In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to dye fabric with onion skins — something you probably have in your kitchen right now! No need to cry, we won’t be chopping those onions. All you need are the onion skins to make your own unique fabric in stunning and deep colors.
Our guest blogger today is a hand-dyeing expert, Bess Casey Wilke of Side Lake Stitch. Bess has dyed fabrics for Suzy in the past, and we adore the colors she creates naturally and sustainably.
So, let’s talk about sustainability. Here at Suzy Quilts, we have a special focus on sustainability and quilting, two things Bess is passionate about as well, but sometimes making sustainable choices as a quilter can be difficult. You know when your favorite fabric shop has a sale, but your fabric stash is already overflowing? Yep, we’ve all been there.
This tutorial is the best way to get new fabric while also practicing sustainability. Dyeing fabric naturally is an excellent example of how we can practice two of the Nine R’s of sustainability: repurpose and reinvent.
Above is Suzy's Voyage baby quilt using hand-dyed fabric from Bess. Isn't it lovely?
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How Do You Naturally Dye Fabric?
Natural dyeing is the practice of using materials found in nature — plants, food scraps, and sometimes even bugs — to dye fabric. It might come as a surprise that you can pull up flowers from your backyard and soon make vibrant shades of yellow fabric! For anyone who enjoys history, fabric dying has a fantastic one dated back thousands of years.
In fact, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that synthetic dyes (what we use to dye commercial fabric now) were even created. Hundreds of years of practice and knowledge have been passed down to natural dyers. Today, I am passing on some of what I have learned to you.
Suzy sidenote: The book Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Color is beautiful, educational and dives as far back as 250,000 years ago. Highly recommend!
Naturally Dye Fabric with Onion Skins
Join me now as we walk through the basic steps of naturally dyeing fabric with onion skins. Onion skins are an excellent choice for anyone new to natural dyeing. They are easily available in our everyday lives and they quickly dye fabric an array of yellows, peaches, oranges. Once you tackle that, you can even explore adding other elements like iron to produce shades of green.
4 Simple Steps of Natural Dyeing
- Scour: clean your fabric
- Mordant: prep your fabric for max color absorbency
- Dye: bind color to fabric
- Care: rinse, wash and use
This tutorial just skims the surface of hand dyeing. To learn even more about the process, check out my helpful PDF, Beginner’s Guide to Natural Dyeing!
Supplies to Dye Fabric with Onion Skins
- White 100% cotton or linen fabric — try using second-hand or thrifted fabric to make this project even more sustainable!
- Onion skins from at least 8-10 onions (red or yellow)
- Large pot and heat source (like a stove)
- Mesh strainer
- Washing soda
- *Optional* mordant kit (includes aluminum acetate and calcium carbonate)
Step 1: Scour (Clean Your Fabric)
Whether you’re using thrifted or brand new white fabric you need to first clean it very well. In natural dyeing, we refer to this as scouring. This step also makes me more comfortable about using an old sheet. I know that my fabric will be sanitized and ready for a quilt once it is done.
- Weigh your dry fabric. You need about one teaspoon of washing soda for every 100 grams of fabric.
- Boil enough water in a pot so that your fabric will be totally submerged.
- Dissolve the washing soda, add fabric then simmer for about 30 minutes. You will notice the water will become a bit murkier. This means the fabric no longer has dirt, wax, and residue on it.
- Allow the water to cool then remove the fabric and rinse.
Step 2: Mordant (Prepare Your Fabric) – Optional
No matter the dying technique I like to prepare my fabric so that it permanently retains the most vibrant colors possible! To do this, I use a mordant, which may be a new word for you. A mordant is a naturally occurring mineral used to allow dye to bind with fabric.
When dyeing with onion skins specifically, you can skip this mordant step and still achieve lovely yellow fabric because onions naturally produce easily-extracted color. However, if you do skip this, the dye won't be as bright and will fade over time. Below, you can see an example of a non-mordanted piece of fabric to show the difference in color.
I recommend the method of aluminum acetate followed by a calcium carbonate bath. If you want a more thorough explanation of mordanting fabrics, click here.
- Dissolve aluminum acetate into a bucket of hot water. Use 1 1/4 teaspoons of aluminum acetate for every 100 grams of dry fabric.
- Soak your fabric in this solution for 2-4 hours.
- Make a second hot water bath by dissolving a 1 tablespoon (per 100 grams of fabric) of calcium carbonate in hot water. Remove the fabrics from the aluminum acetate bath, squeezing out excess water, and place them into the calcium carbonate bath. Leave in this bath for 5 minutes.
- Rinse your fabric.
Step 3: Dye (Bind Color to Fabric)
Hooray! This is what we are here for! A basic ratio to figure out how many onions you need is 4-5 onions per 100 grams of fabric. Since my fabric weighs 200 grams, I am using 10 onions.
- Collect the loose skins from the onions and put them in a pot. Don't cut up the onions. (The skins should be dry like this picture below)
- Fill a pot with about three times as much water as onion skins. The skins should float freely. Make sure that there is enough water for your fabric also to float freely once you add it later. Put the lid on and bring the water to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer the skins in the water for 30-60 minutes. More prolonged boiling will release more dye, but only to a point. This is where you can experiment to find the shades you like best.
- Using a mesh strainer or slotted spoon, remove the onion skins from your dye pot.
- Heat the dye pot until it simmers. Once it's simmering, put the wet fabric in the pot. If your fabric has dried between steps, rewet it with tap water. Simmer for 30-45 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and allow it to cool before removing the fabric with tongs.
You can reuse this dye after your first dyes. The fabrics will be a lighter color, but it is a nice way to achieve a range of colors. I reused this dye bath for a lighter yellow.
Step 4: Care - Rinse, Wash and Use
Machine wash your naturally dyed fabrics with a gentle soap, such as Seventh Generation, when you are finished. Tumble dry or hang dry and store them away from light. Direct sunlight for long periods of time causes color fading, especially in hand dyed fabric.
This green fabric was also dyed using onion skins, but by adding an extra more advanced step at the end of the dye process described in this blog post. To learn more, check out this PDF!
Use Your Hand Dyed Fabric in a Quilt!
You’ve done it! How does it feel to dye your own fabric for the first time? Now you have a way to save old fabric from the landfill, create beautiful new fabric, and add a unique touch to your future quilts. So, go make yourself some cozy onion soup, but save those skins for your next dye project!
Have you ever quilted with hand dyed fabric before? Have you tried naturally dyeing your own fabrics? Let us know in the comments!