Dyeing with Yellow Onion Skins

Call me a hippy or an eco-freak but I do worry about the environment and how I can lesson my impact on it. A few years ago I had the opportunity to take some classes about textiles and it really opened my eyes to how bad some of the chemicals we use can be for both us and the environment. I'm not going to go into all that in this post. I'll probably do a post someday about this fashion conundrum but today is not the day. Instead,  I want to show you my first natural dye experiment. 

I found the book A Garden to Dye For the other day and thought it was great. 


In her book, Chis McLaughlin shares her experience with using plants to dye yarn and fabric. One plant that caught my attention with which Chris said you could use as a dye stuff was onion skin. Yes, the outter skins of the onion that you throw away can be used to color fabric and yarn. 

Challenge accepted. 

Here's my setup. 

1. One stainless steal pot. You could use copper or iron but that would change the color of the finished product. Sometimes you want that and sometimes you don't so this time I just want to see what onions will do on their own. 

2. Tongs. I ain't shoving my hand in hot water. 

3. Onion skins. I collected the skins of about three yellow onions. You could use red onions as well or a combination. I plan on trying red onions later but yellow is just what I had in the house. 

4. Something to dye. In this case I had four swatches of cotton fabric that I had cut for a previous project and not used. Animal fibers such as wool are said to take natural color better than plant fibers but I didn't have any. 

5. Water. An inch or two in the bottom of my large pot is all I used. 

6. Stove. I did this inside because it was raining outside but most people recommend that you do this outside. I think it depends on what plant matter you are using and how long you are doing it for. 

It was hard to get a photo of this without fogging up my camera lens.

It was hard to get a photo of this without fogging up my camera lens.

Plop the onion skins into the water and bring it to a boil. The more skins you use the darker the color. And you want to use enough water to completely cover whatever material you are trying to dye. My four little scraps didn't need much so I only used about an inch of water. 

I brought the water to a boil and then let the skins simmer for about half an hour. There was no exact recipe in the book but I am ok with that. One of the fun things about natural dyeing is that there is no need for strict recipes. A little of this and a little of that will give you something.  You may have an idea of what color you might get before you start but the end result is a fun surprise. If you have your heart sent on an exact shade then natural dyeing may not be for you. 

It is hard to see but there are fabric swatches in there.

It is hard to see but there are fabric swatches in there.

Once I thought the skins had imparted enough color into the water I fished out the skins and put in the swatches. Before I put them in though I washed them with soap to get out whatever chemicals and residues may have still been on it from the manufacturing process. (More about that in another post.) 

With four swatches I decided to leave each one in for a different length of time and see if the color came out different. I turned off the heat and let the swatches stew in onion juices. 

You will find recipes that dictate how long you cook something for or how much plant matter you use. If you have a recipe then I say follow it as best you can to get the results that the original author did. But I didn't have that so I was winging it. 

After an hour I pulled out the first swatch. Success! I got dye to stick to fabric! 

Now if you have done any natural dyeing yourself you may be wonder when I put in the mordant. If you haven't then you are probably wondering what a mordant is. Basically a mordant is something that helps fix the dye to the fabric. Usually this is a metal such as alum but plant materials high in tannins can also act as a mordant. So because the onion skin is high in tannins I don't need to add another mordant. So onion skin dye is kind of a two-for-one.

Another hour and I took out a swatch which had been in the dye pot two hours. With four swatches I pulled one each out at one hour, two hours, four hours and eight hours. 

A little darker at four hours. Some dye recipes say to let the material sit in the bath for 24 hours. I might have done this if I had more swatches and more patients but I had neither. 

Of course the swatch that stayed in for eight hours came out the darkest. And yes, the color was not super beautiful but that is ok. This was a fun test to see if I could do it and since it worked I am calling it a success. 

I didn't see too much difference between the four hour swatch and the eight hour swatch so it might not be worth it let it stay in there that long. But if you forget about your fabric then it will all work out. 

All in all this was a fun experiment and I plan on doing it again with red onions. After that there are almost an endless array of plants to use for dyeing and I hope to make some gorgeous things in the year to come.