After what will henceforth be known as the Great Buddleia Disappointment, I decided that my next natural dye experiment would use something sure to give me a result. Enter the humble onion skin.
Onion skins are often referred to as the “beginner’s dye”, as it’s pretty tricky not to get a result. My dye book catchily entitled Natural Dyes, Fast or Fugitive, (which is actually a cracking little book bursting at the seams with proper scientific research, rather than anecdotal hit-or-miss experiments) gives onion skins, even on alum mordanted wool, a light-fastness rating of 1 – dyes that faded rapidly after only one Standard Fading Period. I’m not too worried by this – weld also has a 1 rating, and that’s been used for hundreds of years as a fail-safe dyestuff. I imagine that anything I knit will mostly be worn either in the winter, when strong sunlight is but a distant dream, or after dark around the campfire on summer evenings. Another consideration is that I achieved some fairly full-on colours, and I may be glad of a little fading.
So, to dye my wool, I used my usual method: onion skins in tights; boiled up in the slow cooker; 1 tsp alum and 3/4 tsp cream of tartar dissolved in the dyebath; wetted, scoured fleece added; whole lot simmered for an hour then left to cool.
I used a ratio of 2 parts skins : 1 part fleece by weight – in this case I started with 120g of onion skins and added 60g of fleece. My first batch was a lovely rich orange – like the yolks of our grass-fed hens’ eggs. I continued with another 60g fleece (keeping the package of skins in the dyebath all the time). A slightly lighter orange this time. In total this 120g of onion skins gave me 11 dyebaths, and dyed the fleece a spectrum from orange to a buttery yellow. I added another teaspoon of alum / CofT every 3 baths or so.
Next, I moved on to red onion skins. We don’t use red onions as much as yellow here, so my stock of red skins was sadly lacking. As luck would have it, supermarket trays of red onions are awash with skins that have fallen off, and the staff in the vegetable section are more than happy for you to unburden them. The added advantage of doing this is that my children now avoid accompanying me to the supermarket. Apparently I “come across as a bit of a nutter”. Bonus. No campaigns for mascara and chocolate on my trips any more.
My first batch with a 2:1 dyebath came out brown. Subsequent exhaust baths took me through several pleasing shades of green. I got 5 baths from the red skins before the colour became too light for my purposes.
High on onion fumes, I then repeated the entire process with grey fleece. The result here was lovely – tones of orangey-brown very reminiscent of Harris Tweed. I will do the same with red skins on grey, and then call it a day.
It proved almost impossible to capture the colours inside, and the high winds we’ve been having here make taking outside photos of wisps of fleece a foolish quest, so here is a picture of the only skeins spun so far.
I have a lot of onion dyed fleece. Some might say too much. But I have a plan. An Onion Jumper. A fairisle extravaganza using only onion dyed wool. During the carding and spinning process I’ve been pondering on the design of this garment.
I toyed briefly with my daughter’s suggestion to knit pictures of onions. The last time I took style advice from a child we ended up buying this sofa.
I’ve lived with it (and with the impossibility of creating any sort of stylish room when this is the dominating feature) for 14 years now. I have since made a conscious decision to disregard anything that a teenager thinks is “cool”.
Next, I played with some leafy designs. The colours are certainly reminiscent of autumn leaves, but in the end I decided that this was a bit of a cliché, and might look a bit out of place out of season.
I think I have settled on this – the Donegal Celtic Spiral sweater by Alice Starmore. The spiral design is a small nod to the onion-ey origins of the dye without being too pictorial. I’ve also always loved this sweater, and have always planned to knit it someday.
I’d like to have the yarn ready to knit in time for lambing. I help my parents every year which means that I spend long days and nights sitting in a caravan waiting for the ewes to get their act together. I usually plan a decent knitting project for this “holiday”, and this should be just the ticket. It’s a lot of yarn to spin, and I’m pretty busy with other life stuff at the moment, but I will try my best. I’m trying to spin a colour a day, and I have 16 days ’til the Easter hols. We’ll see.