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Red Onion Skin Dye Recipe
Tutorial from Rachel Bingham and photographs by Amanda Blake Soule.
Originally published in Issue 12::BREAD
25-50 grams or more red onion skins. This is equivalent to a few large handfuls of onion skins.
stainless steel pot. Decommission one from your kitchen, or visit a thrift store or your mother’s garage. Stainless steel is best as the metal will not leach into your dye bath. It’s a good habit to get into that once you start natural dyeing, you do not use these pots again for food prep.
Aluminum Sulfate. (Known as alum.) Alum is what is used in much of our water supply, depending on where you live, as a water purifier. You can order this from several natural dye suppliers on line such as Aurora Silks and sometimes from your local pharmacy.
With the alum amount, the rule of thumb is to use 6% the weight of the fiber. Or for every one pound of fiber, use 2 tablespoons of alum. Err on the side of using less, so as to avoid the tackiness in your wool that too much alum can create.
- Save. Save up your red onion skins in a container until you have 25–50 grams or more. Dry out the thick ends before storing so molding does not occur. Consider asking your local market, café or restaurant if they can save their red onion skins for you. They can add up fast.
- Rummage. Use a natural fiber yarn, washed fleece, roving, an old t-shirt, your child’s wool sweater, your dinner napkins, a lace cotton curtain or table cloth, fabric scraps, doll clothes, pillow cases, silk underwear, a silk blouse, wool socks—anything you’ve got laying around that you think could use a new life. All-natural fibers work best.
- Soak. Pre-soak this item or items in room-temperature water. After you’ve drawn the water, place just a drop or two of liquid dish soap. Stir around with your hand and slip in the fibers to soak for thirty minutes or more. This soaking part is one of the most important steps you can do as it aids greatly to even dyeing and absorption of color.
- Cook. Whether you cook the skins first, strain them off and then add fiber or if you cook everything together, your color will be the same. From experience, I favor the latter. I like to think there is a conversation taking place between the plant material and the fiber. Something like this, plants say to fibers as they release their pigments into the water, “Take good care of our colors! Go and be green!” The Fiber in response says, “We’ll take good care of them and help them all shine as best they can!” Less time and distance is involved from when the color seeps out of the plant materials and into the arms of the fiber material. This is my favorite way to dye. This is where you could also choose to add alum or not. It’s up to you. With alum, you’ll have more light-fast and wash-fast fibers. You’ll also have a slightly different and sometimes more saturated color.
- Keep an eye on your temperature using a meat thermometer. At whatever point you decide to introduce your fibers, let the water temperature around it climb gradually. Do not let the heat get past 180°F. If you do, it can change the structure and integrity of the fiber. It doesn’t always ruin the fiber but it does sometimes. And knowing about that sometimes possibility is what drives me to keep a close eye on my goods.
- Over the next 30–60 minutes, keep an eye on your dye pot. Pull out the fabric slightly with a large spoon to check on the color. Does it drain from the fiber when it comes out? Or does it stay but just lighten when it hits the air? When you’re satisfied with your color, simply turn off the heat source and walk away. Or if you need to, put your pot outside and it can cool on its own. Either way, leave the fiber in the pot until the next day. Hard, I know, but super-exciting when you wake up the next day and you remember you have something to pull out of a dye pot. For me, it’s always a Christmas morning-type feeling. Though, if you’re really trying to go for a certain shade, or if you’re super eager, pull it out after it’s done cooking and let it cool and dry on its own.
You’ll notice your dye bath is still rich in color. While your first batch is cooking away, have something else ready to go in the pre-soak to enjoy this beautiful afterbath. Let your fiber sit without heat for a day or two. Or heat it up right away. Either way, experiment. Try something different. As you continue to use these after baths until it gives no more color, you’ll be accumulating a wonderful array of red onion skin-dyed fibers to use however you wish: in projects, around your house, as gifts, to adorn yourself, whatever you can think of.
To me, the beauty and glory of using plant dyes is that you never know what’s going to happen, you can always go further than you planned and the end results are always stunning, and sometimes surprising.
Want to go further with other scraps from your kitchen, garden or market? Try carrot greens or anything else that you might otherwise toss in your compost, feed to your chickens or shove down your garbage disposal. When you’re finished with the plants for dyeing, you can still toss them in your compost, feed to your chickens or shove down your garbage disposal.
The possibilities are endless.