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

In the fall of 2022, Ana Codorean, (MA Art & Design Education and Textile Dye Garden team member) 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, Codorean and team 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. Team members also included 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 taught at an elementary school as well as posters that Codorean created as educational materials to go along with each lesson.

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, 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.

Yarn donation courtesy of Quince & Co.

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 center and left: Students beginning to weave their codes

Above right: Laser cut acetate loom set, laser cut in collaboration with the Pratt Material Lab.

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. (Photo on the left courtesy of Ron Hester)

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

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

Above right: Posters summarizing each lesson

Above left: Gallery display in Cannoneer Court. 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.