Friday, May 19, 2017

onion skins and old nails

I've been saving onion skins for quite some time, and last week I used them to dye some cloth.

I am writing about my process.
These are experiments. I do not claim that I know what I am doing.
Sometimes my experiments work.
I am inspired by the idea that natural dyers throughout time have experimented.

My process:
Put a large grocery bag full of onion skins into a big canning pot.
Pour boiling water over them until they are covered.
Allow this to steep and cool down over night.
The next day, bring the onion skin solution to a simmer and keep it there for 90 minutes.
Allow this to steep and cool down over night.  Repeat if possible.
Remove the skins from the liquid.
Divide the liquid into two pots.
In second pot of dye, add a jar full of iron solution.

The iron solution is Jenny Dean's recipe.
Into a wide glass jar with a lid place scrap iron (old nails, a small trivet, scrap metal)
Cover with solution made from two parts water and one part clear vinegar
Leave for at least two weeks.  (I left mine for more than one year)

Protein Fibres work best with natural dyes  (from animals (wool and silk)

Add wool and silk cloth as well as silk rayon velvet (see top photo)
No pre-soak or pre-mordant needed for these, the cloth was added dry

Gently bring cloth and dye up to a simmer for 90 minutes
Allow to do the steep and cool over night thing, two times preferably
Our house smelled like onion soup for a week and a half.
Hang fabrics outside without rinsing.
Just wring them and allow them to dry naturally
Fold gently and allow to rest for a few days

The colours of the protein fibres (wool and silk) are really rich
A nearly red rusty colour on the wool and velvet from the onion skins (above photo)
A deep olive greenish grey from the pot with the iron (see below)
Cellulose fibres

To make linen and cotton ready to accept the natural dyes, I did a pre-soak over night in two litres of 2 percent milk from the grocery store.  It was an experiment.
Soak cotton and linen cloth overnight in milk
Wring out the milk and place the wet cloth into the dye baths
Bring to a simmer for 90 minutes.  Steep over night.
Hung on the line without rinsing but after wringing/  (above photo cotton and linen with iron-onion
The fabrics had markings on them when they were dried that I didn't expect.
The dye bath itself was quite milky.
There was still enough milky dye left in the pot so I did a third round with the protein fibres.
Although the colours were much paler,  they were still really beautiful.  (see below)
I am truly pleased with this experiment.
It took place while we carried on with our so called normal life.
I washed all the cloth in the washing on delicate cycle, cold water, tea tree detergent.
Two loads in order to separate the iron fabrics from the pure onion
Dry in the dryer for added softness for the velvet.
The stains and natural markings on the cotton and linen remain.
What I do with cloth and dye matches who I am right now.
Just me.
This is how I study and how I learn.
This is what I know already.
I come to my practice with with curiosity and passion.
I am not trying to change anything.
I just want to learn more about the same things.  


  1. THanks for the sharing of your process...interesting pieces....I'm always impressed by the 'natural' dye process.

  2. Really a wonderful experiment Judy - beautiful results and very well outlined for others who might like to follow along and try themselves.
    I always learn from your posts and this one is exceptionally informative. So glad you are enjoying these beautiful pre-summer, 'end of spring' 2017 days.
    Have a wonderful Victoria Day... the Manitoulin Circle greets everyone who visits just inside our front door.

  3. I realize that I have given a kind of tutorial here - but I feel, why not share my experience in this expanding field of natural dyeing. The milk pre-soak was new for me here. And I do not know how much difference it made for those linen and contton fabrics to accept the dye - but...there you are.

    So glad to hear from you Beth - my dear friend. xo

  4. I so much appreciate the careful detailing of your process. I'm looking forward to trying it. Your cloths turned out beautifully.

  5. Thanks for sharing, love the greens from adding the iron water, I must try that. I use the cheapest soya milk (recommended by India Flint) I can find for adding protein to linen and cotton, its cheaper here in the uk than milk. I usually soak cloth for a couple of days in the milk and then leave them to dry naturally and keep them for a while before dyeing. I don't know whether this makes a difference but it does mean you can have a stack of fabric ready for when you have the time or the urge to dye.

  6. love silk rayon velvet & it dyes up so beautifully, have always wondered whether it's a synthetic?

  7. You have a beautiful variation of fabrics to work with, thanks to your "effort." When people say something I did in the art realm was a lot of work, I always say, "No, dusting and cleaning floors is work. This is play."

    Your post brings to mind the Stone Soup story, with onion skins instead of rocks. It makes me smile to imagine one neighbour bringing nails, another milk, still another a trivet. Did you develop a craving for actual onion soup, as the aroma filled (and remained in) your house? I have to admit I have never done any natural dying and I am curious--do the fabrics retain any of the onion smell? I wouldn't have thought the skins would be that pungent.

    Curiosity and passion are the best qualities we can bring to our practice, and the rest of our life!

  8. I love your experimenting process and how you have shared it Judy.
    Continuous learning in life is what keeps us going and learning from one another is another.
    Lynn x

  9. It was kind of like a stone soup story - and no the fabrics do not retain the onion smell at all once they are washed and rinsed.

    I too have used soya milk - and also a soak using soy beans and water that I make myself.
    I have previously dried the fabrics prepared this way.

    What's interesting for me in natural dyeing is that each time there are so many variables that it is impossible to say why one had a certain result. It's kitchen science - but so intutive.

    "you know that you don't have all the answers, and the unknown is the best place where you want to be as an artist, not knowing. That actually leads you to ask questions and it continuoulsy feeds itself. That's the position I place myself in always. I don't know." Leonardo Drew - from today's facebook sharing by Robyn Gordon.


  10. You are a "Kitchen Science" magician! Beautiful linens, wow colors!

  11. Thank you for sharing the process. I am not ready yet, but I know I want to try sometime.

  12. As you were working out this process, I was steeping fabrics wet down with vinegar/water solution and wrapped around "rusty bits". They've been sitting in the sun since Friday a.m. Later today, I'll have a look. Some of mine are synthetic, with is part of the fun of experimenting. Thanks for sharing how you work yours out. I have a collection of onion skins, so once my "rusty bits" are finished their current assignment, I can play with them differently...with gratitude for having such a fine 'lab instructor'. :-)

  13. Beautiful results. Did you find that the iron bath made the wool feel harsher? I have never tried iron because I read once that is what can happen.

  14. the wool did not feel harsh at all Heather.

    very pleased with these results and shall do again



Thank you for taking the time to connect. Much appreciated.xx