No Paint Necessary

Have you ever been to a museum where you could see jewelry, pottery, and fabric the Indians made? Have you ever wondered how they were able to make such bright and colorful things? Where did they get their paint? How did they dye the fabric? Did they even have paint or dye?

Yes, they did, but not the kind of paint and dye we use. Before the paints we are used to were invented, people used plants to make dyes and paints.

Just about anything could be used to dye fabric, shells, and bones for clothes and jewelry. People also used these dyes to paint pictures and pottery.

We can use plants to make our own dyes and paints the same way people did many years ago. It is not hard to do and it is possible to make any color in the rainbow.

Let’s see how many colors we can make.

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  • Two or three pans that will hold 1 to 2 quarts of water
  • Water
  • Stove
  • An adult to help you
  • Plants-choose three to five of the following: spinach, blueberries, marigolds, raspberries, coffee or tea grounds, beets, dandelion heads, carrots, lilac flowers, red cabbage, sunflowers
  • Coffee cups
  • Large tea strainer
  • White cotton fabric or natural colored muslin
  • Scissors
  • Paper
  • Small artist paintbrush
  • Apron or paint shirt
  • Rubber gloves
  • Outdoor clothesline OR plastic hanger and large towel


    • Gather the plants you want to use to make your dyes.
    • Fill each pan ¾ full of water.
    • Use the stove to bring the water in your pans to a boil. NOTE: Be sure to have adult supervision.
    • Add approx. 1 cup of whatever plant you are using to the water. NOTE: You can add more or less of a plant to the water to make the color darker or lighter.
    • Reduce the heat and let the dye simmer for about an hour.
    • Turn the stove off and let the dye cool until the water is warm, but not hot.
    • Put an apron or paint shirt on to make sure you don’t stain your clothing.
    • Carefully pour the dye through a tea strainer into a coffee cup or small bowl.

Wipe up any spills.

  • Repeat this process with more plants if you want more colors of dye.
  • Cut your fabric into strips or small squares.
  • Place strips or squares of fabric in the different cups of dye. Make sure the fabric is completely covered.
  • Leave the fabric in the dye for at least 4 hours.
  • Using rubber gloves, remove the fabric from the dye and squeeze the fabric so it is not dripping.
  • Drape the fabric strips over a hanger or hang on a clothesline outside. If you cut the fabric in squares, clip them to a hanger using clothespins.
  • If you use a hanger, place the hanger on the shower rod in the bathroom and place a towel under it to catch any drips.
  • When the dyed fabric is completely dry, rinse in COLD water and let dry again.
  • Use your fabric strips to make a braided headband or bracelet. Sew fabric squares together to make a wall hanging.


Heat from the stove pulls the color (which is called pigment) out of the plant. The color mixes with the water to make the dye.

The threads in the cotton fabric are soft and porous. This means they are ‘thirsty’ and soak up any liquid they come in contact with. This means the dye will soak into the cotton quickly and easily.

The cold water rinses any dye away that did not completely soak into the cotton thread. The cold water also sets the dye that did soak in well.


  • Use the paintbrush to paint pictures on paper or to dye paper a different color.
  • Dip the strips of fabric in different dyes to make a rainbow or to mix colors.
  • Try this experiment using different types of fabric.
  • Use water at room temperature. How much longer does it take for the water and pigment to mix? Does this work with all the plants you are using?
  • Use the dye on twine or white yarn to make colored string for necklaces or bracelets.
  • Add some cornstarch to the dye to make thicker paint. NOTE: Not too much—just a little at a time.


  • Plants are safe and natural ways to dye fabric and make paint.
  • Some plants make a different color dye than you think they will. Example: Lilac flowers make green dye.
  • The longer the fabric rests in the dye, the darker the color.
  • You can create almost any color using plants.