Out of the Dye Pot: The Beginning of My Dyeing Journey

Originally posted Oct 13, 2015

Finding out how to do natural dyeing is part math and lots of chemistry.  After much scratching of my head, figuring out how much I have in dye stuffs vs. fiber and how much of the chemicals (alum, iron, etc.) to mix in to make a mordant….well, I kinda threw it out the window and said, “That looks about right!”  Unfortunately, that means I won’t be able to absolutely replicate what I did, but that’s not the goal just yet.  As a beginning alchemist, I’m happy getting any results at all!

I started my dye projects several years ago with onion skins.  I was at the grocery store early one morning and looked around the produce section for some dinner stuff.  I walked past the onion bin and said to myself, “What a mess!  Look at all those onion skins!”  Then the light bulb went off and I said, much more excitedly, “WOW!  LOOK AT ALL THOSE ONION SKINS!”  I grabbed a clear produce bag and started picking out all the skins and stuffing them in.  The produce jockey came over and said, “Thanks for doing my job!  What are you going to do with those?  Make soup?”  And I said, “No!  I’m going to dye yarn!”  We chatted for a few minutes and the produce guy said I could have the skins for free.  Later, I discovered that they normally don’t do that, so later when I’d gather skins, I’d also grab an onion and throw it in so I’d pay the “poundage” for the skins (which weigh virtually nothing).

I used alum and cream of tartar to dye all my first pieces, starting with a very bulky wool yarn that was 3-ply.  I un-plied it to make 3 regular size skeins of single-ply (yes, they were too beefy to be sock yarn; almost the weight of Cascade 220).

That onion skin yarn is on the left.  Going to the right, it is followed by tumeric (very fugitive–see how it’s fading in several spots?), Common tansy heads, Ragwort tansy (just to see if there was any difference), common tansy leaves (a bit more green), and some mysterious thing that I can’t remember.  Granted, the colors are not very pure and may have had not had the right vegetable matter to yarn ratio.  That will likely come with time.

All of these used alum and cream of tartar as the mordant and were done in 2010, so even though they’ve been in a box for several years, you can see that they’re mostly colorfast (with the exception of tumeric).