Published: July 21, 2020Updated: July 21, 20208 min read
Onion skin dye is one of the easiest natural dyes to get started with. Seriously, if you can cook a pot of soup, then you can make this dye.
How I learned To Dye Textiles
Fabric dying is a science. But, it can also be an art. My first memories of fabric dying were of tie-dye at summer camp. And how in elementary school everyone looked forward to going through the D.A.R.E. program because graduating from it meant tie-dying shirts.
From there I encountered a whole new world of dying at FIT. One that took on the seriousness of an Ivy League O-Chem course. This was really weird because, for the most part, the classes at FIT were a complete and total joke. I got my associate's degree from FIT in Fashion Management and Marketing. One of the classes I took was History of Fashion. That sounded cool and interesting. I wanted to be one of those people who knew the history of like every single style. Unfortunately, for most of the class, we basically spent our time putting together a makeshift fashion show. That first year, FIT often felt more like middle school than college.
My FIT Fashion Show - What is even happening here? I am the one in the venter in the red dress. Please notice the person on the far right, fully wrapped in tulle - because, fashion, I guess?
Anyway, when I decided to get my Bachelors in Textile Development and Marketing, it was like I entered a whole new school. Colors became formulas, and dyeing happened in a sterile laboratory setting. I was actually learning stuff, instead of playing make-believe.
Did you know that if your work with colors professionally they are not analyzed by how you see them? - This is because the human eye is unique and colors look different to everyone. Instead of commenting on colors by how you see them, colors are analyzed with a special machine, a spectrophotometer, that brakes down the colors of the fabric in the same way HEX codes break down computer screen colors.
Color was no longer thrown on haphazardly like in my old tie dye days, but it was written in a precise formula.
And, this very calculated and scientific way of looking at colors was my world of dye for my entire fast fashion professional career.
That is until I left fast fashion and began my path of sustainable and ethical manufacturing. Instead of chemical formulas and synthetic chemical reactions, now I use things like onion skin dye, pits from avocados, rusty bits of metal I find in the garage, and other natural elements. Lots of natural dyeing experts will tell you there are rules to natural dying, that it's a science too, and to use exactly this, and exactly that, or to buy their kit to make sure you're doing it right.
But, the truth is, there are no rules in a natural dye. I use natural dye formulas as a guide, not the law. Because in nature there is variance, nothing is perfect. Sometimes your dye might be a little light, and sometimes it might be a little dark. Sometimes your onion skin dye will look browner, and sometimes more yellow. This is the fun of it.
So, remember not to take yourself to seriously when getting started. I think people sometimes psych themselves out from trying new things because they feel like they don't have the skills. I promise, this is super easy, and you can totally do it.
How To Dye With Onion Skins
What You Need
Something to dye
String or rubber bands
Step 1 - Collect Onion Skins
This project was extra memorable for me because I did it turning the height of the pandemic. We found ourselves sitting at home and cooking every night. And, we were going through a ton of onions. I started collecting the onion skins from each new onion we cut every few days. To keep them from rotting and decomposing I stored them in a plastic bag from the grocery store in my freezer.
It was fun to watch my stash of onion skins grow, as the days in solitude progressed.
For my project, I only collected yellow onion skins, but you can also collect red onion skins too. Red onion skins will give a deeper brown color, while yellow gives a peachy yellow color.
A Tip So You Don't Smell Like An Onion
Only collect the layers that feel crispy and like paper. If you go too far down and start to collect layers that are translucent and more oniony looking your dye, and you, will smell like onions. So, paper only!
Step 2 - Prepare The Dye Vat
What Is A Dye Vat?
The dye vat is your pot. Basically, it is what you are dying in. Dye vats are also called dye baths. Make sure to use stainless steel so there is no oxidation or rust in your colors.
How To Prepare An Onion Skin Dye Vat
Fill the dye pot 2/3 of the way with water, and put on the stove to heat.
That's it. It is literally that easy.
No Need For Mordant
In other types of natural dyes, a mordant is needed. Mordants are chemicals that are usually applied to the fabric before it is dyed. They help the colors bind onto the fabric, creating a vivid longer-lasting color.
