Friday, January 5, 2018

Dyeing With Onion Skins, That Was Fun!

     Tess and I had fun this week experimenting with a couple of dye techniques from this wonderful book she gave me for Christmas. I've been saving onion skins until I had enough for dyeing. I also have a stash of white and off-white recycled wool clothing that I prepped and saved for dyeing. With these three things: book, wool, and plant products, we were ready to have some fun! Tess wanted to try the black bean dye from the book, so we made three days of simmering and soaking to see what we could create.
     This particular book is divided into four sections by season. The author creates a wonderful dye spectrum from commonly found plants during each season. For example, there is rosemary, black walnut, hibiscus, and mint to name a few. She provides specific information on the materials needed for a successful dye and takes a portion of the book to explain the techniques and materials. Tess and I went a bit rogue with our dye experiments when it came to the mordants. Mordants are used to 'set' the dye and greatly affect the outcome of color. I've commonly used vinegar as a mordant for the Cushing's dyes I use, but the plant dyes use mordants such as ferrous sulfate (iron powder), alum, and cream of tartar. Tess and I were willing to forego the iron powder in favor of the alum and cream of tartar for the black bean dye because we already had those on hand. For the onion skin dye bath, the author suggests using a stainless steel pot which in itself works as a mordant for the onion skins. We weren't too concerned if our color outcome was different than those shown in the book. We just wanted to have some fun during this first go around.
     We followed the steps to pre-soak our fabric in warm, mildly soapy water while the onion skins simmered for an hour. Then we skimmed out all the onion skins. (A lesson learned: rather than skim the onion skins out, completely strain the dye bath through a sieve to remove all the onion skins. Then return the liquid to the pot before adding your fabric. We found that any little pieces of onion skin left in the pot will stick to the fabric and leave black spots.) We rinsed our soaking fabric out in warm water, then gently immersed it into the dye pot. It's important to not subject your fabric to dramatic temperature changes, so we went from warm soak to very warm dye bath. We kept the dye bath at a very low simmer for about an hour and then pulled the fabric out and rinsed it again in warm water. We hung the pieces to dry on a drying rack. I usually like to finish drying the wool with a tumble in the warm clothes dryer to fluff it.
     If you were present in our kitchen that day, you would have heard a lot of "ooh's and ahh's" as we pulled fabric from the dye pot. There was a lot of exclaiming about how unexpected some of the color outcomes were. Tess went on to have some successes and mild failures with her black bean dyes. The color was softer and more gray than the blue we expected. We believe an iron mordant would have made her color darker and brighter on the cotton she dyed with the beans. She was still happy with her tie-dye technique on the second go around.
     Overall, I would say to use these dye techniques if you aren't counting on a very particular shade of color. For specific colors, chemical dyes may be more dependable. But, for earthy, gentle shades of color, these techniques are too fun to pass up. For rug hooking, I love the unexpected variety of shades the plants provide and all the earth tones available from plant materials. We will definitely be in the kitchen again experimenting with more plant materials as the seasons roll around.

Onion skin dye. The wet wool was pretty in front of the window. This will hook beautifully into pumpkins, bittersweet berries, or Japanese lanterns as Chelsea suggested.

Pieces of white wool from two different garments absorbed the same dye differently.

I hated to throw away all the onion skin dye that remained in the pot, so I dyed a second batch of white wool in it. This batch turned out a dusty rose color. So pretty!

A piece of white wool dyed with black beans.

Tess' cotton gauze tie-dyed with black beans


  1. That sounds like a fun mother/daughter/friend exercise!

  2. While I won't be trying this process myself, it does look like you and Tess had some great results and together time as well.

  3. A lovely tutorial and great pictures... I love dying with onion skins and I've use the solution in different strength for skin tones amongst other things and it works great.