Natural Dyeing of Wool

Historical Significance

Life in the late 1800’s was a lot different than it is today. There were no grocery stores or shopping malls. People had to make or grow most of the things that they needed for everyday life. Because there were no drug stores or pharmacies, people grew plants that could be used to treat common ailments, as well as dye cloth, repel bugs, and keep houses and clothes smelling fresh and clean.

Some of the plants that grew in colonial gardens were transported from England and others were wild plants that people gathered. Native Americans taught colonists about many plants and how to use them. Housewives tended the gardens and were very knowledgeable about each plant they grew and how it could be used.

How Natural Dyeing Relates to Tipton-Haynes

The garden at Tipton Haynes has plants that would have been used by both settlers and Native Americans from this area during the revolutionary period. While most early settlers gathered from the fields and woods, some special dye plants were grown. Madder was used to dye the red wool of the British soldiers or as they were sometimes called, the Redcoats, Coreopsis was used to dye a bright yellow color. Indigo which gives a strong blue grew in warmer climates such as South Carolina but could be purchased at a store in Jonesborough in the 1700 and 1800s. Another dye material that could be purchased was Cochineal which is dried insects that live in Mexico. These dried insects dye the wool a bright red. Both Indigo and Cochineal were expensive so only the well-to-do had blue and red. Mixing the two dyes produces purple.

Student Activity

Students will learn about different dyestuffs by observing the dye material and a sample of wool dyed with that material. They will also learn how using different metal pots (iron, tin, copper) will produce different colors depending on the pot used. Using leaves of the forsythia bush, students will see the resulting dye when boiled. Using this dye bath, four small wool skeins pre-treated with mordants (metals including tin, iron, copper, and alum that were dissolved in water in which wool was simmered) are dyed in the forsythia dye and will produce four different shades of green and yellow. Student will then color the leaves, flowers, and stem of the plant to make a bookmark. Each bookmark has five punched holes on top to hold samples of the natural wool and the four dyed samples.