Natural Dye using Onion Skins

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Onion skins are an ideal natural dye. This is one of those kitchen scrap dyes, like dyeing with avocado seeds. Yet onions are even easier to find and cheaper to collect. If you’ve never dyed before, I recommend starting with these guys. If you have dyed before, playing with color by using yellow and red onion skins together keeps the color possibilites continually interesting.

Onion skins give a range of color from yellow to orange with yellow skins, to green and brown with red skins. The variation is due to the type of onion, where it was grown, growing conditions, and so forth. The type of dye material will also influence your result (wool, wool-blend, silk, cotton), or even the ply of yarn! This is common in the natural dye world. Expect variation in the result. Expect the unexpected.

 

Dye materials

  • Onion skins (outer layer only)
  • Fiber (I use wool) – with/without alum mordant
  • A large pot that is only used for dyeing
  • Water
  • Dye spoon for stiring.
  • Bowl/container for soaking fiber in warm water before dyeing.
  • A well ventilated area

This dye will work without a mordant.  In the video, I dye with alum mordanted wool and non mordanted wool to show the color possibilites. The wool shown here is with an alum mordant.

Yellow and orange wool skeins naturally dyed with onion skins
Wool dyed with yellow onion skins
Skeins of wool yarn naturally dyed with red onion skins
Wool dyed with red onion skins

For the onion skins, use the outer layers you’d normally discard. You’ll need a lot of them, so expect to collect them over time. This is my process: after I use my onions for cooking, I leave them on the counter for a day or so to dry, then store in a small paper bag.  Your local grocery store likely won’t mind if you collect loose skins from the onion pile in the produce section. (The bottom of my purse usually has a collection from trips to the store.)

Collander full of yellow onion skins
My collection of yellow skined onions, including shallots.

 

Ratio: Fiber to Onion Skins

The higher the ratio of onion skins to fiber, the richer the color. Most dye books will tell you a 2:1 material to fiber ratio. I’ve done it with less and achieved satisfying results. Less skins means a mellower color. Experiment to find your own ratio.

Process

When you’re ready to dye, fill your dye pot 3/4 full of water. You can either soak your skins in the water overnight then bring to boil the following day, or if you’re more spontaneous like me, it’s fine to add the skins to the water and boil for a few hours on the same day.

TIP: as you can imagine, the dye packs seriously potent fumes. I suggest opening a few windows if you do this inside. If you’re sensitive to fumes, outside might be best.

You’ll know the dye is ready for the fiber when it looks similar to this.

Yellow onion dye after boiling for several hours
Yellow onion dye after boiling for several hours
The color of red onion dye after boiling for several hours.
Red onion dye after boiling for several hours.

While the skins are boiling, add your fiber into a seperate bowl of warm water. Wet fiber absorbs the dye evenly, and warm water helps prevent “shocking” the yarn (which can cause felting with some fibers).

  • Before you add your fiber, turn down the heat to a simmer – no boiling. Boiling wool may felt the fiber.

If you’re doing both red and yellows onions at the same time, add half your material to both pots. This is where creating with color gets real interesting.

Mulitcolored onion dyed skeins, dyed with red and yellow onions.
Yellow and red onion dyed wool. I dipped half the skein into the red onion dye, and the other half into the yellow. Easy method of creating multi-colored yarn.

Let them simmer for at least 30 minutes. The fiber needs time to throughly absorb the dye. If you pull it out too quickly, the color may wash out or fade once you rinse. It’s also good to remember that the color will be a shade lighter when dry. If you want potentially intense color, turn off the dye and leave fiber to soak in the dye overnight.

Once you’ve achieved your desired shade, pull your fiber, gently rinse until the water runs clear. Hang to dry. Use in your next project.

If you have left over dye, it’s easy to keep for a later date if stored in a tightly sealed jar.

Onion dyed ball of yarn with knit shawl project

 

 

4 thoughts on “Natural Dye using Onion Skins

  1. What a splendid video, Myra and Martin! I am so proud of both of you talented kids!!! I would love to see you guys do a video where you actually collected dyestuff out in the yard! Walnut or pecan leaves???

  2. Thank you for the well done instructions…. the photos with the text will add confidence for someone just beginning. I have dyed with onion skins before and have a collection jar in my kitchen but I have not separated the red from the yellow. Next time, I will try the dipping of half of the wet fiber in one the red skin dye pot and then the other half in the yellow skin dye pot. Thanks for the suggestion!

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