Lesson Plan: Overview

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Natural Dyes

Grade Level: 2nd

Student Work - Side One

Academic Standards

Standard 2.1 The student will demonstrate an understanding of cultural contributions made by people from the various regions of the United States.

2-1.2 Compare the historic traditions, customs, and cultures of various regions in the United States, including how traditions are passed between and among generations.

Standard 2.2 The student will demonstrate an understanding of the local community and the way it compares with other communities in the world.

2-2.2 Recognize characteristics of the local region, including its geographic features and natural resources.
2-2.3 Summarize the roles of various workers in the community, including those who hold government jobs there.

2-2.4 Summarize changes that have occurred in the life of the local community over time, including changes in the use of the land and in the way that people earn their living there.

Historical Background Notes

“Life was hard in the backcountry of upper South Carolina.  Women had little leisure time.  There was food to prepare, candles to make, cows to milk, butter to churn, and animals to feed.  Those who had sheep sheared the animals, carded the wool into strands and spun the strands into yarn.  Women used roots and vegetation to make dyes to give color to their material” (Ruff, c. 2000, 3-1).

Natural dyeing can be done using many materials.  They may be weeds, garden flowers, clay, and food byproducts.  There are many methods to making dyes, including rotting or cooking the dye materials.  Dyeing is an ancient activity.  Anthropologists believe that early ways of coloring may have had their origin in accidental staining.  It seems likely that the effects of colored juices from berries, nuts, and roots were noticed by primitive peoples and copied (Grae, 1974).  When aniline dyes were introduced about a century ago, exact colors became commercially available, mass production started, and the art of dyeing with plants was forgotten (Kramer, 1972).

Walnut Grove Plantation in Spartanburg County, South Carolina was a self-sufficient farm.  The grounds were planted with native flora and plants imported from Europe.  The herb garden includes plants used for cloth dying, including amaranth, calendula, goldenrod, and marigold.

Indigo, another source of natural dye, was an important export crop of South Carolina.  Some forms of indigo were native to South Carolina, but many other types were imported.  Eliza Lucas Pinckney brought indigo from the West Indies after a visit there, and wrote extensively of cultivating it.  Indigo production was phased out after the Revolution, and the slave labor used in its production was transferred to rice cultivation.  A curious side effect of indigo crops was it aided in reducing the numbers of mosquitoes.  After indigo production declined cases of yellow fever increased.  Unfortunately, people of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries never realized the connection between mosquitoes, yellow fever, and indigo.

The process of extracting indigo dye was very complex.  The process began with placing the plant in three successive fermentation vats.  A liquid was formed.  The fermented liquid was stirred with paddles to aerate the mixture.  After adding limewater, the clear alkaline liquid turned a blue color.  The liquid was drained, and the residue strained, bagged, and left to dry.  The resulting fine paste was cut into cubes and placed in barrels for storage.  The indigo produced varied in quality.  Carolina’s indigo was cheaper than West Indian indigo, but was not as high in quality.  After the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution in 1783, South Carolina indigo lost the protection of British bounties and tariffs.  Since Carolina indigo could no longer compete effectively with Indian indigo, the industry died out (Payne, 2003).


Primary Sources
  • Charleston Evening Gazette.  7 September, 1785.  Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Glen, James.  “Rice and Indigo in South Carolina.”  Cited in Chapman J. Milling, ed., “Colonial South Carolina: Two Contemporary Descriptions by Governor James Glen and Doctor George Milligan Johnston.”  Merrill Jensen, ed., English Historical Documents: American Historical Documents to 1776.  New York:Oxford University Press, 1955.
  • Pinckney, Eliza Lucas. The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney 1739-1762. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
    Secondary Sources
  • Grae, Ida.  Natures Color: Dyes from Plants.  New York: MacMillan, 1974.
  • Kramer, Jack.  Natural Dyes: Plants and Process.  New York: Scribner, 1972.
  • Krawcznski, Keith.  “William Drayton’s Journal of a 1784 Tour of the South Carolina Backcountry.”  South Carolina Historical Magazine 97, no. 3 (July 1996).
  • Payne, Jennifer.  “Rice, Fever and Indigo in Colonial South Carolina.”  Jennifer Payne’s History Homepage [online]; Rice, Indigo, and Fever in Colonial South Carolina
  • Ruff, Patricia, coordinator.  Cowpens National Battlefield Curriculum Guide.  National Park Service. c. 2000. South Carolina State Parks.  Charlestown Landing State Historic Site.  Indigo dye workshop.  August 2003. Spartanburg County Historical Association.  Walnut Grove Plantation.  Brochure and lesson packet.  Roebuck, S.C.
  • PowerPoint Presentation on Natural Dye
  • Goldenrod
  • Crock pot
  • Water
  • Black walnuts
  • Blue dye
  • Plastic gloves
  • Aprons
  • Alum
  • Jars
  • Plastic containers
  • Tongs
  • Paint brushes
  • Bleached muslin cloth
  • Lesson Plan

    Altogether, the activities in this lesson took four weeks to complete, with anywhere from 10 to ninety minutes devoted to the lesson each day.  The dyeing activity described in detail below takes approximately 90 minutes, or one class period.

