If You Can Make Tea, You Can Dye with Onion Skin Scraps

Food scraps are great for building soil but, you know, could also give a splash of earthy color to an otherwise boring white cotton pillowcase.

I’ll be honest: for those who are not already DIY-types, it’s challenging to make a convincing argument for why one should get crafty with food scraps. That said, I assure you that the simplest version of the process takes about as much effort as making a nice cup of tea or pour-over coffee, and if further justification is needed, well, why not humor yourself? Like for the same reasons that you might attempt growing your own herbs or take a stab at re-creating your mom’s jam recipe? Why not?

Personally, I like to dabble in these sorts of projects and, like every other human, generate food waste; avocado peels and pits, onion skins and coffee grounds are just a few of my common compost ingredients. They’re all great for building soil but, you know, could also give a splash of earthy color to that boring white cotton pillowcase taking up room in my sock drawer.

The Textile Arts Center (TAC) in Gowanus is a valuable resource for anyone interested in dyes, natural or not. Be you a proficient textile artist or a total novice, they offer a rotating lineup of classes ranging from suminagashi (a Japanese marbling technique) to intro painting on silk. TAC also hosts Sewing Seeds, a program aiming to provide “accessible, accurate and inspired information on natural dyes [and] bring awareness to their use as a sustainable art medium.” Check out their website to learn more about their partnerships with community gardens to grow natural dye plants, free workshops for all ages and artist residencies.

We reached out to them about dyeing with food scraps — ubiquitous and accessible onion skins, specifically — after they hosted “Stained: a Sensorial Experience of Natural Dyes:” a food-centric fund-raiser for Sewing Seeds that utilized local, seasonal ingredients as natural dyes. (They’re revisiting a similar theme for this Thursday’s Tumbleweed Colony event at the Wythe Hotel. Although there will be less of a food component, the evening will examine the intersection of nature and urban grittiness and Brooklyn’s Industry City Distillery will serve special cocktails.)

Watch the latest Edible Film above as Isa Rodrigues, director of studio programs and outreach, sheds some light on this tea brewing–like process that, honest to goodness, only took me a very hands-off day to re-create in my own kitchen (Trust me, I now have the onion skin-dyed David Bowie shirt to prove it):

Edible Brooklyn: What are some common kitchen ingredients that can double as natural dyes?
Isa Rodrigues: Onion skins, avocado pits/skins, fennel tops, carrot tops, turmeric, coffee grounds, red wine and walnut hulls are some examples.

EB: Do different kinds of onions give different colors?
IR: Yes. Yellow onions give a golden yellow/orange color while red onions yield browns, greens and pinks.

EB: Is there a general ratio of hot water to onion skins?
IR: The ratio of water to dye material doesn’t matter that much. You want to make sure you have enough water to soak the dye material thoroughly. More water will make the dye solution more diluted, and less water will make it more concentrated.

EB: Does dyeing with onion skins only work with natural fibers?
IR: It will also work with some synthetic fibers such as tencel and rayon.

EB: Any guidance for washing items that have been dyed with onion skins? Will the dye lose its intensity after being washed?
IR: As much as possible, you should wash it in cold water and air dry (as you should any fabric/garment that is more delicate).

EB: How can interested folks learn more about natural dyeing with food scraps (or otherwise) at the Textile Arts Center?
IR: We have a program called Sewing Seeds that provides information on dyeing with natural dyes through free workshops, tutorials and other resources and the creation of natural dye gardens in community gardens. Natural dyeing classes are also part of our Adult Program at TAC, and we schedule them every month.

EB: What additional resources on natural dyeing with food scraps would you recommend?
IR: Sasha Duerr and the Permacouture Institute; Rebecca Burgess and Fibershed; Cara Piazza

How to make a yellow onion dye bath

Dyes 1 yarn skein

Note: Although this process works for onion skins, it’s not meant for all natural dye materials. Onion skins contain a yellow/orange dye that is reactive enough to chemically connect directly with the fibers. Other types of natural dyes may require a substance called a mordant like aluminum sulfate (used for pickling), oxalic acid (from rhubarb leaves) and tannins (from oak gallnuts, chestnuts, walnuts). Be sure to do your research beforehand!

Skins from 2 to 3 onions
Enough hot water to cover both the onion skins and the yarn
2 vessels, glass is fine for extraction while a stainless-steel pot is best for dyeing
Strainer
Spoon
1 natural fiber yarn skein, or comparable amount of a natural fiber material

  1. Place onion skins in the jar and cover with hot water; the longer the skins simmer, the darker the color will be — 30 minutes is normally enough.
  2. When the solution has reached your desired hue, strain out the onion skins by pouring the solution from one vessel into the one in which you’ll dye.
  3. Place damp fiber in the dye bath and stir with spoon to ensure even contact with the dye. The material should stay in the dye solution for at least 30 minutes, over heat (around 180°F) to make sure that the dye connects with the fiber; the longer you leave it in the dye bath, the more color it will take.
  4. Remove material from dyeing solution, rinse in warm water, and hang to dry.

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Ariel Lauren Wilson

Lauren grew up on her family's farm in the North Carolina mountains. She now lives in New York and is the editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.