Dyeing with onion skins – result

Dyeing with onion skins –  what a good result!Dyeing with onion skins - results Have a look at the photo, which shows the bundle of dried fabrics and threads, before ironing.

The piece of fabric to the left,  which is fraying in quite an appealing way, is wool crepe. This is an excellent fabric for picking up all the dyes I’ve tried so far. To its right is a piece of habotai silk which has taken up a very similar colour. In the background, out of focus, is a piece of lightweight linen which has come out as much more of a sunshine yellow. The threads in the foreground are (L) stranded cotton and (R) silk.

I’m really pleased with these results, especially as they are low cost as regards the dyestuff. Onion skins are a waste material, normally shoved into the compost bin chez Gowthorpe. After the dye has been extracted, the slimy bits of skin can go into the compost, so no loss there. The only ‘cost’ is remembering to gather them up into a paper bag while you’re doing the food prep. Now that I know how good the results are I’ll be much more inclined to be organised and do this.

And this isn’t the end of it. Currently drying on the rack in the kitchen is a second batch of fabrics and threads which were boiled up and left for 24 hours in the dye pot. These are much lighter in colour; paler versions of the colours in the photo above.

What’s next? Well… looking out of the window from where I’m sitting typing this, I can see a clump of very healthy-looking rhubarb. Last year I tried using rhubarb leaves for both mordant and dyeing purposes, and I’ll be continuing my experiments very soon. The drawback with rhubarb leaves is that the liquid they produce is highly toxic so it requires care in handling. More reports in due course….

The weather has taken a distinct turn for the better in England and today has been a gorgeous spring day – around 14C, sunny all day and a distinct smell of spring in the air. Very unusual, but all the more welcome. I hope this signals some better weather to come, especially for those who have been battered by storms and flooding. I’m now looking forward to another spring and summer of hanging out dyed fabrics and threads to dry in the garden. If you’re a reader of this blog and you have any thoughts or useful tips to share about dyeing please leave a comment.


Dyeing – keeping records

When I started experimenting with natural dyes I told myself sternly that I must keep proper records of what I was doing – otherwise I’d get in a hopeless muddle and if I got a colour I liked I wouldn’t be able to reproduce. So I set up some records and I’m pleased, and slightly surprised, to be able to tell you that I’ve kept them up to date carefully and consistently. The thing is, I actually quite enjoy writing up what I’m doing. It reminds me of chemistry experiments at school. I was hopeless at chemistry – never had the remotest clue what was going on – but maybe that’s just because I wasn’t interested in what they were telling us. When it comes to dyeing, which is very much the same thing as chemistry experiments, I’m completely absorbed.

So, what are my records like? Well, first, every time I do anything related to dyeing, I write it up in some detail in a sketchbook – see photo. Natural dyeing record

This is a page selected at random, but it’s pretty typical of what I write. I find I have to do this straight away, pretty much as I’m dunking stuff into the dyepot because otherwise I forget almost instantly what I’ve done.

The next stage is recording the results in another book – this time one that’s long and thin. I glue (fabric) or tie (threads) samples of the finished results into the book, in date order.

Here’s a photo of the closed book, and next, a photo of a page of it:Record of natural dyeing results

Natural dyeing results book





I make sure I date every page, so that I have a cross reference back to the first book. Is this completely over the top? Well, maybe it’s me being obsessive, but I don’t think so. I find it very useful to be able to go back and read about exactly what I did to produce a particular hue or tone.

Finally, (what? there’s more? is the woman mad?) I staple a little piece of paper to each piece of fabric, and write the description on the thread spool, including the dye name, immersion number (useful if you use the same dye bath several times to produce successively paler tones) and date. Here’s a photo of some of the results of my experiments in logwood:Logwood labelling example

So, maybe it is all a bit over the top, but I find it very helpful indeed, especially at this stage where I’m learning new things about dyeing all the time.

