Long before there was Easter, the egg was regarded as a symbol of new life and the advent of spring. The decoration of eggs became an art form centuries ago and continues today as a delightful craft and enjoyable children’s activity as a precursor to the “hunt” for eggs and candy, enjoyed by children around the world. Some of the historical techniques for coloring or decorating eggs include:
Etching: This technique can be traced back to Macedonia and involves first dying the egg, applying a layer of wax in design, then bleaching off the color leaving only the wax-covered areas with color.
Krashanky: This is one of the traditions coming out of the Ukraine and the word means ‘color’. Krashanky eggs are dyed a solid, brilliant color, often red to symbolize the blood shed by Christ on the cross.
Pysanky: If you have never seen a Pysanky egg, you are missing a beautiful artistic craft. I was gifted one at the World’s Fair in 1972 by one of our participants and it graced the windowsill in my kitchen for many years before it eventually cracked and had to be thrown away. The term Pysanky means to write. Intricate designs are drawn in wax on the eggs, a process similar to batik. The eggs are then dyed many colors. There are many regional designs and color selections around the various regions of the Ukraine.
Fabergé: Undoubtedly the most famous and expensive decorated eggs known are those created by the Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé in the 1800’s. Made of gold, silver and jewels and opening up to reveal tiny figures of people, animals, plants or buildings, a total of 57 eggs were made. They are now artifacts in museums across the world. The picture at left is the very first one made. A glimpse into a stunning Fabergé exhibit in 2001 can be viewed here.
Binsegraas: This Pennsylvania Dutch tradition is not widely practiced today, but involved wrapping the pith of binsegraas (a type of rush) in coils glued to eggs. Then interesting shapes of calico cloth were pasted on the egg. The Polish people have a similar tradition, using yarn formed into elaborate coils.
There are other forms of egg decorating that include gluing sequins, beads, flowers and bits of decoration onto blown eggs. Blown eggs are also used for a cut-out diorama of a little scene viewed through the cut-out section. In pioneer days, eggs were wrapped in calico or madras cloth, then boiled so the water released the dyes into the shells. Since most fabric is colorfast, you will rarely see this today.
My favorite activity around the approach of Easter is to gather natural materials and ingredients to make colored Easter eggs with leaf and flower imprints. This is a favorite tradition started when my girls were little and now carried on with the grandchildren.
Here are materials to gather to make the natural dye, arranged by color they will produce in final dyed egg:
Brown and tan: Outer layers of onions, black/green tea, coffee, black walnut hulls
Yellow: Tumeric, cumin, saffron, lemon rinds
Orange: Paprika, chili powder, carrots
Red: Fresh cranberries, cherries, raspberries, Spanish onion skins
Purple and blue: Blueberries, boiled red cabbage leaves, beets
Grey or slightly lavender: Hibiscus flowers
Combine the dye source with 1 Tablespoon vinegar and cold water in a saucepan. There are two different methods. You can boil the eggs and dyes separately, strain the dye and add hard-boiled eggs in the shell to the hot liquid and let it soak until it reaches the desired hue. Or, you can wrap uncooked eggs and cook them in the dye as they are being colored. With the former method, if the eggs need to soak for more than 2 hours to reach the desired deepness of color, you may want to move them to the refrigerator if you will be eating them. Generally, however, natural dyes are going to create more earth-like subdued colors.
Here are the things you want to have on hand:
Fresh herb, plant and flower cuttings. The smaller the better, however, wrapping a large fern that covers an entire egg is a stunning design when finished. Thinner, flat items are easiest to secure tightly. Use your imagination. Dandelion flowers will impart a bright yellow splotch in the finished egg, adding a whimsical touch. Other fresh botanicals will add a bit of their own color, along with imprinted texture and form. It’s fun to let the process itself randomly influence the outcome. Children love to do this; it’s biochemistry and art all in one . . . plus you get beautiful eggs to add to the Easter hunt or to share.
Pantyhose or cheesecloth, cut in squares that can be tied with wire or rubber bands to snugly keep plant material in place. If re-using nylon squares or cheesecloth, be sure to rinse between eggs. You’ll want a slotted spoon to turn and remove the eggs while they are in the dye bath, and you’ll want a couple of brown paper bags cut and laid flat to place eggs on to dry.
Here are some tips: Older eggs work best, buy them at least a week before boiling as newer eggs are hard to peel. I think white eggs take the natural dyes better, plus you can create additional designs with wax to add bright white to the creation before putting on leaves and flowers. Shine up finished eggs when they are dry with a little olive oil rubbed in. Eat those eggs! Don’t waste them – make deviled eggs, egg salad or use in a salad. Be sure to keep them refrigerated if you will be eating them. Most of all, have fun, and encourage your children to experiment; you’ll learn new ideas from them. If you do this project this year, send us pictures of your creations attached as a .jpg in an email: firstname.lastname@example.org, including your current mailing address and we’ll send an aromatic surprise back.
Happy Easter and Spring!