Onion Skin Alchemy
A little while ago I set about transforming wool to gold with the help of these….
I’m not talking real gold here of course (now that would be nice), but the colour gold.
I’d been wanting to try dyeing for a while as it fits in with my plans to become self-sufficient in yarn – as much as I love natural colours, I think I’d need a splash of something brighter from time to time. So, with self-sufficiency in mind, I decided that natural dyeing was the way to go…
I plumped for onion skins as they’re readily available (my greengrocers kindly saved me a big bag of them) plus I’d seen the lovely results that peahen had achieved and felt inspired to give it a try. In case anyone fancies having a go at onion skin dyeing, I recorded each of the steps – not quite a tutorial but hopefully helpful all the same….
First off I weighed the wool. This is important as you need to know the weight in order to calculate how much mordant and assistant you need and also how much dyestuff. I then scoured the wool by soaking it in warm soapy water. I didn’t have any proper wool detergent so used organic baby shampoo instead which seemed to work ok!
Next, I mordanted the wool with alum and used cream of tartar as an assistant. A mordant is something that helps ‘fix’ the dye to the wool making it more light and colour fast. In case you were wondering, the word mordant comes from the latin mordere meaning “to bite”. The ratios I used were 8% of alum and 7% cream of tartar so, as my wool weighed 107g, I needed 8.6g alum and 7.5g cream of tartar. To mordant the wool, I dissolved the alum and cream of tartar in some hot water which I then added to a pan of cold water. I immersed the still wet wool then brought the whole lot very slowly to a gentle simmer and simmered for three-quarters of an hour. I then turned off the gas and allowed the wool to cool in the pan. When it was cool, I rinsed it well.
As well as the mordant, the percentage of the dyestuff also needs to be calculated. For onion skins, most books recommended 30% so I needed 39.5g. To extract the dye, I put the onion skins in a large pot with just enough water to cover them, brought them to the boil, then simmered for about three quarters of an hour. I then left them to cool, before straining.
Once the dye was cool, I popped in the wool (still wet) and brought the dyebath to boiling point then simmered for 45 minutes. Now, all the books say to bring the dyepot up to heat very gradually but unfortunately my hob is pretty fierce even on it’s lowest setting. Due to this (and the fact that I couldn’t resist prodding it once of twice!) I managed to felt the wool in a couple of places. Luckily, it wasn’t too bad and there wasn’t much that some vigorous pre-drafting couldn’t sort out. If you’re keen to give natural dyeing a go, learn from my mistake – increase the temperature very gradually and no prodding!
I let the wool cool in the dye as I’d read that this produces a deeper colour. When cool, I rinsed it off and hung it out to dry – my beanpoles came in handy!
Before I had tried natural dyeing, I was wondering if it would be worth it – after all, natural dyeing appears to be a lot slower and more fiddly than using acid dyes. Even when I’d got my finished wool, I was still a little undecided – sure, I’d got a nice colour but I’d lost some wool due to felting plus it had taken me most of the day…….
…but then I started to spin the wool and my doubts vanished. I fell in love. The colour is beautiful – so vibrant and rich – it’s almost alive. I guess that’s the beauty of natural dyeing!