Dyeing with onion skins

Just a brief post today about dyeing with onion skins. Onion skinsI’ve been saving up onion skins for some time now to get a sufficient quantity for dyeing. I’ve now collected enough to fill a pan, which is currently (as I write – this is action blogging) coming to the boil. I intend to boil it for about half an hour and then leave for several days to maximise colour saturation before I put any fabrics into it. I’m hoping this works out well, so fingers crossed.

Mordanting – the boring bit

Mordanting is the crucial first step before dyeing fabric using the natural dyes I’ve described in earlier posts. And it really is a bit tedious, especially at first when you have to curb your impatience and go through the mordanting process in order to get onto the magical process of dyeing. But it really is crucial; if you don’t mordant the fabric first, it won’t take the dye (I’ve tried dyeing unmordanted fabric and it’s not worth the effort). I have one book about dyeing that I refer to constantly: ‘Wild Colour’ by Jenny Dean. Jenny Dean - Wild ColourShe describes a mordant as follows: “A mordant is a substance that has an affinity with both the materials to be dyed and the natural plant dyestuff. Acting as a bond between the two, a mordant helps the dye to become permanently fixed to the fibres”.

There are several substances that are used for mordanting, but, just to complicate matters, the substance you use depends upon the nature of the fibres you want to dye. Animal fibres (wool and silk) can be mordanted with alum. It’s fairly safe, provided you don’t swallow it, and it can be obtained readily. I follow Jenny Dean’s recipe which involves heating up water and adding a solution of both alum and cream of tartar. Once the substances are thoroughly mixed with the water, you can add the fibres. Because it’s not a good idea to heat wool or silk for any length of time, I bring the mixture to the boil, gently stirring the fibres around to make sure the mordant is fully absorbed, and then turn off the heat and leave the pot for a minimum of 24 hours. Then I rinse everything out and hang the fibres out to dry. Really, it’s just not that difficult, and it consumes very little time. An alternative to alum is to use oxalic acid as a mordant for animal fibres; oxalic acid is obtained by boiling up rhubarb leaves. Now this really is poisonous, so you have to be quite careful about using it. As we have rhubarb in the garden I tried this method in the summer, and found that it produced an unexpectedly vivid yellow ochre colour, just by mordanting. I like this so much I kept some of it for use and you can see a bit of it in my latest Paul Klee-inspired work (see previous post on 30th January).

For mordanting cotton and linen (plant-based fibres) the process is similar, but the mordanting substances are different. You can use tannin – I have some extract of tannin but haven’t yet tried it. Or you can use aluminium acetate, which is what I’ve used so far for plant-based fibres.

I use silk, wool, cotton and linen in my stitching work, so I make sure that I keep supplies of all of these, mordanted and labelled so I don’t lose track of where I am. In another post I’ll write about my record-keeping for dyeing. I’m fairly systematic, and I like keeping a detailed record of what I’ve done. But more about that another time….

PS: Usually when I mention a book, I provide a link to the Amazon page so that you can get some idea of the price of the book, its availability and reviews. (I’m not advocating actually buying it from Amazon, you understand. Lots of people disapprove of Amazon because of e.g.  its tax avoidance practices and its dominance in the market and I respect those views.) However, when I look up the Wild Colour book, I see that there is one new copy for sale for a staggering £185. I assume, therefore, that it is out of print at the moment. So I haven’t provided the link this time, but if you go to Amazon you’ll find seven 5-star reviews of the book. If you want it, you may be able to find a second hand copy, or if you have a public library service where you live, you might be able to get it that way. I think it’s definitely worth a look. I have used it extensively, and would happily give it 5 stars.


Basic equipment for natural dyeing

I’ve blogged about some of the results of my experiments in natural dyeing, but haven’t said anything much about the basic equipment that I use. So here’s a brief post about dyeing equipment, where I sourced it, and how much it cost. When I started doing this I had two principal objectives: to keep the equipment down to a minimum (it all takes up space) and to keep the costs down. A really important health and safety point about all this is that you have to keep the dyeing process and equipment completely separate from your domestic cooking. This means keeping separate vessels for dyeing and having a source of heat away from the domestic cooker. Equipment for natural dyeIn the photograph below you can see the equipment I’ve assembled. The pan on the left has been on the top shelf in the pantry for years, never used, so was an obvious candidate for this purpose. This is the pan I use for the dyeing process itself, scrubbing it out between colours. The pan on the right was used by my son at university but has remained unused since he left, and he has kindly donated it for use in dyeing. I use this pan for mordanting (I’ll write about the mordanting process in a future post).

