Natural dyeing with onion skins

Posted by Suzie on Sunday, 27 October 2013 at 16:05
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Onion skins are one of the most readily available and reliable natural dyestuffs. If you want an easy introduction to natural dyeing, start collecting your onion skins!

Follow these instructions for dying wool, silk or other protein-based fibres (the process for dying cotton and other cellulose fibres is a little different).

Collecting onion skins

Yellow onion skins

Yellow onion skins

You will need quite a lot of onion skins…for the skein pictured I used about 25g per 100g of wool. If you can’t wait (or you don’t like cooking) ask you local greengrocer – they will have plenty at the bottom of onion sacks.

Here are some tips for best results:

  • Yellow onion skins give rich golden yellow to pumpkin shades. Red give greenish or brown colours. Stick to one or the other, mixing the two will give you murky browns.
  • Make sure that the skins you save are free from dirt and black mold.
  • Store onion skins in a paper bag so they dry out.

Other things you’ll need

  • A stainless steel pan large enough to fit your yarn comfortably
  • A fine sieve
  • 10g salt per 100g yarn (optional)

Contrary to popular belief, salt is not required to fix the dye. It is used to slow the absorption of dye to give a more even coverage. Leave this out if you prefer a semi-solid colour – I usually do!

Prepare the yarn

I recommend using superwash yarn if you’re new to dyeing. There’s very little risk of felting and the superwash treatment seems to really help suck up the colour.

As with most natural dyes, you will need to mordant your yarn for the onion skin dye to bind to to it and it remain fast. Alum mordant will give the brightest shades. We’ve put together some handy instructions for mordanting wool and protein fibres with alum.

If you have pre-mordanted your yarn, soak it for at least 30 mins before dying to ensure an even coverage.

Prepare the dye

Simply place your onion skins in a stainless steel pan with enough water to cover and simmer for 30 minutes. You’ll notice the the skins become translucent and the water becomes coloured.

Strain off the coloured liquid with a sieve and return it to the pan, minus the onion skins. Add salt at this point (if desired) and stir until dissolved.

Dyeing and fixing

Squeeze the excess liquid from your yarn and add the yarn to the dye bath. Give it a good stir. You should see the yarn start to absorb colour immediately.

Slowly bring to the boil and gently simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The liquid should magically become clear again as all the dye is absorbed by the yarn.

Ideally, the yarn should be allowed to cool to room temperature naturally before it’s removed to reduce the risk of felting. But if you’re using superwash, you can transfer it to tepid water to cool it quickly.

Give the yarn a good rinse. I give mine a proper wool cycle machine wash after dyeing to remove any excess dye and chemicals.

Admire your yarn

Onion skin dyed yarn

Onion skin dyed yarn

Hopefully you’re now revelling in dyeing success! Natural dyes should set as fast as synthetic dyes, although you’re likely to see the colour soften over time with washing and exposure to sunlight.

Onion skin shades beautifully compliment the subtle shades achieved with other natural dyes. Why not experiment with something else? DT Crafts stock a range of natural dye extracts.


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