Hi everyone. There’s been a lot of talk about using natural dyes these days. I find a lot of people like the idea in theory, but when it comes to buying artwork they want guarantees their piece is not going to fade anytime soon. For that reason I use mostly commercial dyes.
This is not to say that natural dyes fade more easily or quickly. It all depends on what mordants (chemicals used to set the dyes) were used when in the process, how much was used, and how the dye bath was processed.
I thought I’d share an experiment I did in dyeing in 2003. I used natural dyes – onion skins to be exact – and various mordants, or chemicals, to set the dye (make it stick to the fabric). Not only that, but I applied the mordant at different times, creating an even more varied color range than usual.
This post is just an overview of the project. To go in-depth would take some time. The general process is this:
- You make a dye bath of onion skins. I used the large yellow onions we get on the Canadian prairies from Superstore. Be careful. From what I hear, different onions give different results.
- I prepared my fiber for dyeing by soaking it overnight in a mild detergent, specially formulated for fine textiles, and water.
- I pulled together my mordants for the job.
- I pre-mordanted some wool. Pre-mordanting means I treated the wool with the mordant before dyeing it.
- I started the dyeing process. It took me several days to dye all the wool below.
- I recorded my dyeing process as I went.
- I hung everything to dry.
- I put strips in paper to check for light fastness (see above photo). I left them in a south facing window for a month before opening the tops up to reveal little if no color difference.
- Copper Sulphate,
- Copper pennies (mine did not have enough copper in them),
- Baking Soda,
- Washing Soda,
- Iron, and
- Iron and Cream of Tartar.
There are lots more mordants out there, including human urine! It’s said the ammonia in urine is the mordant agent.
When you use the mordant in the dyeing process also determines color. Pre-mordanting happens before dyeing the fabric. Simultaneous mordanting is when the dye and mordant are in the same water at the same time with the fiber. And adding the mordant after the fiber has been dyed leads to either blooming (a brightening) or saddening (a dulling of colors).
When dyeing with copper now it’s best to use a copper lined pan or a piece of copper pipe. Unless you have access to a bunch of pre-1970 Canadian pennies. The color difference is significant because the Canadian mint changed the composition of pennies in the 1970s sometime.
Warning! Colours are not good in the photos and probably not on your monitor. But the range is from gray to browns to greens to yellows, and everything in-between.
1) Pre-mordant Alum and onion skin on new wool.
You must be careful to get the right type of alum! I once did a dye workshop with a friend using the wrong type. We were very disappointed. No bright yellows. You must use dyer’s alum, available at dye houses across North America.
2) Simultaneous mordant Alum and onion skin on new wool.
3) Alum – blooming – and onion skin on new wool.
4) Simultaneous Baking Soda and onion skin on new wool.
This makes a nice mushroom color.
5) Iron – saddening – and onion skin on new wool.
I used a horseshoe made at the Calgary Stampede. And yes, leaving the wool in the dye bath for longer periods of time results in a fuller, deeper, richer color.
6) Iron and Cream of Tartar – saddening – and onion skin on new wool.
7) Aluminum – saddening – and onion skin on new wool.
8) Salt – saddening – and onion skin on wool.
9) Washing soda and onion skin on new wool.
10) Pre-mordanted Copper Sulphate and onion skin on wool.
11) Copper Suphate – blooming – and onion skin on new wool.
12) Malt Vinegar and onion skin on new wool.
13) Simultaneous copper pennies and onion skin on new wool.
As you can see you can achieve a wide range of colors just from using the humble onion skin. Not only that but you can combine mordants to achieve further variation in color. Other plant materials are worthy of experimentation as well.
To see an application of onion skin dyeing, here is a table piece I hooked in 2000. I dipped all the wools I used in an onion skin dye bath to “marry” them together. That means to make them all look like they belong together.
I have found the alum mordanted wool to be extremely lightfast, and have used some of it in my Prairie Sky wall hangings. I have a bookcase full of wool that receives south/south west sun every day (this is NOT a good idea folks, but I’m working with limited space). In it are the yellows and golds from my onion dyeing experiment. They seem to be holding up well. However, some of the mordants, like vinegar, do seem to slightly change color over time.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive treatise on natural dyeing with onion skins. For that you need to take a real live class with an experienced dyer. But I hope it gives you an idea of the variety of results that can be achieved, and a bit about the complicated nature of dyeing.