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Onion Skin Alchemy

April 21, 2009

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! 

wool in dyebath

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!

20 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2009 7:29 pm

    Ohh, that looks lovely! I have a couple of little books on natural dyeing but have never got around to trying it out 🙂

  2. April 21, 2009 8:35 pm

    thank you – it’s addictive – I have a long list of dyestuffs I want to try and I look at weeds in a whole new light now: nettles are next on the list…

  3. April 21, 2009 10:41 pm

    Beautiful yarn and amazing idea- I love the natural look of the color- truly inspired by nature 🙂

  4. April 22, 2009 6:02 am

    I’ve never tried onion dying inspite it having been an exercise at college (bad girl) must put it on the to do list 🙂

  5. April 22, 2009 6:56 am

    It’s lovely to see your results, you have achieved a beautiful gold colour. I look forward to seeing how nettle works out for you (which I’d expect to be green, but my book shows as a shade of yellow..?)

  6. April 22, 2009 7:20 am

    Thank you everyone.

    peahen – yes, my book shows it as quite a pale yellow – almost cream. My husband wants to make nettle beer so seeing as we’re going to be collecting nettles anyhow, I thought I might as well try dyeing with them. I’ve also got some madder to try….

  7. April 22, 2009 1:37 pm

    Hi Rebecca,

    that’s a beautiful colour and with onion skins – amazing!

    Have a lovely day,

    Nina x

    ps. you should definitely persuade your other half to try the bread sticks.

  8. April 22, 2009 6:12 pm

    Most excellent. Thought I’d put in that many natural colors are bright.

    Here are some of my dye experiments. The monitor doesn’t do the wool justice.

  9. dowhatyoulove permalink
    April 22, 2009 6:49 pm

    I have been facinated with natural dying, but never have gotten around to doing it. You got a really beautiful colour with this batch! I am always amazed at your fine spinning, I don’t think I would have that kind of patience!

    Its fun to see your whole process through pictures.

  10. April 22, 2009 6:59 pm

    beweaver – your dyeing is beautiful – something for me to aspire to! I love the greens you’ve achieved with overdying.

    stacey – thank you. Hope you give it a try some time!

  11. April 22, 2009 7:00 pm

    Lovely! You’re so scientific with the process! I haven’t done much natural dyeing (eggs, icing, tea-stained place mats). I just throw stuff in the pot and hope for the best. No wonder my results are rather hit-and-miss. 😉

    • April 26, 2009 7:14 am

      thanks will – I think I stuck to the rule book as this was my first go – as I get a bit more experienced I’ll hopefully be able to experiment a bit more….

  12. April 24, 2009 8:50 pm

    Hello Rebecca, I’m glad to have found your blog, its beautiful, lovely photographs and lots of lovely crafty goodness.
    I have Jenny Dean’s book and keep meaning to try some more dyeing. I did use rhubarb leaves to get a pale yellow last year but I’ve not used onion skins. Lovely spinning.

    • April 26, 2009 7:15 am

      Thank you Willow. I have Jenny Dean’s book too and am finding it really handy – along with a lovely little book called Fast or Fugitive. I would like to try rhubarb leaves but as we don’t grow our own, they’re a bit hard to get hold of.

  13. April 25, 2009 8:49 pm

    Another thing that I’d love to try! If I ever have more space than I have now, I’m definitely going to give dyeing a go.

    I’m running a giveaway at the moment, in case you’re interested in entering.


  14. April 25, 2009 10:26 pm


    I’m so impressed. The colour is beautiful. And you spin your own wool 🙂

    • April 26, 2009 7:18 am

      Thank you! I was really pleased with the colour – according to my books it’s not terribly light fast but I haven’t noticed any signs of fading yet.

  15. May 5, 2009 3:03 pm

    Beautiful photos and a great color!

  16. March 19, 2012 6:48 pm

    I haven’t tried it yet, but i understand that dying with red onion skins will give you any of the following colors: reddish-orange, pink, salmon, gold, tan-brown, and dark tan. There is a great picture of different dye colors all from onions at

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