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Cloth Dying- STEAM in History

This year, our family has been enjoying "Our Star Spangled Story," a living history style curriculum for early elementary kids.  Every day, Skimmer (age 7) asks to do history class and is disappointed when I tell him we only have a few lessons a week.  All three kids are remembering quite a bit of history.  We have a large US map on the wall of our kitchen classroom and have been working on geography a bit as we learn about each new place.

We're now in about the 1840's and did a chapter about the Industrial Revolution.  The book focused on cotton and the process of getting cotton from the plant to the fabric and contrasting the labor of working by hand vs the efficient mechanization of factories.  Since we live in a part of the country where cotton isn't grown, we watched a few Youtube videos.

Handpicking Cotton

The above 1948 documentary shows sharecroppers picking cotton and how important "King Cotton" is/was for the automobile industry.  There's still plenty of machinery in this video, but I showed it to the kids primarily for the handpicking cotton scenes.  They really enjoyed comparing the movie to modern life, too.

The video below is a great contrast for the other movie, since it shows the modern cotton combine.  It's pretty amazing how the machine seems to vacuum up the cotton pods.  The ginning and baling the cotton all in one motion is like "magic science" (to quote the old newsreel).  If you're interested in learning more about this subject, check out this complicated Cotton Manufacturing Flowchart.

Machine Picked Cotton

Although fabric dyeing wasn't part of our history assignment, I thought this chapter was a great time to do a science experiment I saw months ago.  We tied it to history with a discussion of chemical fabric dyes vs natural fiber dyes.  I think the entire family is interested in exploring more dying options in the future.

STEAM activities are very popular right now.  For those unfamiliar with the term, STEAM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math.  This experiment hits on almost all of those subjects, which is pretty awesome!

Enough of the introduction- let's get to the project!  We used purple cabbage to explore the chemical reactions of acids and bases.  We could have just placed the chemicals in mason jars and tested the reactions in that plain way, but we did a fabric dying project instead!  Here's what you'll need to do the experiment at home.

  1. cotton tea towel
  2. container of salt
  3. large stock pot
  4. colander
  5. slotted spoon
  6. purple cabbage
  7. kitchen acid like vinegar or lemon juice
  8. kitchen base like baking soda
  9. plastic pipettes
  10. paper cups

We used cotton tea towels as our fabric.  It's very important to make sure the towels you buy are 100% cotton, so they'll take the dye the best.  Start the process by boiling the towels in a salt water solution, which will help the dye adhere to the cloth.  I literally took a big pot of water and dumped salt into it, so I'm not sure what the recommended measurements should be.

After the water boils, turn off the burner and leave the towels to soak for an hour or so.  Cut the purple cabbage in half and roughly chop up one half of the cabbage.  Put the uncut half in the fridge for dinner or in the freezer for more experiments later.

After the hour of salt water soaking, dump the towels into a colander to cool.  Fill the pot again and add the chopped purple cabbage.  Boil the cabbage for an hour or more, then turn the burner down and simmer the mixture.

Using a slotted spoon, scoop out the boiled cabbage and toss in the garbage.  DO NOT dump out the water!  Turn off the stove top, and add the tea towels to the warm water.  Soak for as long as you'd like to get the color into the towels.  We left ours for about 24 hours.

After the tea towels are dyed as darkly as you'd like (we didn't end up with a very rich color sadly), drain them in the colander.  If you're doing the project inside like we did, cover your table with towels to make an absorbent surface.  Spread the dyed tea towels on the table and gather the kids.

In one paper cup per child, add a bit of either lemon or vinegar.  In the other cup, put some baking soda and add warm water.  Assemble the kids at the table and give each child a cup of acid and a cup of base solution and two pipettes.  Show the kids how to work the pipettes, then let them explore what happens when they add the chemicals to the tea towels.

I'm not sure what the actual science is behind this chemical reaction, but the kids will discover an amazing color change.  The acid turns the purple cabbage cloth bright pink, while the base creates a pretty green color.  For the best results, use only one chemical on each towel.  Using both of them, though, will create a neat tie-dye look.

Our colors didn't turn out very vibrantly, (and the picture are dull because of having to work inside) but the project showed a big difference between chemical (man-made) fabric dye vs natural dyes.  By looking at the clothes we were wearing that day, we could see how much brighter the synthetic dyes are today compared to plant dyes.  I think it gave all of us a good idea of how labor and time intensive fabric dyeing (and every other process) was in the past.

Hopefully, my directions makes sense.  We'll be visiting cotton again in a few weeks when we talk about slavery and the Civil War.  Perhaps we'll try a different natural dye.  Let me know in the comments if you try this experiment or have any suggestions for us.

We're participating in a summer link up with Rock Your Homeschool.  To see more awesome history ideas, click on the picture and visit the entire list.  I'm especially excited to read some more fun history ideas.

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