Dyeing with onion skins

Herringbone cushion coverMy supersized-yarn cushion cover fronts are done, now I need to make the covers up. I’m trying to use up stash so I’d rather not buy any fabric for the backs. In my stash I’ve found a heavy cotton with quite a coarse weave which I think would do very well, if only it weren’t stark white. Put against the cream coloured knitted fronts it looks completely wrong.

When I was little, at Easter my mother used to wrap our eggs in onions skins before boiling them, and they came out an interesting yellowy-brown shade. Sometimes we would try masking off a chick or bunny shape with aluminium foil before wrapping the onions skins around the egg, and that wasn’t very successful, but that’s another story. The point is, if the papery outer skin of an onion is capable of turning a white eggshell brown after a mere five minutes of boiling, then perhaps onion skins will tone down this white fabric to more of an off-white that won’t look quite as discordant alongside the cream yarn.

I looked online and there are plenty of tutorials on how to dye with onions skins, and some very attractive shades can be obtained. I’m tempted to have a go with wool yarn some time, but for now I need to concentrate on this cotton fabric. It appears that a mordant isn’t needed when using this dye on cotton. I did a test run, just using the skin of one onion (the English type, not Spanish or red) and a scrap of the fabric.

I put the skins in a lidded, microwavable glass bowl with just enough water to cover them…

Onion skins…then I zapped it on full power for a minute or so at a time, leaving it for a few minutes between zaps. It probably had 6-8 minutes in total, by which time the water was quite coloured. I left it to cool before fishing out the onions skins and throwing them away. (I believe you can re-use the skins but, hey, onion skins cost nothing.)

Next I wet the fabric (it had already been washed – I always wash cotton when I buy it, to shrink it and to get rid of any residual oils or waxes), put it in the dye liquor and blasted it for a couple of minutes in the microwave. I left it in the dye bath to cool down.

When the fabric swatch was cool and I removed it to have a good look at it, I was surprised how orange it had become. I rinsed it under the tap and not much dye seemed to come out, so I threw it in the washing machine with a load of towels, fully expecting it to come out white. It didn’t. Whatever the chemical compound in onion skins is, it’s a dye that is fast to washing.

Clearly, if I use onion skins for my cushion covers, I’m going to have to be careful with the strength of the dye bath. I guess there’s no problem with starting with a weak ratio – perhaps two onion skins for the pair of 17” square cushion backs – and then overdyeing if necessary to get a deeper shade. But what worries me more than the depth of colour is the orange hue. I’m hoping that it will appear less orange if the intensity is reduced.

My next experiment was using coffee grounds.

Although the colour of the dyebath was deep, the fabric swatch came out pale and almost all of the colour was lost when I washed it. The photo below shows the two cushion fronts with the coffee-dyed swatch on the left and the onion-dyed one on the right.

Dyed swatches and cusion coversNeither is right, I need to get a little more yellow into the shade. Maybe I ought to experiment with turmeric, a yellow vegetable dye that also requires no mordant. The only problem with that is turmeric is notoriously fugitive, and once the knitted fabric is sewn to the cotton backs there’s no way I can re-dye the cushion covers if the colour fades.


About yorkshirecrafter

I live and work in West Yorkshire.  I've always enjoyed crafts of all types, from woodwork to lace-making.  I also enjoy anything mathematical, which makes knitting a favourite pastime, especially complicated designs.  I've been advising businesses and industry on environmental matters for 30 years and also have an interest in green living, especially where it saves me money. I live with my husband and our Maine Coon in a 100-year-old cottage that constantly needs something doing to it.  Fortunately, I enjoy DIY too.
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