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 (48 comments)

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    • Pettra says...

      Thank you, this was very helpful!

      I would really appreciate it if you could make more of these posts about natural dyeing with different vegetables, etc. (or if you already have, redirect me to them). However, they don’t have to be as in-depth because I know it takes time to write all of it out. The image depicting how the different fabrics dyed especially helped since sometimes the colors that the vegetable (etc.) is, may differ from the color it dyes :)

      On May 11, 2020

    • Ali says...

      To the lady who had her fabric turn green at the armpits: Deoderant contains a type of aluminum. In learning how to dye wool for Navajo weaving, I was taught to be careful as to what pots you use to heat your fabric as some will make yellow spectrum dyes turn green. This goes for other colors as well.

      On May 23, 2018

    • Christina says...

      I used your tutorial to dye a white bamboo fabric singlet, the colour turned out a nice light tan colour that I loved. However, the armpit areas turned fluro green after a day of wearing it, how embarrassing haha! I think my deodorant has reacted with the dye somehow
      How can I stop this from happening with my next tries?

      On April 02, 2018

    • Daljit says...

      When you prepare a dye lot with onions red or yellow. Can you make it in a concentrated form and save it? And if you can save it what are the storage directions and for how long can you really safely store it without mould etc …..?

      On November 03, 2017

    • Christianne Heal says...

      I use it to give colour to my fading redhair! So simple, one onion skin is sufficient.y

      On September 11, 2017

    • Joyce says...

      After I tea dye my doilies should I dry them before I wash and starch them thanks?

      On January 08, 2017

    • Manny says...

      Can I mix Yellow onion skin and Red onion skin, and if yes will I get darker color?

      On August 01, 2016

    • Manny says...

      Can I mix Yellow onion skin and Red onion skin, and if yes will I get darker color?

      On August 01, 2016

    • chetna says...

      thanks it is very useful for me

      On July 29, 2016

    • praveennpk says...

      Interesting obviously glad to know more about using organics and vegetables

      On June 25, 2016

    • Rachel says...

      Thank you so much for this wonderful recipe/tutorial! After wanting to try out natural dyeing for a long time, red onion skins were a perfect introduction.

      On May 22, 2016

    • Shealagh Cynfal-Wells says...

      Many Thanks for the great info! Am dying with red onion skins this afternoon so just wanted to check about not needing the mordant. Great comments too and will be trying the red with Alum soon :) xx

      On November 17, 2015

    • kennaa says...

      really, thank you for this best tutorial. i will try to do so

      On November 06, 2015

    • Lani says...

      Thank you so much for refreshing my memory about onion skin dyeing. Thirty five years ago I played around with onions, bark and tea getting some wonderful colours. I wanted to start doing it again and this information was just what I needed to get me started again.

      On September 25, 2015

    • aditi says...

      Thank you soooo much to give such a detailed information.I am a textile teacher and i was thinking to introduce natural dyes to my students. It will be a good idea to start with onion dye.thankuuu

      On September 10, 2015

    • MUNIF mannit says...

      Am industrial chem.students,so my project is even on dyeing fibre using onion skin so thanks for tutorials And plz i need someone to give me the names of materials that we are going to use in carrying our dye using onion skin

      On June 17, 2015

    • Karen Martinsen says...

      Thank you for this interesting and helpful tutorial.
      I just rescued some skins from the bag I bought last week and then pulled some loose skins from the onions.
      Need many more so will for sure go to the grocery stores!
      Thank you again.

      On April 30, 2015

    • Mariola says...

      Thank you very much :). I’m very grateful for all your tips here. I’m going to dye my cotton jacket and I hope that I’ll manage to do it. I’ve never done it before :).

      On June 19, 2014

    • Shanti says...

      So appreciative for this article!!!! Do you think a vinegar soak after is ok or would it ruin the color? My fabric smells pretty oniony and I don’t want to wash it with laundry soap.

      On May 25, 2014

    • Cheryl says...

      I just got 50 lbs of yellow and red onions for free. I am going to try this today. So excited. Thank you for the great instructions.

      On April 30, 2014

    • 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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