Natural Dyeing Take 2: Onion skins

The onion colour wheel

Eddie and I have both been collecting onion skins for a while for dyeing purposes, and my mother added to our collection. We separated our bounty in three groups,  one with only yellow skins, one with only red skins, and one with yellow onion and garlic skins (at some point Eddie was keeping both and it was a bit too complicated to separate those). We therefore did three main baths first, all using the same technique. Although onion skins do not require mordanting, in each of the dye pot we used one skein of alum mordanted yarn, one skein which had been heuchera mordanted and one unmordanted one (or in most of them anyway).

Eddie's onion tights

Eddie first put the onion skins in a pair of old tights so as to make them easier to take in and out of baths. Think teabag technique, we also did that with our dye pack, cutting up the tights to create small bags. For the onions, though, we had enough to fill the whole of the tights. We put those in plenty of water and brought them to the boil, left them simmering for about half an hour, as it seemed to yield enough color. Taking the pan off the hob, we then let it cool down with the onion tights still in. I’m saying we… but really Eddie did most of the work on those, as I was dealing with the black beans…

Once it had cooled down we lifted the tights off the pan and squeezed the water out of it, leaving the pot ready to dye with. Since we were trying different dye solutions at the same time, we put our pre-mordanted and pre-soaked skeins in jars, covered them in dye solution  and set it to simmer for about half an hour. The skeins were then taken out, rinsed, and dried.

Separating the skeins into jars is not necessary, and if you have only one batch of onion skins you are using, they could certainly be thrown in the dye solution in the pot which was used to make it. Separating the skein into jars can be an interesting alternative if you want to try only very small amounts of yarn and several types of dye solution and save on time and energy by heating the dyeing pot only once for dyeing the samples. The only problem is making sure you can recognise which jars were which dye solution. To do this, we used elastic bands of different colours around our jars, and wrote down what each of the colours meant.

We got quite a range of colours:

  1. Yellow Onion skins on alum mordanted wool
  2. Yellow Onion skins on heuchera mordanted wool
  3. Yellow Onion skins and garlic skins on unmordanted wool
  4. Yellow Onion skins and garlic skins on alum mordanted wool
  5. Red Onion skins on unmordanted wool
  6. Red Onion skins on alum mordanted wool
  7. Red Onion skins on heuchera mordanted wool

As for the rest of our dyeing experiments from that week, you can see more pictures in the flickr group

We were quite amazed especially at the variations in the red onion skins depending on the mordant, that’s quite a colour range from a single dye solution.

And in the next episode, our heroins will be dyeing with black beans… Blues ahoy!

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12 responses to “Natural Dyeing Take 2: Onion skins

  • Kate A

    The range of colours is amazing! Gives me hope for the sacks of skins accumulating in my larder. Just shows that even if you don’t need the mordant to fix the colour it makes a huge difference to the colour. Wish I’d been collecting garlic skins now…

    • Cecile

      I’m not sure exactly how much the garlic skins altered the colours, or if it was just because the skins were coming from different places but the onion skins with garlic certainly gave us a lighter version of the shades we obtained with the yellow onions on their own…
      I’m thinking I might also try mixing red and yellow next time to see if I can get greens with more yellow in them. It’s so much fun, can’t wait to see what colours your collection of skins yields.

  • Barbara

    Thank you very much for these posts .The colours are beautiful. I spent yesterday afternoon going round the local chemist’s asking for alum till one finally offered to order it for me . Now I’m off to dig up my heuchera plants.

    • Cecile

      Ooh I’d love to see if your heuchera plants yield similar results, I wonder how much the type of soil or the variety of the plant affect the colours. And thanks for the compliment, it’s always nice to think it could be useful to someone else.

  • Dyeing with onion skins

    [...] the samples you can see in this colour wheel. Cecile has so far written thorough posts on ‘dyeing with onion skin‘, ‘dyeing with black beans‘ and ‘dyeing with a sample [...]

  • Natural Dyeing Take 5: Leaves and Berries « The ways of the whorl

    [...] we’d covered most of the colour spectrum between the onions, the black beans, and the dye pack, there was one colour scheme in which we felt we were a bit [...]

  • CamiKnitter

    Thanks for the most useful advice: going to have a go this weekend but first to separate the red onion skins! What amazing colours!

    • Cecile

      You’re very welcome, I was amazed as well at how well the onion colours coped with the light fastness test, I still haven’t gotten round to taking pictures of those but the onion dyes were the strongest and retained their colours the best.

  • Faydra Jones (@sockadoodledoo)

    I love your blog…such great info & I’m esp. intrigued with dyeing with onion skins. What type of water did you use? Do you have a suggested amount of onion skin/wool ratio? I’ve been building up my onion skin stash & am hoping I can dye soon. :-)

  • I’m going to do something I haven’t done in a long time

    [...] I’ll try and take a few more photos of the yarn in natural light.  For some reason my camera wants to give it a bright highlight dead center of the yarn.  But you get the picture (sorry, unintended bad pun).   I’d like to thank Lauren over at her blog for super easy and well written instructions on how to dye with coffee.  I did read a couple of other blogs and websites that also tell you how to dye fibers with coffee, for instance, Barbara’s CoffeeYarn Blog, which was awesome but the whole weight of goods and such, made my head hurt a bit.  I’m sure it’s real easy if I just sit down, read and comprehend it, but I needed “easy going, weekend, please don’t make my brain work” instructions.   Next up, I’ll try dyeing some more yarn in red cabbage!  And just to honor Grandpa Beauregard and his mahogany Easter eggs, I’ll try dyeing some yarn with onion skins. [...]

  • Sheryn Hodes

    WOW…. I’ve been collecting onion skins for mouths now(yello/brown?) but a friend say you could get red if you used red ones. apparently she was right. Your work byw is gorgeous, I love the Red Green and Yellow 1 and 4 the best. (the rest re lovely too!)

  • Yellows & Purples: Dyeing with onion skins and logwood « gather and grow

    [...] As guidebooks and inspiration, I have used Rebecca Burgess’ beautiful Harvesting Color, which introduces dye plants and the process of dyeing step by step, and A Dyer’s Garden by Rita Buchanan, which focuses more on growing dye plants in one’s own garden. Neither one of these explain the process for onion skins, but I found a useful article here. [...]

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