Revisiting Onion Skin Dye For Textiles

In a previous post, this topic was discussed briefly, and I want to elaborate a bit.

At the end of 2023, I experimented for the first time with using onion skins as a natural dye. Through my readings I had become aware that the outer layer of yellow and red (purple) onions–aka the tunic–is useful in what is known as food waste dyeing.

Although I’ve used avocado skins and pits a time or two for their high tannin content, I generally just compost suitable food waste and later use the produce to support my ever devolping food garden. But at some point along the way I became curious about what onion skins can do where natural color is concerned.

Before I get to far along, let me talk about the acquisition of onion skins. When I went into this expeimentation, I did have onions in the house. So, accesing the outer layer of a few was not a problem. However, during the course of creating my latest video, I needed more skins. I was back in the store one day and saw a bunch of loose onion skins in the produce bin where they’re stored. Then I remembered how–over the course of my life, actually!– I’ve seen produce workers putting out onions and tossing extra skins that easily come off during the course of their work.

Grocery stores, farmers markets, and other produce markets might be viable ways for you to come up with onion skins if you don’t regularly use onions. (Side note: the skins are also useful for making broth.)

The color achieved this time using onion skins to make natural dye was more rich than what I had previously gotten. I appreciate the richness of the orange and how it has an intensity similar to that achieved when dyeing with fresh turmeric root but still has its own aesthetic.

One notable point about using onion skins to dye textiles is that the color is taken up pretty quickly. Even just dipping the textile in the dye after it has boiled will yield colored fabric. This isn’t the case for all natural dyes. My beloved naupaka leaf dye can take days to soak into fabric. (But when it finally does, it’s glorius!)

In addition to achieving 2-3 varying colors with onion skins alone, other elements can bring about color transformation. I’ve unintentionally used rusty tools in the processes of textile dyeing. When I intentionally stirred a jar of onion skin dye with the tool pictured below, the resulting color was a mix of olive green and brown.

Rusty pruner tool

Two jars of onion skin dye

The same two jars from above; the one on the left has been
stirred with the tool

I’ve also added nails to onion skin dye. My nails contain iron, but all nails do not. However, since other elements like aluminum and copper–which nails can also be made from–facilitate the changing of color with natural, plant-based dyes, they’re also worth trying out to see what colors can be achieved.

Nail being added to onion skin dye

When I first started using nails to facilitate change, I thought the nail would need to be rusty. That’s not the case. The nail pictured above was new and silver when it was first ever placed in a jar and became rusty over time. It worked just as well at changing the color of dye when it was new.

When I added one nail to a jar of fabric and onion skin dye that was steeping in the sun (solar dyeing), the color changed from a deep, rust orange to a dark brown.

Fabric dyed with onion skin + nail

Another relevant point about using iron when dyeing with plants, in general, is that it serves as a mordant–it assists with colorfastness. Onion skins are high in tannin already, so that in combination with iron ensures that the color will be long-lasting, especially if care is given to the dyed textile.

One other element that I introduced into the picture when working with onion skin dye is aluminum potassium sulfate aka alum. This is another agent that can be used to produce colors that are different from those originally achieved when using plants as dye. For this experiment I simply sprinkled a little alum into the pot with previously boiled onion skins. It’s important always to be carful when using alum. It’s advisable to cover your mouth and nose when handling the powder. I’d advise that you also be mindful of it not getting into your eyes.

I was surprised by the bright yellow color that resulted from the combination.

Onion skins + alum

Onion skin dye + alum on cotton fabric

As you can see, there’s a lot of potential when using onion skins to make natural dye. I appreciate the fact that the skins are useful in this way, as it allows for those new to making natural dyes to use something as common as an onion to get into this craft.

In my latest video on YouTube, you can see more of my work with onion skins as natural dye. You can watch by clicking HERE or by clicking below.

Thank you for reading this far. I hope this information was useful to you!

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