    This lesson was done as part of an integrated unit of science, social studies, and art.  Students studied plants as part of a science unit.  They grew plants, collected local plants, and wrote reports about their plants.  Students kept a journal of their activities.  The social studies portion of the lesson is described below.

    1. Prior to the lesson, the teacher should cut the muslin cloth into the desired size (approximately 9”x12”), gather goldenrod and black walnuts, and purchase blue dye.
    2. The teacher should lecture on the use of natural dyes in early America, and the domestic use of natural dyes in making cloth at home.  Show student Eliza Pinckney letter and Charleston Gazette advertisement.
    3. Make goldenrod dye
    1. Separate goldenrod flowers from the green of the plant
    2. Place in crock pot with two cups of water
    3. Allow mixture to simmer for about four hours
    4. Drain liquid from flowers
    5. Add one teaspoon of alum to the liquid mixture
    6. Cool liquid and place in covered plastic container
    7. The liquid dye is ready for use
    4. Make walnut dye
    1. Place walnuts in crock pot
    2. Add 2 cups of water
    3. Allow mixture to simmer for about four hours
    4. Remove walnuts and add one teaspoon of alum
    5. Cool and pour into a 32 ounce container
    6. The walnut dye is ready for use
    5. Make store bought blue dye, using instructions on package.
    6. The teacher should instruct students on historic cloth dyeing patterns and their use by different levels of society.
    7. Distribute muslin cloth
    8. Take dye outside, with drying rack, clothespins, tongs, gloves, aprons or smocks.
    9. Divide students into groups of four; one group per container of dye.
    10. Using tongs, each student dips cloth in dye for three minutes, then hangs cloth on rack to dry.
    11. After cloth is dried, use to make a cover for the lesson activity journals.

    Teacher Reflections

    What Worked:

    Showing the class the process of making indigo dye and reading Eliza Pinckney’s

    Journal helped the students understand the value of the blue dye to South Carolina.

     Since the lesson was done in September the goldenrod plant was abundant in our area.  Therefore any student could gather the plant if they desired.  There wasn’t any cost in getting this material which is always a plus in gathering materials. 

    A crock pot is a good heat source for the classroom.  The students could take the flowers from the plant and place them into the pot to be cooked.  Also, the students could see how long it took to make the dye. 

    Doing the actual dying outside was a wonderful idea.  My classroom is carpeted the thought of having the students spill permanent dye was not a happy thought. Both using the drying rack with clothes pins to hang the cloth and leaving the rack outside helped to dry the clothes in a short time.  

    The students used plastic gloves.  They also had covering for their clothes.

    Collaborating with the art teacher was very successful.  The dye we used to color the cloth she used to help the students create a design.

    The use of black walnuts, because we were going to visit Walnut Grove Plantation, was successful because they too were gathered without expense.  It took less than twenty nuts to make a half gallon of dye.

    What didn’t work and what I would do differently:

    I used plastic garbage bags to cover their clothing.  These bags ripped easily.  It would have been better to use old paint shirts.  Also, it would have been more ideal if I had another adult to help monitor the dyeing. 

    I would have marked the cloth with the student’s name before dyeing.  I had to depend on the student’s honesty to identify his or her cloth.

    I would have another outdoor assignment for the students to complete while their classmates did their dying.  I had the students go the playground area, which they enjoyed completely but it was hard to monitor both the dying and the playing.

    Wind was a small problem: if the cloth blew off the rack if it was not attached to the drying rack by two pins. 

    Student Assessments

    Assessment is to be determined by the teacher.  In the original lesson, the instructor evaluated students on participation and following directions.

    Participation Checklist:

    1. Separated goldenrod flower from plant
    2. Put flower in pot
    3. Dyed cloth
    4. Dried cloth
    5. Folded cloth to be stored for future use


    Dye Rubric:

    0 – Cloth not dyed

    1 – 25% of cloth dyed

    2 – 50% of cloth dyed

    3 – 75% of cloth dyed

    4 – 100% of cloth dyed

    Flow Chart Rubric:

    4 – Included both plants, cloth, dye in crock pot

    3 –Included one plant, dye, cloth

    2–Included one plant, dye

    1–Included one plant only

    Examples of Students Work


    Regina Spell
    St. Peter’s Catholic Church School, South Carolina