Color from Yellow Onion Skins


I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t bright orange.  Yellow, maybe.  Or even light brown.  Looking back at a beautiful spread of fiber dyed using yellow onion skins on the Folk Fibers blog, I see that orange was definitely within the realm of possibility, but I was secretly hoping for more of a golden hue.  Mostly though, I’m in awe that something as simple as yellow onion skins without any mordants or after-baths or other tinkering could yield such a vibrant color on wool.  The effect on cotton is more subdued and much less orange, but I love the warmth.


My mom is finally taking notice of my natural dyeing tendencies and recently knit Adi a wool bag for her toys out of a creamy wool so that I could dye it if I wished.  As an added bonus, my mom left a very large skein of the same wool with me to use for dye experiments.  Previously I had only been dyeing cotton and alpaca yarn, but the alpaca was mostly a light brown color to begin with (which is what created the very dark orange-brown color in the top photo).  Now I can finally dye white wool to my heart’s content and will even start experimenting with the difference between dyeing yarn before and after knitting.

IMG_8366Top: white wool used for dyeing and a square of knitting (seed stitch) for dyeing in progress.  Middle: (left to right) white cotton yarn, light brown alpaca yarn, and white wool yarn dyed with yellow onion skins (first through the dye bath), and white wool yarn dyed with yellow onion skins (second through the dye bath). 

It still amazes me how much natural dyeing and knitting have been perfect for life with a baby and toddler.  Without the distraction of taking care of Adi I would never have the patience to wait for yarn to sit in the dye bath for a day or two, or for it to dry without rinsing so that it really has to dry twice.  I also wouldn’t be as interested in knitting if it weren’t something I could do while watching Adi or waiting for her to finish eating at the table.  She has grabbed my knitting needles more times than I can count and never once hurt herself.  While I could be frustrated that I no longer have as much time to sew or (especially) use my loud sewing machine in our small apartment, instead I’m trying to focus on the wonderful way that I have been pushed outside of my comfort zone, starting at the very beginning again on so many things (knitting, weaving, natural dyeing).  Parenthood has been so full of these unexpected gifts.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you mamas out there!



Truly Non-toxic Natural Dyes


I have a curious crawling baby, for goodness’ sake.  There is no way I can rationalize keeping harmful powders, liquids, tablets, or any such nonsense within her reach.  And as I’m learning, “in reach” pretty much means everywhere.

It was frustrating, then, to realize that much of the natural dyeing literature depends upon using mordants to create vivid colors.  Mordants that are toxic enough that you need to be careful how you dispose of them.  If it can’t be poured straight down the drain, I don’t want my baby ingesting it.


So I started to make a list of all the natural dyes and mordants that I could eat.  Simple as that.  I took every natural dye book I could find out of the library and slowly the list grew.  What follows is by no means complete, since I’ve erred on the side of caution.  There are doubtless many other dye stuffs that are non-toxic to ingest, but the ones I chose are very obviously so.

Non-toxic Natural Dyes (colors and sources)

  • Coffee (brown): from reusing coffee grounds.
  • Black tea (brown): from reusing tea leaves or a tea bag.
  • Red onion skins (brown): collect the dry outer leaves in a paper bag.
  • Celery leaves (green): these are otherwise reserved for veggie stock in my house.
  • Carrot tops (green): carrots are often sold with their greens at the farmer’s market during the summer, or try growing some of your own.
  • Yellow onion skins (yellow): same as for red onion skins.
  • Turmeric (yellow): the dried and ground kind in your spice drawer.
  • Hibiscus (pink): sold as herbal tea (e.g. Tazo Passion).
  • Beets (pink): use the water from boiling beets to eat and then add any peelings (the root end and top, for instance) to get more color.
  • Red wine (purple): preferably from the remnants of a bottle you forgot to finish.

