The Quest for Color

Plant Science Course Offers Students Unique Opportunities to Learn About Natural Dyes

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

May 8, 2023 Andrew Muir

Did you know that our state flower, the Black Eyed Susan, can be used to create natural dyes? Or that purple is historically known as a royal color because it was hard to come by and scarcely produced?

These topics and more are waiting to be explored in The Quest for Color: Science, Culture, History, and Practice of Dyeing Fiber, taught by Maile Neel, a professor in the Department of Plant Science & Landscape Architecture. The course has returned for its second year and allows students to explore the intersection of artistic expression with science, history, and storytelling.

Natural chemicals from plants and animals have been used to dye textiles by most cultures, and their usage dates back at least 5,000 years. The hands-on lecture and lab course integrates the natural and cultural history, chemistry, and propagation of dye materials from plants and insects with applied practice in safe, sustainable color creation. Students learn about how plants produce molecules that create dyes and how to test whether plants are good for dyeing. 

“Color is incredibly important to us. They can influence our behavior, be important symbols, or just add beauty that makes our lives richer and fuller,” said Neel, who has been working with dyes for over 20 years. “Everything in this class is an experiment in how different conditions affect the color you can coax from different plants. The students then take those colors and create art that is connected to the world around them.”  

Consisting of a combination of Plant Science and Studio Art students, the class facilitates engaging interactions and awe-inspiring creations, which students are able to capture in their dye journals that contain a visual record of the color palette they’ve generated and a reference for how they created each color.

“In this class, I am always excited to see all the color variations that can come from using natural materials from trees, flowers, leaves, and roots, then also when dyes are applied to different fabrics, like protein-rich wool or cellulose-filled cotton,” said plant science graduate student Janelle Livesay.

Aside from the science, Neel also places an emphasis on history as part of the course. She ensures that students are aware of the “dark history” associated with dyes, such as colonization, appropriation of indigenous knowledge, and enslavement. Neel also provides context for understanding how some colors were more important than gold at varying points in history, like purple being historically known as a royal color because it is rarely found in natural sources.

Students also are challenged to identify what native plants and flowers can be used for dyeing, such as our state flower, the Black Eyed Susan, which produces an olive green color. Neel also encourages students to learn more about the plants on our campus (which is designated as an Arboretum and Botanic Garden) and how they can be used to make dyes.

“In this class, you are not only connecting with materials that you have outside around you and learning how to engage with the plant life, but also taking those skills and techniques and turning it into an artistic or cathartic resource,” said studio art graduate student Trevon Coleman.

Studio art graduate student Gian Carla Tavelli plans to use the compelling, storytelling nature of natural dyes in her art.

“Recently, I signed a proposal to visit my home country, Bolivia, and collect foliage and other plant material from a rainforest to use as dyes for my art,” said Tavelli. “I want to bring that connection. I hope that through my art, I can help spread awareness about the beauty of the Amazon rainforest and encourage everyone to conserve it.”

The Quest for Color (PLSC 434) will be offered again next spring semester.