Natural Dyeing: Red Onion Skins on Istex

Hi all,

First things first: Depending where you are reading this you’ll have already noticed this, but I decided to redo my website layout. Don’t worry, this is not going to be a seasonal thing or whatever. Ravelry’s launch of their new website a bit over a month ago and the ensuing accessibility problems and communication over that (both still going on) made me rethink my own online space. After reading up on the issues of NuRav, I decided to look into how to improve my own website, because critiquing is good and needed (and I have), but it should go hand in hand with looking at one’s own street.

So main changes have to do with easier and better website navigation (also on screen readers), I did away with the top photo/post slider eliminating the sudden movement and softer colour contrast on the website. I’m working on finding a better sign-up widget for the newsletter, since the old one was one of the problem points for screen readers previously. The colour change is actually a move back to my old scheme (the one I had pre website move in March) that I had variations of for years so I feel definitely at ease with it. Anyway, I hope this is something that will be an improvement for readers, but if you have additional suggestions let me know. I am a small fish compared to the actual ocean in our community that Ravelry is in this analogy (compared to that I’m not even a fish really, more like plankton) but I felt that, with the mess that Ravelry rapidly became and which I have zero control over, I could do something better with my own website, so here we are.

Dyeing with Onion Skins

Now let’s dive into some natural dyeing! Natural dyeing is something I dipped in and out of throughout my craft life. The fancy for dyeing visits me every now and then, often seasonally as I frequently get the hunch for it in the summer when everything is in bloom and the open doors and windows seem to just call out for dyepots to be put on the stove, and then I just roll with it.

Onion skins are perhaps the easiest to obtain and most accessible of materials to dip your toes into natural dyeing. It is easy, and quite fulfilling, to save the skins from the onions used for cooking and slowly collect them over time. The colour fastness of onion dye is quite good and you can get a nice selection of earthy yellows, oranges and browns from them.

It was the first plant material I ever dyed with, so I will probably always have a soft spot for it. I was a new student and had just started living on my own and I remember my family and friends all chiming in with saving the skins from their cooking and dropping them off or sending them to me, so the whole thing had quite a communal feeling. I dyed in the tiny kitchen of my student apartment. I wanted to dye a bunch of wool roving, and it worked beautifully and the wool came out a rich deep ochre yellow colour. To this day I consider that first attempt among my most successfully dyeing adventures.

I haven’t dyed with onion skins in a good while but a bit ago I got the bug for it again and since then have been saving the skins whenever we used them for cooking. I keep them in net bags, with one bag for yellow and one for red onion skins. They hang from a hook in my kitchen, so I can get to them easily and they can dry out nicely while they wait their turn for the dye pot. I know lots of people have luck by just asking supermarkets to have a go at the skins in the boxes full of onion (which is cool) but for me this slow harvesting of dye materials from stuff from my kitchen that otherwise would be organic waste adds to the entire process of dyeing yarn.

When I started collecting the dyestuff I didn’t really have a project for it in mind, however over the weeks collecting an idea started to form in my head ( it happens when part of your brain is always occupied with crafting). I remembered that I had some undyed lett lopi in my stash that might be suitable.

It’s a selection of undyed lopi in two shades of grey, that stem from earlier in my knit life. I had just started knitting Icelandic sweaters and I think I got these quantities reduced from a yarn store that went out of business. All of this was way back, and I have knit many lopapeysa since then, and it is still one of my favourite things to knit (I am knitting one now!). These two sweater quantities remained in the cupboard though, and I can only chalk it up to having since found out that I don’t like to wear grey as a main colour (I don’t mind using it in smaller quantities in colourwork). Since I haven’t reached for it over the years, I decided to dye some of it for happier usage.

The specific colours I had on hand where one mid grey ( Ash heather – 0056) and one lighter grey (light Ash heather – 0054). I decided to first have a go at the darker grey. Before this attempt I had only dyed wool with white wool so I wasn’t sure how the dark grey was going to take the dye. I figured if it worked it had the potential to give a deeper, richer colour but if it could just as well be too dark to really notice.

I decided to make a dyebath using only red onion skins, purely on the basis that I had gathered the most of those and the bag was spilling over. I hadn’t used the red on their own before but had used them mixed 50-50 with yellow skins which resulted in deep yellows with a hint of orange. I know many are able to achieve browns or red brown colours with it so that was the range I was expecting it to be.

I used about 45 grams of onion skins to make the dyebath. I put them in a pot filled with water, slowly bringing it to just below boiling temperature and then kept it simmering for a few hours. I then strained the dyebath from the skins, throwing the latter away and keeping the dyebath. The dye at this point looked really dark red, like I just poured a few bottles of red wine in a pot and just boiled that. So far so good!

I put the skeins, mordanted with alum, in the dyebath. I dyed 3 skeins, so 150 grams total. Again slowly bringing it up to temperature and then let it simmer for about an hour. I let it sit to cool overnight. Next day I thoroughly rinsed the dyed skeins and hung them to dry on my balcony.

The result is the deepest, prettiest green with shades of golden yellow! I’m not sure if it comes across on the photos but the colour is more green than yellow, and definitely more green than I expected. So I didn’t get the reddish brown colour I expected at all, and having looked into is more I have seen that I’m not the only one to have ended up with a green shade from red onion. I wonder what the deciding factor is. The type of mordant? Maybe harvest time or quality of skin? Definitely something to experiment with more though.

I was so chuffed with the colour I decided to use the exhaust dyebath to dye some more yarn. This time I used 3 of the light grey undyed istex (0054). I repeated the exact same process as for the dark grey colours and just used the existing exhaust dyebath without adding anything else. This resulted in a lighter less saturated mid green colour. The colour is more green and didn’t yield the same amount of yellow shades as the full dyebath gave. It’s like a celery green colour. I’m really pleased to still have gotten such a pronounced colour from this exhaust bath.

After dyeing, drying and skeining, my partner suggested that since I got this far, we had to go all the way. He got out a ruler, a pencil and a sheet of paper and began tracing logos and drawing a draft label for the skeins – pausing momentarily to, rather miffed, lament the fact that “apparently Istex changed their logo” – before tracing them onto a suitable thick brown paper. Et voila!

All in all I’m really happy with the resulting colours. It’s so amazing that such an accessible, humble dye material, essentially a kitchen scrap, can yield such a wide range of interesting colours. It is also satisfying to have transformed something that was in my stash and wasn’t appealing to me to knit with to something that I’m really exciting about using and brings a smile to my face whenever I see it. Both shades I got from this dye session really suit my colour palette and I’m sure these are going to be used in future Icelandic knitwear.

As a final note I want to add that I think using non-white undyed heather sheep colours also worked magic on the end result. It’s my first time dyeing with wool that isn’t wool white, because that is the most readily available material for dyeing. I mean heather colours are my favourite always, so it’s not that much of a surprise so I think going forward this is something I want to explore more.

Hope you and yours are well and until next time!

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