In last week’s journal entry about celebrating Michaelmas, I wrote about one of my favorite traditions--helping my sons’ Waldorf kindergarten classes dye their own silk capes by hand each Autumn. Twenty-five years after starting Sarah’s Silks, I spend much less time dyeing silks than I did before, which makes me relish the opportunities to get my hands into the dye tub even more. As our company grows and grows and I feel myself being pulled in so many directions, it’s such a welcome moment of grounding and re-centering when I get to revisit the dye process, whether it be experimenting with new playsilk hues, helping out when we run out of stock on certain colors (yup, it happens!), or teaching little ones at one of our playdates.
For me, the process of dyeing by hand is such a perfect union of work and play. Work, because it is hard work--there’s wringing out and mixing and measuring and attention to detail and clean up--we can’t forget the clean up. But there is also so much joy-inducing play involved--the element of uncertainty that’s always there, promising that no matter how many times you’ve done it before or how exact your measurements were, it will come out a little bit different every time. What an important lesson to remind ourselves of, and to impart onto our children.
When dyeing playsilks with your little one for the first time, know this: It will not go as planned. There will be messes. There will be moments of frustration. There will be impatience. There will be creativity. There will be new ideas. There will be learning. There will be so much joy! At our last playdate, where I got to dye gold Michaelmas silks in the garden with Keahi and Emmie, I was reminded of what an exciting sensory experience it is for very little ones. They loved the feeling of squeezing the silk in the water, feeling the air pockets make squishy, bubbly noises and their touch. Wringing the silks out and feeling the water drip down their hands elicited much delight, in the late Summer afternoon heat. Not to mention the excitement and pride that they felt at being able to actually change the color of something! With the dyeing complete, they hung their wet silks to dry on the clothesline, and beamed at the fruits of their labor, glistening in the warm sun. This is a fun activity for a birthday party or homeschool group!
I am a strong believer in giving children real work to do, even at a very young age. My kids saw me working, and enjoyed being entrusted with simple yet helpful tasks that felt important to them. Projects like hand dyeing silk, that allow children the opportunity to see a task all the way through from start to finish, lay such important groundwork for developing a healthy relationship with work, especially with tasks that benefit and help others. I think that often times, little ones really crave these kinds of experiences and might even ask for them in their own way, and you might be tempted to overlook their requests because, let’s face it, sometimes involving them in “work” just seems like more work for you at the outset. But I really do encourage you to find moments to say “Yes!” when it makes sense for you, and trust that fostering that inclination can lead to so much positivity for both of you as they grow and develop and take on more responsibilities.
The beauty of dyeing silk is that the fiber is so incredibly absorbent, allowing you to use a variety of natural plant-based and food safe dyes. Whereas fabrics like cotton require harsher dyes and chemical-based mordants for the color to actually adhere to the cloth, silk quickly takes to whichever color you soak it in, and white vinegar actually works wonderfully as a natural mordant. If you’re dyeing playsilks with very young children, I would recommend simply using food coloring, as it’s perfectly safe for them to submerge their hands in and not dangerous if it were to get into their mouth. For our last playdate, I used India Tree food dye that I purchased at Whole Foods, and was so happy with how vibrant of a color it yielded. If you’re feeling more plant-y, or perhaps are doing this project with older children and want to add a few more steps, I encourage you to experiment with creating your own dye! If you’re seeking a strong gold hue like in the photos, you could try steeping marigold, coreopsis, yellow beet root, dandelion, golden rod, just to name a few. We picked coreopsis in the garden and added some to increase the rich golden hue.
Gather your supplies: