Natural Dyes – Onion Skins

Onions are one of the most common vegetables found worldwide. They’re not just a delicious staple, they can also be used to dye with! Natural dyeing can be intimidating for beginners, but onion skins are an easy place for beginners to start. Yellow onion skins will produce a bright yellow-to-orange color. Red onion skins will produce orange-to-copper color. The recipe below is very forgiving and doesn’t dig into the more technical aspects of dyeing that sometimes seem scary to beginners.

You Will Need:

  • Onion Skins
  • Wool or Cotton Yarn
  • A large stock pot
  • Rubber kitchen gloves
  • Strainer

Before you attempt any dye experiment, please remember safety. While onions are safe to use in your regular cookware, many natural dyes and their mordants are not. You may wish to have a separate set of dye pots, lids, spoons, eye protection and gloves which are only used for dyeing.


First, Save the dry, papery outer skin of your onions. Depending on how often you eat onions, this can take a while. I keep a jar on my counter as a reminder to whoever is cooking that night. I try to save enough skins to equal 25-50% of the weight of whatever I’m dyeing. If I’ve got a 4oz skein of yarn, I’ll need 1-2oz of onion skins. Remember, more skins means more color.

 

You may choose to mordant (use alum or another heavy metal to act as the bond between fiber and dye) your wool for a brighter, longer-lasting color, but onion is a substantive dye, meaning it is one of the natural dyes that doesn’t require a mordant for dye to adhere. For this experiment, we’ll skip it.

Prepare your skein. To keep your skein from getting tangled in the pot, loosely tie bits of scrap yarn around the length. This will save you a world of headache later.

Once you have enough onion skins, the next step is to extract the dye! In a large pot of water, bring your onion skins to a boil. Let these simmer, covered, for one hour. While your pot is simmering, soak your yarn or fabric in warm water to prepare it for dyeing. After an hour, you should have a dark brown dye liquor. Strain all of the onion skins from your dye bath. You now have a pot of concentrated color.

 

Next, place your pot back on the stove. Place your yarn into the pot and simmer for another hour. Keep an eye on it to be sure it doesn’t boil. Water + Heat + Agitation = Felt After an hour, turn off the pot and allow it to cool. A lot of the process with natural dyeing is waiting.

Once it is cool, you can remove your skein. Remember to use those gloves if you don’t want yellow hands. Rinse the yarn in cool water and then hang to dry.

 

At this point, you may notice the water in your pot is still yellow. Once a dye is exhausted, there is no more dye in the pot and the water is clear. If there is still yellow, that means there is more dye! You may be able to dye another skein or two in a lighter shade of yellow using this exhaust. For the below yarn, I was able to do two exhausts after my first yarn.

 

Don’t have access to onion skins? Experiment with any of the dyes below! Like onion skins, these are substantive dyes that don’t require a mordant and are safe to use in your kitchenware.

  • Marigold Petals
  • Black Walnut Hulls
  • Birch Bark
  • Yellow Safflower
  • Red Sorrel
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