Friday, June 6, 2008

Rhapsody in Many Colors

Today I had my now-annual tie-dyeing day with the current crop of first graders at my local school. I do this project in four sessions:
  1. Measurement day: the kids measure each others' seated height (seat to shoulder) and waist size. We also look at the t-shirt sizes the kids are currently wearing. This gives me the data I need to order the shirts from Dharma. More importantly, it also gives the kids a little experience with measurement. First grade is is when most of them are just learning what a inch is. I can now pretty much tell a kid's t-shirt size by eye anyhow, and most of them are size 10-12s so they can still wear the shirts next year. I ordered 84 size 10-12s, about a dozen each of 6-8's and 14-16's, and 6 adult M. I often have one or two kids who take an adult L, partly because they like their shirts big.
  2. Tying day: about two weeks later I have all the shirts and have prewashed them. I go in and teach the kids the fold for stripes, X's, and diamonds (see this picture in my previous post). With the help of teachers and some parent volunteers, the kids all fold their shirts and tie them with 4-7 rubber bands. I leave the shirts in the classroom for the week.
  3. Dyeing day: this is the most work but also the most fun. I explain to the kids how to mix colors together on the shirts (I give them six colors to choose from), how to hold the squeeze bottles, how to check that they got dye on the inside of the folded shirt, behavior rules, and so on. Then an army of parents and other volunteers suit the kids up in gloves, goggles, and a garbage-bag smock, guides them to their soda-ash-soaked shirts, and supervises the dyeing process. The kids love this part!

  4. Shirt return day: a few of the parents take the shirts home to wash over the weekend. We time the whole project so the kids get their shirts back right before the final school assembly of the school year. I just love watching the kids show each other their results: "I love my shirt! I love my shirt!" It's so cool to see the entire first grade in the front of the assembly in their shirts. It's an amazing swath of color.
Behind the scenes, it's an amazing amount of work. I mix about 9 gallons of dye (6 colors), 12 gallons of soda ash solution, make 80 or so trash bag smocks, collect table coverings, order and prewash shirts, and so on. And of course there is washing out afterwards and lots of cleanup. But that's all stuff I can do at my leisure, at my own pace.

It's all the volunteer help that really makes it work and makes it a really fun experience. First graders aren't terribly patient about waiting in line for getting suited up or doing their dyeing. So we have half a dozen people swarm the kids quickly, popping garbage bags over heads and slipping on gloves and goggles. Other volunteers are waiting at the dye tables. With this effort, it goes very quickly, and we got through four batches of 20+ kids today in three hours! Of course, the cleanup took another few hours...

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