Friday, 3 March 2017

Several Effects of Iron Solution on Onion Dyed Wool and Cotton

If you save onion skins for dyeing, it is remarkable how quickly the stock builds up. Since experimenting with onion dyes in January, my stash had re-accumulated so much as to take over a whole corner of the kitchen. Time for some large scale projects. The biggest dye pot just about held 100g brown onion skins, which I boiled up and sieved out, then used the fluid to dye 200g bulky Cheviot wool yarn a warm orange. The afterbath gave a medium shade to another 100g and then a pale shade to a final 100g.  Adding a good slug of iron dissolved in water to the dye bath, I reheated a 50g skein of each shade of orange for half an hour, finding the iron modified the strong colour to a dark khaki green and the paler skeins to soft brown and grey.

Though iron modification or 'saddening' of plant dyes usually causes an obvious colour change, I was very taken by the contrast between this bright orange and dark green. Onion dyes are substantive, which means they will dye any natural fibre without the hassle and expense of mordanting. 

Having acquired a cotton, double thickness table runner which weighed about 400g, I planned to dye that with the 120g brown onion skins still cluttering up my kitchen and then make prints of leaf shapes on it by dipping some brambles and ferns in iron water, rolling them into the cotton, tying up the tube into a firm bundle and then simmering. The first part of the plan went fine, the cotton took on a deep orange after a long simmer and soak in my fresh dye bath. The iron printing was not such a clever idea - within half an hour of simmering the rolled bundle in hot water, I could see the iron saddening had already seeped through the double layers of thick cotton in a blotchy and unappealing fashion, so I whipped it out, getting only slightly scalded in the process. 

Leaving it to steam and drip dry, I went to cheer myself up with a walk round the garden, pleased to find so many of the spring bulbs were coming into flower.

Then who should I meet, strolling down the path towards me, but my long absent companion, that star of the stage and toast of the West End, Elinor Gotland.

"Hiya Beaut, alright are you? Cup of tea would be welcome."
I was too startled by her outfit to do more than hug her and put the kettle on. Once we were settled on the patio, Elinor explained she was just up from London for a couple of days, while her theatre company guest starred in the St David's Day celebrations in Cardiff.
"Nice hat."
"I've been hounded by the paps and so pestered by fans wanting selfies with me, I decided to travel incognito." I blinked at this, but Elinor was in full flow. "Ah, home. How my soul has yearned for these tranquil hills." She noticed my eyes were now bulging from their sockets. "Anyway, quite a few of the Blewe Belles have gone off to visit relatives in South Wales, so I thought I'd pop over and see how you were getting on. Still plant dyeing, is it, Beaut? What on earth have you put in that grubby lump of cloth?"
"Onion dye with iron prints."
"Well, what are you doing still mucking about with onion skins when it's March and there's daffs galore in the Land of My Fathers? Why aren't you rejoicing in Welsh Heritage and saluting Dewi Sant with some patriotic daffodil dyeing? Oh, if you only knew the pain of hiraeth."
I ignored the hoof she had raised to her forehead.
"Well, I like to see plants flowering in the garden and the daffs aren't likely to fade til we get some warm weather, here in wonderful, wet, wintry Wales."

The iron leaf prints weren't a wild success. Indistinct splodges, more dark grey than green. What with Elinor swanning around in her Welsh Lady costume reciting bardic poetry, I felt the pressure was really on to prove the value of that leftover brown onion skin dye bath. 
Remembering an interesting effect I had from painting iron water onto a cotton vest that had dyed a disappointing beige with red onion skins, I boiled up another tired white M&S vest and it came out of the brown onion bath a rich, though uneven, russet orange. I put it in the spin dryer and set to work while it was still damp. Dissolving 10g iron sulphate in a litre of hot water, I stirred the brew and started to paint it on to this cotton vest with a finer brush than I had used on the beige one. The initial lines spread a little, then turned a good green before my very eyes. Though I had expected the pattern to disperse in the wash, the beige vest has had several runs through the 30 degrees machine wash cycle and the iron marks have stayed where they were put. Hope the same will hold true of this orange version, I was really pleased when I'd finished it.

"Come and see, Elinor, I've painted my onion dyed vest and it looks great. Look, I can be artistic, too."
"What you going to title that, then, Beaut? 'Muddy Pond with Tadpoles' perhaps?"
"Those aren't tadpoles, they're just spots and curls."
"No deeper meaning? Not as symbolic, as, let me think ... a daffodil?"
I could see where she was going with this.
"Lots of pictures don't have meanings. Think about all those still lifes of flowers in a vase or bread and cheese on the table."
Elinor just looked at me, sighed and went off to pour herself some good Welsh gin.


  1. Such a range of colours!

  2. I am so glad I came back to onion skin dyeing - ideal for winter when the garden is bare and so much more fun to it than I first appreciated.

  3. Love the orange vest! I would wear that 7 days a week, only taking it off to dress up and see Elinor on stage! The first photo is so tranquil, I would put that pot of yarn on my table as a centerpiece, well done.