Monday, August 10, 2015

Yarn dyeing with onion skins

Since my experiment with tea-dyed yarn a few years ago, I've been curious about what else I can use to dye yarn. A member of my knitting group suggested onion skins, so I started looking into it. Upon finding out that onion skins can dye without a mordant, I set out to give it a try.

It took me several months to collect enough onion skins - I didn't have a precise amount I was aiming for, but I'd read that more is better. We tend to use yellow/brown onions, so those are the skins I saved. I collected them until I was fed up. I didn't weigh them, so I can't say how much I actually had in the end. Just call it a shedload.

To prepare the dye solution, I tried to shove all skins into my too-small pot, let them simmer for about an hour, and then strained the skins out. Boiled onion skins smell pretty terrible, FYI. I was surprised at how red the dye solution was.

I let the solution cool a little while I soaked my yarn. Since I am technically on stash down I couldn't buy any new yarn, so I used some undyed 4-ply alpaca that I had in my stash. Then I put the yarn in the pot and started simmering it again. The picture above shows the colour once I had put my yarn in - the yarn started taking up colour really quickly.

After simmering it for about 45 minutes, I was sick of the boiled onion skin fumes, so I turned it off and let it cool. There was still plenty of colour in the dye bath, though it was a bit lighter than at the beginning. If I was dedicated, I probably could have saved the rest of the dye and used it again on something else. Or maybe I could have used fewer onion skins to begin with.

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Picture above is what I ended up with.

Oh hey, it's brown! Surprise, surprise.

When I washed the yarn it lost a bit of colour, but not too much - the water became tinged yellow. It looked much more orange/red when wet, but it dried to be a light orange-y brown. My first thought when I looked at it dry was that it was exactly like my tea-dyed yarn. Upon comparing the two, however, I see that they are quite different.

See my tea-dyed sock with my onion-dyed yarn below. The sock is darker and less red/orange, though it does have reddish undertones that don't come through well in the photo.

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Tea sock with Onion yarn. A Study in Contrasts.
My problem now is what to knit with this yarn! It's a delightfully soft, delicate 100% alpaca 4-ply. Not suitable for socks - really, it would be best around the neck! It's not a colour I like to wear near my face, though. It may have to wait for a contrasting skein of alpaca to join my stash (next year, perhaps?) and become something striped to mediate the orange-y brown-ness of it. Any ideas?

I didn't follow any particular tutorials to the letter, but here are a few links that helped me figure it all out:
Ways of the Whorl
It's a Stitch Up
Lion Brand
Folk Fibers

Altogether it was a fun experiment. Maybe I'll try red onion skins some time!


  1. This looks brilliant! Have always fancied doing this, but thought it would be complicated. The onion yarn is a lovely natural colour. We eat heaps of red onion. I'd love to see how that would turn out! Did you use any kind of mordant to fix the colour? :) x

    1. Nope, no mordant. Supposedly onion skins make substantive dye and don't require a mordant, though you can get different colour results if you use one anyway. I don't have space for a dedicated dye pot at the moment, so I'm sticking with things that are food safe. Good luck if you try it! I'd love to see the colour you get with red onion.

  2. Ooh! This was a smashing success!

  3. That sounds stinky, but fun! I'd love to see how red onion skins work out.

  4. I think this turned out brilliantly! I also didn't know you had previously tried tea bags, so you're just a wealth of natural dying info today. :)

  5. Love the resulting color! Natural dyeing looks like so much fun. I have been harvesting my marigolds to experiment with. I am hoping to get an orangey result, but you never know, right?