Fabric Blackberry Dye and the Invention of Synthetic Dye

Blackberry DyeThis semester, one of the classes I’m teaching at our co-op is “Inventions-It was intended for What!?”. This Blackberry Dye was our latest Invention class experiment.  I wrote a few weeks ago about our cheese-making fun, check that out if you missed it – super yummy!

In our class, we review videos and information about our invention of the week, then we have a related activity (Blackberry Dye this week) to have an experience related to the invention, and hopefully cement the learning into their minds.

The Invention of Synthetic Mauve Dye

Synthetic Mauve Dye was invented by accident by William Perkin in 1856.  He was only 18 when he accidentally discovered this invention (he was 15 when he enrolled in college)! 

Perkin was actually trying to invent a synthetic cure for malaria from coal tar.  The only cure at the time was made from the bark of a tree found only in South America, which made it expensive and hard to come by.

After he mixed coal tar with another chemical, it resulted in a thick black sludge.  Instead of throwing it out, he decided to see what he could do with it.  When he started to clean up his mess, he found that the rag he was using turned a vivid purple color.  TA-DA

Synthetic Mauve Dye

At the time, the only dyes for cloth were made from natural substances.  Many were expensive and labor intensive, and would quickly fade when washed or exposed to sunlight.

Perkin knew he was on to something big.  He asked his father to finance a factory, who spent his life savings on building a factory by a river.  It turned out to be a great investment, as the sale of this and other subsequent synthetic dyes made them rich. 

After this, the dye led to scientists being able to do some remarkable things such as stain cells to view the inside of a cell under a microscope, which led to the discovery of the tuberculosis bacteria, which subsequently led to the first antibiotic, prontosil!  Pretty crazy!

This video is helpful in presenting this information:  https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/chemistrynow/chem_syntheticdye.jsp

The Blackberry Dye Activity

Blackberry Dye

We are not equipped in our co-op to handle chemicals, nor is that my comfort zone, so we went with the old-fashioned natural method of dying fabric.  The kids enjoyed doing it, and liked the results.

We used about 1/2 yard of un-dyed muslin fabric, (any white/off-white fabric will do), and 1 pint of blackberries.

Here are the steps to make the Blackberry Dye and dying your fabric:

Make Dye

  1. Combine 1 part blackberries to 2 parts water in pot.
  2. Boil and let simmer 1 hour.
  3. For darker color, allow to sit overnight off of heat.
  4. Strain and set aside.

Prepare Fabric (fabric must be prepared with fixative, so that fabric will accept dye)

  1. Combine 1/2 cup salt (our fixative) to 8 ounces of water in separate pot.
  2. Boil for 1 hour.
  3. Remove fabric from pot, and rinse in cool water.
  4. Place fabric in dye, and sit until it reaches desired color.
  5. Remove from dye and hang to dry.
  6. When dry, it’s ready to be used.

We left our fabric soaking in the dye for a week, as our class is only once a week for an hour and I didn’t want to remove it without the kids.  (It stunk pretty bad, since it started to ferment!)  You can let it sit for a few hours, or overnight.

Here’s how it turned out:

Blackberry Dye

It’s interesting that even though the fabric was all in the same jar (I did shove it down in the liquid, unlike the picture above), it was not consistent in color.  You can see why the fashion industry was so excited to have the synthetic dye – our clothes are so much more vibrant!

The kids each took a piece home, and we gave the remainder to our sewing class to create something with. 

This was a fun little activity, and could easily be expanded to make your own sewing project, or discuss the environmental impact of synthetic dyes, or have a summer project and make dyes with fruits as they come into season in your neck of the woods. 

It’s amazing how one little experiment can balloon into so much schooling!

Check out more Invention Awesomeness:

Making Cheese with Kids – (It’s not as hard as you think)

Have you ever wanted to Duck Tape your child to a chair?

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