Onion Skin Dye

Using red or yellow onion skins is a really fun and economical way to dye fabric. I love that what would otherwise be considered waste is used to create a wide range of yellows and oranges and sometimes browns. Red and yellow onion skins can produce different colors. In my experience on cotton fabric, the red onion skins produce yellows with greener tones and the yellow onion skins produce more orange tones. The color can vary by a variety of factors; including how many skins you use, the mineral content in the ground where the onions were grown and your water content. The beauty of dyeing directly with whole dye stuffs is the variations in the colors that you will achieve.

Shibori pattern created using yellow onion skins on cotton canvas.
Red onion skins and shibori techniques were used to create these napkins.

What you will need:

  • A large stock pot- big enough to hold the fabric you are dyeing and cover it with water
  • Papery skin from 5-6 yellow or red onions – more will produce a stronger, darker color
  • Pre-mordanted fabric
  • A wooden or stainless steel spoon

Preparation:

  1. The collection process – save the dry papery skins from your onions. I store them in a paper bag until I have collected enough to dye with. 

    Dried, papery red onion skins ready for the dye pot.
  2. When you have collected enough (3-4 onions will be enough to dye a large scarf or a couple tea towels), place them in a large stock pot and fill with enough water for your fabric to be able to move around freely.

    Red onion skins covered in water and ready to be heated.
  3. Next, warm the dye bath up slowly to a very low simmer. You will start to see the color emerge in the water and the skins become translucent. After 30-45 minutes, your color should be getting pretty deep*.  At this point you have a choice, you could take it off the heat and let it cool overnight allowing the color to develop even further or you could move on to dyeing your fabric.
    Dye bath after cooling over night.
  4. Once you are satisfied with the dye bath color, strain the bits of pits and/or skins from the pot. Reheat your dye bath to a very low simmer.

    Dye bath after skins have been removed.
  5. Evenly dampen your pre-mordanted fabric**. Damp fabric will take up the dye more evenly. If you are using shibori techniques add your damp bundles of fabric to the pot. Stir gently to expose all of the fabric to the dye. Make sure that all of the fabric is submerged. Stir occasionally over the next 20 minutes or so. Once you are satisfied with the color, remove from heat, but allow the entire dye bath to cool before removing your fabric. If you are having trouble keeping the fabric fully submerged, you can place a glass plate or bowl over the fabric to help weight it down. Remove the weight and stir your fabric a couple times while the dye bath is cooling to make sure everything is getting an even dye. You can also let the dye bath and fabric rest overnight to allow for the color to further develop.

    Yellow onion skin dye bath
  6. After everything has cooled off, you can remove your fabric. Ring out and hang to dry out of sunlight, but don’t rinse or wash it yet (try to be patient…it’s hard, I know!). Once dry, you can wait a few days or more before washing. There are a variety of opinions on if this is necessary or not to maintain your color, but it definitely can’t hurt, so if you can let your fabric cure for a few days all the better.

    Cotton scarf hanging to dry after being dyed with yellow onion skins.
  7. When you are ready to wash, use cool water and mild soap on the gentle cycle. Hang to dry out of direct sun or tumble dry on low. Some fading may occur over time, but now you have the skills to re-dye your fabric if you want or need to.
Yellow color created by using yellow onion skins. Russet red is created with avocado pits.

Notes:

* The color can vary depending on a number of things; the type of onions, where they were grown, what time of year it is all play a role in the color that you will achieve. Your water content can also affect the color. Embrace the variations! Also, if the color is not as dark as you would like, you can always redye your fabric. I have had a few flops and just made a new dye bath and redyed the fabric.

**If you purchased a DIY Tea Towel Kit from me your fabric has been pre-mordanted. If you have not, then you may choose to mordant your fabric before dyeing in order to achieve the best results.

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