The rubber gloves are useful for keeping the dye powder away from your skin and for using when rinsing through dyed fabrics. Underneath the pan on the left is my electric hotplate, and my main investment in equipment. It cost around £19 from Amazon plus postage. Other investments are two wooden spoons (around £1 each), one used for mordanting and one for dyeing, a silicon mat to put the hot pan on, and a couple of plastic measuring spoons. Total investment a bit over £25. This is really about all I need. If you don’t have any old pans lying unused around the house or a helpful relative to donate them, you could try sourcing them from charity shops.

The array of equipment is minimal compared to some of the illustrations you get in textbooks, but it’s not worth spending a fortune on new stuff, especially if you’re not sure that you’re going to take to natural dyeing. This is pretty much all I need, although at some stage I might invest in a cheap sieve which would be useful for straining liquid off when I’m using natural materials. So far I’ve mostly used dye extracts, although I did experiment last summer with rhubarb leaves and will shortly have a go with onion skins which I’ve been collecting for several months. More on that experiment in due course.


Out of the dyepot – madder

Out of the dyepot: madderA while ago I put various fabrics and threads into a new madder dyepot, took them out after a couple of days, then forgot to write a post about them. Here is a photo of the result.

The bright pinkish- red material is fine wool. Beneath it, the cotton is much paler and much less pink. The silk thread in the foreground has emerged from the pot as a relatively pale brown, whereas the cotton is pale mauve. It’s always interesting to me to see what comes out. Unpredictable….

I’ve been very busy with the day job over the last three or four weeks and it’s been hard to find any time at all for dyeing, sewing, drawing or just keeping up with blogposts. And now I have the RSI in my right hand which has slowed me up.  But I can still look at things. Today, Friday, I am in London and will be going to the Paul Klee exhibition. More on that next week.

What to do with all this naturally-dyed fabric?

Yes, well, I have accumulated rather a lot of it. I’ve given some away to a couple of stitching friends, but I still have lots left. The problem is that dyeing fabric is, on the whole, a lot quicker than making things. The first natural dyeing I did was at a one-day workshop run by Claire Wellesley-Smith who blogs as Clarabella early in 2013. I took away some pieces of dyed fabric and was just thrilled to ribbons with them. The first thing I made was this pincushion:Pincushion made of naturally dyed fabrics

It’s a cube made of 1cm square fabric pieces, dyed with indigo, logwood, madder and something I forget that produced that rather attractive olive green. I made this using the English paper piecing method which was a bit fiddly but still nice to do.

I’m currently working on a quilting project using some of the naturally-dyed fabric that I’ve produced since I went to Claire’s workshop. I’ll blog about this project once I’ve finished it.

Dyeing with madder

I love the range of pinks, reds and browns you can get with the natural dye madder. While it would be nice to grow my own madder roots, and I may get round to it someday, for the moment I’ve been using the powdered extract. Here are some of the results:

Dyeing with madderOne of the things I’m finding unpredictable about natural dyeing is the way dyes respond to different types of fabric. I’ve tried out several madder dye baths and I’m finding that cotton tends to produce  a more purplish-pink, whereas silk yields a more brown/apricot shade. The central strip of fabric in this picture is silk velvet which dyes beautifully. I really love this shade.

I’ve produced several skeins of thread – cotton, wool and silk. This photo shows some of the silks:

Silk threads dyed with madderAs with the fabrics, silk thread tends to take on a brown/apricot hue. Very attractive, but what if I want to dye cotton the same colour?  I know already that it will come out pink. I suppose my overall aim with natural dyeing is to produce a full spectrum of colours in cotton, silk, linen, wool… I’ll keep posting about my success – or failure – in doing this.