Creating your own natural dyes using red or yellow onion skins is simple and rewarding; especially if they came from your homestead garden.
There are many (many) plants that can be used in a natural dye bath, but onion skins are one of the best to start with because they produce lovely colors that are easily extracted and the color tends to stick to fibers extremely well -- even without the aid of a mordant (helps bind color to fiber and fabric).
Onion skins are readily available to nearly everyone, everywhere. Even if you don't have them planted in the garden, you can pick them up from your local farmer's market or grocery store. Remember that all you need is the papery, outer skins -- not the whole onion. Ask your local grocer if you can "clean up" their onion bins for them.
Make an Onion Skin Botanical Dye
What You'll Need:
- Yarn, fiber, or fabric that's made from animal or plant fibers
- Lots of onion skins; yellow, red, or both
- 2 stainless steel pots
- Glass or plastic bowl
- Mesh strainer
- Stainless steel tongs
- Heat source (such as a stove)
- Water source (such as the kitchen sink)
1. Although mordanting your fiber isn't necessary for an onion skin dyebath, you will want to be certain the fabric, yarn or fiber is completely saturated with water before you begin. To thoroughly wet your material, add enough water to allow the fiber to float around freely to one of the pots. Add whatever materials you're working with. Heat the water slowly, bringing it to a gentle simmer for about 20 minutes.
2. As far as how many onion skins you'll need -- I'm going to be honest and tell you that I don't measure or weigh my plant materials very often. My general guideline is to gather at least the same amount of plant materials as I have fiber or fabric (1:1).
And although it isn't necessary, I toss in a little more for good measure (and now you also have some insight as to how I cook). The dye will reflect whether you used yellow, red, or a mixture of both colors.
3. Fill your non-reactive pot with about three times as much water as skins. The idea is to have enough room for them to float about freely even after they're simmering. Be sure that there's enough water for the fibers to do the same later on. Put the lid onto the pot and bring the bath to a boil. Then turn it down and let the onion skins and water simmer for about an hour.
*Before you go on to the next step: you are going to be excited to check out the color extraction in the pot. You might get a little too excited to check it out and lift the lid up, placing your face directly over the pot. Let me be the one to remind you that steam can burn your face. Reel in the excitement and let the steam out for a couple of seconds before you peek, m'kay?
4. Place the mesh strainer over another pot and drain the bath through the strainer so that the skins become separated from the bath water. Now place the dyebath back onto the stove. Once the bath is simmering again, add your wet fiber (or fabric) into the pot. Let the fiber simmer for 30 minutes.
5. Using tongs, remove the fiber from the bath and place it into a bowl to cool down. Once it's cool enough to handle, rinse the fiber off in fresh water. It's especially important to rinse wool with water that's the same temperature as the dyed wool to prevent felting. Hang your fiber or fabric up to dry on a clothesline or portable drying rack that's been placed out of the direct sun.
If you're interested in changing your onion skin color to a green, simply dip your dyed fibers into an iron mordant solution.
The onion skins can be switched out for other plants such as yellow and orange marigolds, cosmos, or coreopsis. Look for more information on using botanical dyes in my book A Garden to Dye For (St. Lynn's Press, 2014).