But, onion skins are a unique natural color in that they don't need a mordant. That is because onions are full of tannins. And the tannins basically act as a built-in mordant for the color to bind onto the fabric.
I told you this was going to be easy, so easy we even get to skip steps like mordanting!
Step 3 - Add The Onion Skins
Add the onion skins you have been collecting to the pot of water, and bring to a boil. One the water is boiling reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot and leave the onion skins for 3 hours. We are basically making the easiest soup in the entire world.
Check on the pot every half hour or so, Sometimes a lot of water will evaporate off. If that starts to happen just add in a little more water.
While your onion skins are simmering you can start working on your garment to dye.
Step 4 - Wet Your Textiles
If might sound counter-intuitive because your dye bath is made of mostly water, but for fabrics, to dye well, they need to be wet first. All you need to do is run them under the faucet, and wring them dry.
By wetting the garment you help to open upper the fibers follicle and this makes the job of the dye getting in a lot easier.
Tips On What To Dye
Onion skin dye works really well on natural fabrics like cotton. Other natural fibers like wool and silk work pretty well too. Definitely try to avoid polyester because the colors will be very dull and won't hold well over time. For this quarantine project, I used an old duster that I had made in Goa. When I see people wearing white on the beach I am always like, yes, I want that. But, then I remember I am a total and complete slob, who can't wear white. Seriously, I am like a dirt magnet.
While many people think my all-black uniform comes from my time spent in fashion living in NYC, it's really just camouflage for all of the stains I encounter on a daily basis.
Any way. Making this white garment was a bad idea, and after only 1 year of owning it, it was looking pretty dingy. So, I figured I would try and cover up some of the stains, with dye.
At home, dying is a great way to breathe new life into clothes and prevent them from the landfil.
If you want to dye the entire garment, stop here. But, if you want to dye some fancy designs, go to Step 5.
Step 5 - Tie Dye
For my duster, I decided to do a giant starburst tie-dye design. But, there are so many other ways of tying and knotting to create cool patterns. There are people on the internet that are way more experienced than me - so just google tie-dye techniques and patterns, or shibori, and you will find tons of easy to follow tutorials.
If you don't have rubber bands like traditional tie-dye calls for, you can also use string. That is what I use in this tutorial.
Again, make sure you wet the garment and wring it dry before you start knotting your tie-dye.
Step 6 - Wait
As I waited for the 3 hours to pass I went for a run, showered, and did a bit of work for clients. All stuff I would normally do anyway, but now I felt like I was even more productive and multitasking because I was preparing a dye bath at the same time. In reality, it wasn't so impressive because I was literally watching water boil, but hey, I am all for celebrating those small wins - whatever makes you feel productive right?
Step 7 - Remove The Onion Skins
Remove the onions skins. I just used a slotted spoon and fished them out, you can also use a pasta colander, just make sure you have a bowl under the colander so all of your dye water does not wash down the drain.
Step 8 - Time to Dye
Place your garment in the dye bath (the onion soup), and let it sit for 3 hours. Then go get your multi-task on again.
If you are curious about my personal life, during this next 3-hour window, I walked my dog, cooked and ate dinner, and did a little more work.
Step 9 - Tah Dah!
Remove the garment from the dye bath, and wring out the excess liquid. Cut off the rubber bands or strings, and check out what you made. I hung my garment in the sun to dry and started wearing it as soon as all the moisture had evaporated away.
I know some people like to give their garment a quick hand wash before they wear it to remove any excess dye. If you want to do this, make sure you let the garment air dry first. This extra time gives the colors a little more time to penetrate and stick to the fibers and will help your garment keep color for longer and not fade.
If you want you can wash it when it is done drying before wearing. But, I kind of feel like why bother? It's not like the dye is toxic, it doesn't smell. And, the color hasn't rubbed off or bleed onto anything that I have noticed.
I am very happy with my results, and how I was able to revive my old garment from looking like slobby stained house close to something I get so many compliments on.
Thinking about trying onion dye? Let me see your creations! You can also dye using yarns
I am thinking about doing more tutorials like this. What should be next? Ice dye, avocado pit dye, iron, or bundle dying?