Folk Fibers Blog

  • Natural Dyes - Red Onion Skins


    Red onion skins create a earthy range of colors. Protein fibers such as wool and silk, dye a pale to medium nutmeg brown, with a mix of rosewood, russet and rosy browns. Cellulose fibers such as cotton, hemp, and bamboo dye a range of seashell pinks, with a mix of champagne, pale, and silver pink. Natural dye colors are living colors, they are alive with the life that made them. 

    The dry outer skins of onions can be used for coloring natural textile materials and easter eggs. Red onion skins create a different range of colors than yellow onions skins, so it's important to keep your dye sources separated. The process of achieving color from onion skins is one of the easiest sources of natural color, and is a great place to start if your just beginning with natural dying. 

    Onion skins are simple for a few reasons, they are easy to source, they are food safe, and they do not require the aid of a mordant to achieve colorfast fabric. I collect my onion skins from a local farm or the grocery store; just ask someone working in the produce department if you can scuffle through the bins and collect the loose skins. Because onion skins are food safe you don't  have to get a separate pot for dying fabric, but onion skins seem to be the only exception to that. So if your thinking about experimenting with other dye sources it would be smart to invest in a separate large pot for your dye work. Onion skins do not need a mordant because they are naturally high in tannin, which binds of the color to the fabric, creating lasting colorfast fabrics. 

    The Recipe

    onion skins (the more the better)
    water to cover 
    bring the water to a boil and let simmer for an 1 hour
    remove the onion skins from the pot (I suggest using a colander)
    soaking the dyestuff a few days before is an alternative or aid in extracting color from dyestuff
    evenly soak fibers in hot water before placing them in the dyebath (this helps achieve even color)
    place pre-wet fibers into the dyebath 
    heat dyebath for 1 hour, using a spoon or stick to submerge fibers and free air bubbles
    to achieve even color avoid crowding the dyepot 
    let the fibers cool in the dyebath this will give brighter results 
    most dye artist let the bath sit and cool overnight or even a few days, longer is stronger
    remove the fibers from dyebath, rinse with cold water until water runs clear
    hang to dry 

    It's ok if there is dirt amongst the skins it will be strained out after boiling the skins in water, and it will not affect the color of the dyebath. The more skins you have in your pot the more concentrated your color. I suggest filling the pot over halfway with skins.

    Onion skins can be saved for a long time if they are contained and protected from weather.

    My 32 quart stainless steal dye pot and adjustable colander 

    It's best to avoid the direct sunlight when drying fabrics. This helps achieve even dye results and avoid sun bleaching.
    There is no better way to get to know the true value of each color than to dye your own, then you will intuitively understand it's emotion. 

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  • Comments on this post (6 comments)

    • Stefan Karlsson says...

      Using alum mordant with red onion skins yields olive green on wool.

      On July 27, 2013

    • Pau says...

      Are mordants really not needed? We’re working with onion skins for our experiment and I really hope we don’t need any mordants!

      On December 04, 2012

    • Maura says...

      I’ve been known to hop around to a few grocery stores in one day to collect the amount of skins I need, also the farmers market is a great place to make friends with skins!

      On October 07, 2012

    • Theresa says...

      Thank you, thank you, your excellent instructions brought about wonderful results. This morning I was able to gather some red onion skins at my local supermarket. Just enough coloring for a small batch of dye. I ended up with a warm butter color on my fabric. I feel pleased with the first time results. I did not have enough skins to make a truly deep dye bath. And, I did tax the batch I made heavily, as I wanted to dye more fabric than there was room for in the dye pot. However, the results were satisfying and I learned a lot in the doing.

      On September 27, 2012

    • Theresa says...

      Enjoyed the amazing range of color possible from just one dye bath. Thank you for the inspirational photographs and text. I am headed to the grocery, first thing in the morning, and hope to collect enough onion skin for a first attempt at natural dying.

      On September 26, 2012

    • Karen says...

      This is great! I love how you have given so much detail about your process for beginners like myself. I am so inspired by your work!!

      On September 23, 2012

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