Weaving Threads: Natural Dyes at the Intersection of Art & Science

In the fall of 2022, I was a recipient of the Pratt Institute STEAMplant grant, receiving $5,000 form the Sirovich Family Student Scholarship fund. This highly competitive schoolwide grant funds programs that "encourages the mending of the counterproductive split between STEM (Science / Technology / Engineering / Math) and Art/Design" (see website here).

For this project, I designed a five-lesson unit on natural dyes. Fourth grade children engaged in artistic use of sustainable materials rooted in studies of ecology, botany, and chemistry. Long-term goals of the project aim to build a strong foundation for ecological thinking as children learn the benefits of low impact materials for the arts. I collaborated on this project with team members Gina Gregorio (Adjunct Associate Professor, Fashion Design & Faculty lead at Textile Dye Garden), Christopher Jensen (Professor, Math and Science), Cindie Kehlet (Professor and Acting Chair, Math and Science), Isa Rodrigues (Visiting Professor, Fashion) and Heather Lewis (Professor, Art and Design Education) to create a curriculum that authentically intertwined chemistry, biology, botany, environmental sustainability, and textiles. The goal was to highlight the connections between these subject areas and integrate all aspects of learning.

Below is a summary of each of the five lessons the team and I taught at an elementary school as well as posters that I created as educational materials to go along with each lesson.

Please also view the article here published on Pratt News, "Learning with the Colors of the Earth"

For the first lesson in the unit, students visited the Textile Dye Garden at Pratt Institute. Prior to students visiting the garden, we collaborated with their classroom teachers and created preparatory materials such as a video made by Chris Jensen. This video was filmed in the garden and highlighted all the interdependence that occurs between plants, animals, and humans in nature. Having gained some prior knowledge on ecology in their classroom, students came to visit the garden and used magnifying glasses to observe the different parts of the plants. They observed pollinators in action, and drew their observations using colored pencils. Next, we demonstrated how to bundle dye yarn using fresh flowers. Students learned about responsible harvesting practices, and worked first-hand to lay the flowers out on the yarn and wrap them into bundles in preparation for steaming.

Pictured: Students observing the different parts of the plant and making notes of pollinators.

Photos courtesy of Nur Guzeldere

Above Left: Students drawing their observations.

Above Center and right: Students laying out flowers on the yarn for bundle dyeing.

Photos courtesy of Nur Guzeldere

Left: Completed Bundle Dye Yarns.

Right: Yarn skeins wrapped in bundles after steaming.

During the second lesson, students dyed yarn using immersion dye methods with dye concentrates from Hopi Sunflower and Marigold grown in the Textile Dye Garden at Pratt, and locally foraged black walnut.

Students learned about how chemists study "change" and reaction, and how different modifiers like soda ash or vinegar can be used to change the pH, and therefore the color of the yarn.

From just three plants and the use of three modifiers, students were able to dye a wide range of colors.

During the third lesson in the unit, students learned about how Indigenous People of New York, such as the Onondaga, Haudenosaunee, and Lenape tribes used local materials for the arts. Students discussed how place and geography affects making. We also looked at other plants that can be foraged in New York City for dyes, as well as everyday kitchen foods that students can use to create natural dyes. Following this discussion, we discussed the environmental benefits of natural dyes. Students learned about how synthetic dyes are harmful to the land, water, as well as to workers handling the dyes. Natural dyes are safer for people to use, and can be disposed of without polluting waterways.

Below: Posters for the lesson and a natural dye foraging display for the classroom, with swatches dyed with food.

At last, it was time to weave! During the fourth lesson, students were introduced to the structure of weaving. They learned about the different types of looms, from floor loom to jacquard looms. Students also learned about the fundamentals of woven structures and the concept of a warp and a weft. To introduce technology, students learned that the jacquard loom was the first iteration of a computer. The binary code system used in a jacquard loom is the first of it's kind to use this technology, which is now the basis for all coding. Students then created their own "codes", using colors as well as stripes to create symbolism in their woven pieces. The last lesson concluded with students assembling the finished woven works together into a class-wide collaborative piece. Key ideas throughout the unit of interdependence and collaboration were reinforced through this communal end project.

Left: Students looking at the yarn colors available, and designing codes with colored pencil on paper

Above: Yarn that students dyed from Marigold, Hopi Sunflower, and Walnut

Above Left: Laser cut acetate loom sets, with cotton twine warp, two needles, and a comb

Above center and right: Students beginning to weave their codes

Below left and center: Students finishing their woven works

Below right: Students assembling the competed woven works into a collaborative class piece

Above: Dye Chart inspired by the "Vegetable Dye Chart" created by Mabel Burnside Myers, Navajo weaver and dyer. (Photo courtesy of Ron Hester)

Above: Finished collaborative woven wall-hanging. Each student wove one section based on their own "code" or symbolism created through striping. The pieces came together into a joint class wall hanging.

Below are photos from an event held at Pratt Institute celebrating the completion of the project. Teachers and parents from PS270 were invited to celebrate the project together, along with Pratt Institute faculty.

All photos below courtesy of Ron Hester.

Above left: Educational posters corresponding with each lesson on display.

Above right: Completed woven artwork, dye chart display, writing samples from students, and unit overview poster.

Above left: Posters summarizing each lesson

Above right: Gallery display in Cannoneer Court at Pratt. Completed works, posters, and student artifacts.

Above left: Students discussing their experience on the project with Pratt President Frances Bronet

Above center and right: Attendees exploring the exhibition.

Above: Students planted winter peas as a cover crop during the party. They learned about the importance of cover crops as a way to return nutrients to the soil.

Thank you to Quince & Co for their generous yarn donation for this project.