• Vicky Lesant

Natural Dyeing With Onion Skins

I love trying out new natural dyes and actually onion skins is one of the easiest, I am surprised I have not tried before. Firstly, onions are easily accessible for most people and you don't need a mordant as onions skins have a natural tannin. I will explain more in depth about mordants and tannin in a post coming soon! But for now, if you are new to experimenting with plant dyes this is the perfect place to start.

So first lets gather some equipment together, anything you use for dyeing must be keep completely separate from your normal utensils and pots used for cooking.

The best results for natural dyeing is to use natural materials; wool, hemp, cotton, linen, silk.

What you need:

Heat source

Yarn or fabric for dyeing.

A large stainless steel pan.

Water - enough to cover your fabric/yarn with still enough space for it to move around and you to stir.

A couple handfuls of onion skins.



Optional extras:


Baking Soda

Iron bath.

Step 1:

Fill a stainless steel pan with the water, to this then add your onion skins. Bring to the boil and then simmer for about 1 hour- this process is to extract the colour from the skins. For my yellow onion dye bath I used 4 liters of water with skins from 3 large onions, you can vary this amount depending on how much fabric you are dyeing and the strength of the colour you want to achieve. The water started to turn a nice orange/brown tea colour pretty quickly.

Step 2:

After 1 hour sift the onion, so you just have the liquid left.

It is important to get as much out as you can, otherwise they may stick to your fabric and give a very blotchy appearance.

Step 4:

Wet your fabric or yarn and add to the dye bath. Bring to the boil again and then return to a low heat for another 1 hour. Stir occasionally and make sure your fabric is not too stuck together.

Step 5:

Then turn off your heat and allow your fabric to cool in the dye bath for another 1 hour.

Step 6:

When your water has cooled down, carefully remove your fabric and rinse under water until the water runs clear, then leave to dry - not in direct sunlight.

If you want to experiment a little bit more you can add some of your dyed fabric or yarn into an alkaline or a acidic solution to modify the colours.

I used a tea spoon of baking soda with a cup of water to get my akaline solution, again you can modify this depending on the amount of fabric you have. Mine was just for a small test swatch, which I left in the solution to soak for about an hour.

I took another cup of water and then added about 40ml of vinegar to make an acidic solution and put my swatch in to soak for about an hour.

My third variant was an iron bath, I already had made up. For this you can make your own with a handful of nails and a few cups of water until the nails start to rust and your water goes a dusky rusty colour. Again, I left my swatch to soak for about 1 hour.

Here's my final outcome with the red onions, which I am a little confused by as I have seen pictures of others who have very brown swatches from red onions, but actually mine have quite a pink under tone. There are many different variants which can effect the outcome, for example if you use distilled or tap water, or depending where you live, there can be different minerals in the water. I am still really pleased with the way this turned out and I love this pinky brown colour. My organic cotton swatches didn't come out so nice at all, they just looked like someone had spilt coffee on them- lets just forget them for now :) I think I was a bit too eager to start with the red onions and only used 1 handful of skins with 3l of water so my mixture was not so strong.

Here is a photo of my beautiful results, as you can see compared to the original, the one left in the iron has gone more of a brown colour, whereas the baking soda (alkaline) swatch has gone a bronzy rose colour. The vinegar (acidic) swatch has lightened slightly.

Its amazing how many different colours you can achieve from just changing a couple variants.

Now let's try the same thing but with some yellow onion skins......

So, after my dye bath had turned this beautiful orange colour and I had left my fabric on the heat for 1 hour and then to cooled for 1 hour, my outcome is as below.

The muslin on the left was difficult to dye due to the texture and the layers of the fabric it is quite blotchy, but I will use it in a tie dye later. My silk turned out beautiful, and is basically onion colour, surprisingly! My organic cotton is a much lighter orange/yellow.

And here's the exciting bit, is it just be who gets excited about these small things, please tell me its not! Because look what happened to my swatch which I put in the iron bath, it has gone a gorgeous khaki colour, think I may have to make a lovely tie dye shirt in this, see my tester!

As per the red onion, my vinegar solution has gone a bit lighter and my baking soda solution a little darker with a yellow tinge, but not much.

What a perfect way to revamp an old boring t-shirt or make something fresh and new which is so unique! Good luck with your experimenting, let me know how it goes in the comments. Loads more info on natural dyeing coming soon, as I am slightly addicted!

P.S If anyone has a recipe for a good french onion soup I think it would be really handy right now :)

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