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Cook up a fun colorful activity the kids will love

Michelle Oliver gives a whole new meaning to playing with your food

When I was little, a fun activity I enjoyed doing was tie-dying shirts. I have fond memories of getting my hands stained with dye while making an “artistic masterpiece” at summer camp and in the girl scouts. Recently, I’ve seen tie-dye come back in style. So, one day, as I was browsing for things to do, I came across something different... using food to make the dye. I had to try it out! Over the past few months, I’ve been collecting some food scraps; avocado pits and skins, which should make a peachy-pink dye, and the skins of yellow onions to make a golden-colored dye. How do you do it? Well, according to my research, these are the steps:

Step 1 - Prepare the fabric

The first step is to prepare the fabric. I decided to dye cotton t-shirts, so I first just ran them through the wash but didn’t dry them so they were still damp. Then you need to make a simple solution to help the dye adhere to the cloth. It is one-part vinegar, and four parts of cold water. Leave the shirt in the solution for at least an hour, then rinse it with cool water. Ring it out, but don’t let it get fully dry, you want it to be damp.

Michelle simmering onions skins to make dye.
Michelle simmering onions skins to make dye. (Copyright 2020 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit - All rights reserved.)

Step 2 - Make the Dye

In the meantime, as your shirt soaks, make the dye. For this, use a pot that is either stain-resistant or one that you don’t mind if it does get stained. Fill the pot with the plant material and then twice the amount of water, and a pinch of salt. Bring the pot to a boil and let simmer for an hour. Once all the color has leached out of the food, strain out the scraps. You have your dye!

When I did this, the onion made a vibrant orange dye, which is what I had expected. The avocado on the other hand was a murky brown color. Maybe the pits and skins needed to be thoroughly cleaned of all the green avocado, or maybe it just didn’t work as it was supposed to, but it was not pink. Nonetheless, I moved on to the next step to try it out.

Shirts sitting in home-made dye
Shirts sitting in home-made dye (Copyright 2020 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit - All rights reserved.)

Step 3 - Dying the shirt

Now it’s time to tie-dye! Figure out what pattern you want to do. I made a classic swirl by pinching the center of the shirt and rotating it to form the spiral pattern and secured it with rubber bands. Or you can make a tie-dye stripe pattern by folding the shirt accordion-style the long way, then into thirds the other way, and sectioning it off into three. Another way, which was new to me, is using ice to give it a watercolor effect. Just randomly scrunch the shirt up, put it in a tin, and cover it with ice. then pour the dye over the ice. Make sure wherever you are doing this, you’re protecting your surface from the dye, that’s why I put my shirts in disposable tins. Let the shirts sit in the dye overnight, then rinse them in cold water, dry them, and then voila- tie-dye shirts!

Shirts dyed with food
Shirts dyed with food (Copyright 2020 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit - All rights reserved.)

Overall, I would say the onion dye worked. The two shirts I dyed with it came out a golden yellow-orange color and the patterns were noticeable. I had my doubts about the avocado dye and only used it on one shirt, along with the onion dye. I was right to doubt the avocado dye. Not only was it the wrong color (brown not pink), but after rinsing and drying it, the color faded drastically. Making your own dye from food was different and fun to experiment with, but the shirt ends up smelling like the food you used, so I think next time, I would just stick with regular dyes.

Now, the New York Times tried this and succeeded, but they used beets and turmeric to make their pink and yellow dye. See how they did that here. Also, the ice worked well to do the watercolor, though it was a bit tough to see using only one color dye. I would recommend trying it with at least two different colored dyes that would blend well together, like blue and red. For more details on how to do it, check my inspiration for it here.


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