Even though you can see the words “secret message” it wasn’t as shocking or cool as I thought it might be.

I figured during play group we’d just have fun making the cabbage juice into different colors with vinegar and baking soda. I never imagined we’d successfully paint with it – but we did!!

I had on hand a generous donation of some watercolor paper. Turns out the paper you are using really matters. A caregiver at our playgroup who knows a thing or two about art said, “that’s really nice paper!” She and her grandson picked up a paint brush and dipped it into the pink vinegar + cabbage juice we had just mixed and started painting on the paper and you could see it!!! My jaw dropped!

^ cabbage juice on watercolor paper really works as paint!

Like magicians we changed color at will, adding little bits of baking soda and vinegar and painting . . . then we threw in sand for texture and just played. It was so nice! And so nice to see the color appear on the paper. Using the red cabbage paint on proper water color paper makes all the difference. This type of paper is expensive and most definitely not available on the outer islands, perhaps not even available in Port-Vila, so I’ll have to play with other ways to make this a useful medium.

My kiddo had fun just pouring the cabbage juice back and forth between bottles as I squirted vinegar and baking soda in to change the colors as he played. That captivated him for a looong time!

As a side note, you don’t even need to have paint brushes to do this activity. One of the moms in our playgroup sent me a link to this – natural paintbrushes using sticks and leaves!  We haven’t tried this yet, but I’m keen to try it at a future playgroup. Lots of natural objects can be used as a stamp as well. Stamping the stars in tumeric on top of the purple cabbage-juice dyed paper I think looks really nice!

Upclose you can see a pretty blue edge where the tumeric mixes with the red cabbage dye. You can also see some powder from the tumeric – once the painting is dry all you need to do is brush off the powder.

Our natural bubble wands from the last post also make good stamps!

We’re still experimenting and having fun! If you’ve tried these methods or have any ideas, please leave a comment below <3

P.S. further reading:

IMHO, this is the best guide to using Mordants safely.

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