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T-Shirts to Dye For!

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  • Arts & Humanities
    Art History, Language Arts, Visual Arts
  • Science
    Botany, Life Sciences, Natural History
  • Social Studies
    U.S. History


K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12

Brief Description

Students create natural dyes from plants.



  • learn about and gather plants, fruits, and/or vegetables that are good sources of natural dyes.
  • follow directions to process dyes from natural materials.
  • dye T-shirts (or squares of T-shirt material).
  • write paragraphs describing the process involved in extracting dyes from natural materials and what they learned about history as a result.
  • display the results of their efforts.


art, botany, dye, fabric, natural, plants

Materials Needed

  • a collection of natural dye sources (include several of those listed in the Lesson Plan section)
  • T-shirts or T-shirt material (students might bring from home)
  • cheesecloth
  • pots, bowls
  • hot plate or stove (this part of the activity could be done behind the scenes)

Lesson Plan

For centuries, people have used plants as a source of natural fabric dyes. Explore some of the history of using plants as dyes at History of Dyes from 2600 B.C. to the 20th Century. Wool is one of the most commonly dyed materials, but in this activity, students will create dyes for white cotton T-shirts. Students each might bring an old T-shirt from home, or several old T-shirts can be cut into 10-inch squares and each student given a single square to dye.

Gather plants that will make good sources of dye. Those plants might include coreopsis, goldenrod, onion skins, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, spinach, beets, rhododendron leaves, acorns, marigolds, red cabbage, elderberries, black-eyed Susans, bloodroot, and many others. (Additional Resources below will provide information about other sources of natural dyes, parts of plants that work best, times for simmering materials to create dyes, and more.)

The Web site Making Natural Dyes from Plants provides the best information for producing dyes. Following is a summary of another simple process:

  • Collect the required plants, clean them, cut them up, and wrap them in cheesecloth.
  • Put the cheesecloth-wrapped dye source in a bowl and add water to cover. Let stand overnight.
  • Pour contents of the bowl into a pot and simmer for one hour.
  • Remove the cheesecloth and put in the T-shirt or squares of T-shirt material. Continue simmering for 30 minutes. Turn off the stove, and let the T-shirt or squares soak for several hours or more.
  • Rinse the T-shirt or squares and dry.


Warning: Always take special care when using a stove with or around children. If children take their T-shirts home, send a note to parents not to wash the shirts with other clothing. The shirts should be washed by hand.

Have students write one-page papers telling what they learned about how people throughout history used plants as dyes. The paragraphs should include a brief and accurate description of the process used to extract dye from plants.

Display the variety of colors that you produced from plants on a bulletin board.

Additional Resources
You might use the following online resources to support your lesson plan: