Peg Dolls Skin Tones Using Natural Dyes

Recently I was gifted several wooden peg dolls from Woodpecker Crafts.  I had seen Hana with Pepper and Pine’s project of using natural dyes to color wooden peg dolls and was excited to try it. I’m hoping to incorporate these dolls in our Explorer’s Unit and upcoming homeschooling year when we focus on some of the regions that the explorers traveled to.  We may also use them in our Shakespeare Unit. I’m so happy with the results. I was looking for a whole rainbow of people, and I feel like we accomplished that. The colors are deep, rich, and beautiful.  Below is what we tried and what we found worked the best. At the end of the blog is a video with highlights from our experience.

unfinished wooden peg dolls, wooden rings, and wood scoops
unfinished wooden peg dolls, wooden rings, and wood scoops

Making the Dyes

We first made the dyes.  The dyes that we used were coffee, black tea, red onion skin and yellow onion skin.  The coffee and tea were just made in a coffee press, but the strength was greater.  The onion skins were prepared by boiling in water just enough to cover the skins.  They were simmered for about 20 minutes and then allowed to steep in the liquid about another 10 minutes before using.   When we began to dye the dolls I realized that the red onion skins were going to be too pink/red in color to be realistic, so I added about a tsp of baking soda which changed the color to a more brown. I realized that I had enough yellow onion skins at the last of our project, so all the dolls in the yellow onion skin dye were pretreated twice with soy milk.

Dying the Dolls

I had read from Rebecca Desnos’  Instagram highlights that presoaking them with soy milk would help the dye to adhere better, so we presoaked half of our dolls before dying them.  These pretreated dolls were allowed to dry and then half were soaked in soy milk and dried again, and the others were placed in the dyes. We took the other half and placed them into the hot dyes.  The dolls stayed in the dyes for about an hour with us intermittently stirring them to keep the dyes even.  They were then pulled out, and a new batch of soy-milk-pretreated dolls was added.  These were left for one hour, and then the batch of twice pretreated dolls were added to the dyes after I warmed all the dyes back up on the stove. After all the dolls were pulled from the dyes and allowed to dry, I rubbed a coat of cold-press olive oil on each of them with exception to a couple of undyed dolls as even the oil alone darkened the color of the wood.

Our Conclusions

What I found from our project was that the soy treatment did not seem to make any difference in how well the dolls took on the dye either in concentration or evenness.  The heat of the dye did, however, especially for coffee.  You will notice that the second batch of coffee-stained dolls, which were soaked in cooled dye, were much lighter that either the first or third batch.  I also found that soaking twice after allowing the dolls to dye in between soaks, which I did with the first batch of coffee stained dolls, darkened the dye substantially.  The four dyes that we choose and the variation in the dying made a great array of richness of colors. 

a video of our highlights through the process

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. G Appelbaum says:

    These are so beautiful-and your instructions are really helpful! Do you ever find that the dolls swell after dyeing? My wood peg dolls fit perfectly into bean pot cups when they were unfinished (or painted), but after dyeing, they no longer fit. Any advice you can give me would be appreciated.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. We love playing with ours. In my experience there is no smell after dying. I hadn’t even thought of the bean cups, but I’m guessing the dolls are taking on a bit of water during the dying and expanding the wood. I might experiment with placing the dolls in a low temp oven after the dying to see if it will shrink them back to size. Another option that you might try is making a stain instead of a dye out of the plant material or coffee. So you would start with a really concentrated dye pot and then simmer that down for a few hours to get even more concentration. Then you can try painting the stain onto the dolls and see how that works. You can do several layers to darken, allowing them to dry in between. If you try any of those let me know. I’d love to hear how it turns out.

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