Non-toxic Mordants (particular affinities)

  • Vinegar (especially good for onion skins and beets)
  • Salt (cotton)
  • Skim milk (cotton)
  • Whey from cheese-making (cotton)
  • Black tea (cotton)
  • Water from boiling acorn meat that has the leached tannins (cotton)
  • Soy milk (silk)
  • Oxidized wine with tannins
  • Baking soda
  • Sugar
  • Cream of tartar
  • Yogurt

Of course you may notice that some of these things (vinegar and baking soda for example) would not be pleasant to ingest in large quantities, but I have these in my kitchen regardless.  The goal is not to reduce all risk, only to minimize it to what is reasonable given our current lifestyle.

IMG_6830White and light brown alpaca yarn dyed with beets and red wine.

There will doubtless be much poo-pooing at this point (and no, not just by the baby) that many of the above dyes are not particularly light-fast, wash-fast, or generally prone to keeping their color.  At first this bothered me, but after reading India Flint’s book Eco Colour, I am converted: the worst thing that can happen to dyes fading is that you need to re-dye your textiles, giving you the opportunity to change them with the seasons or the years.  As for wash-fastness, I appreciate any excuse to do less laundry.

IMG_6828White and light brown cotton yarns dyed with beets, hibiscus, and red wine.

In all honesty, I have barely begun exploring the dyes and mordants on my list.  I started with beets because we eat them often and the bright pink dye liquid takes advantage of what would otherwise be waste water and trimmings.  Then I found some old Tazo Passion tea bags that had water spots on them and realized that they were mainly hibiscus.  For mordants I have tried sea salt, white vinegar, black tea, coffee (perhaps more of a pre-dye), baking soda, and old red wine.  The red wine turned out to be more interesting as a dye than as a mordant for beets.  I have also tried using white vinegar as an after-rinse to make colors more vibrant.  Soon I will experiment with yellow and red onion skins that I am saving in a paper bag in the kitchen.

IMG_6797Dye samples on cotton and alpaca yarn with detailed notes on the mordant and dye bath.

Every single book or blog post I’ve read about natural dyeing harps on the importance of taking dye notes and saving a record of how each dye experiment turns out.  By the time I had dyed more than two different pieces of yarn, I was on board.  There is just no way to remember all the little tricks and experiments you will think of.  Make it easy on yourself and create a library of dye samples by punching holes in the side of a piece of paper through which you can tie a piece of dyed yarn.  The result is beautiful and allows for easy comparison.  I like to add samples of the un-dyed yarn as well.

IMG_6810More dye samples of beet, hibiscus, and red wine and how the colors come together in a small woven piece that includes six different colors of naturally dyed yarn.

Until I have the motivation to write a comprehensive review and comparison of natural dye books, let me recommend India Flint’s Eco Colour as my overwhelming favorite.  It is the only one I’ve read thus far to emphasize how important it is to source and dispose of both dye and mordant responsibly.  Many of the other books focused on natural dyeing like following a recipe, despite the fact that dye results can be affected by something as simple as the water you use in your dye pot.  As with cooking, a recipe can only get you so far and may have the effect of limiting your creativity if you don’t have the confidence to experiment for yourself.  With non-toxic dyes and mordants, what can go wrong?

IMG_6803White and light brown cotton yarn dyed with hibiscus tea drying on a plate.  After the yarn is rinsed the color will be less intense.

As a final note, let me add that natural dyeing has been an ideal creative outlet this winter, requiring only small bits of time whenever inspiration strikes.  I have a single small pot for my dye bath that lives on the stove.  The dye pot does not need special ventilation because it does not generate toxic fumes.  Every few days I will remember to start a bit of yarn soaking in some mordant that I keep in a couple glass jars on a side table.  A few days later I remember to add the yarn to the dye pot, turn on the burner for a little while, and then let the yarn soak at least overnight before letting it dry on a plate.  Every so often I make up a new dye bath when the old one seems weak.  As long as I take notes on what was done to each piece of yarn throughout the dye process then my lack of promptness only works to my advantage (assuming longer soaks in mordant and dye bath lead to brighter/stronger colors).

It’s as easy as dropping a scrap of yarn in the dregs of your morning coffee.  What’s not to love?