How to Dye with Onion Skins

How to Dye with Onion Skins

Onions are not only a great vegetable to eat but also to dye with. If you’re new to dyeing or want a fun project to do with the kids, onions are a great place to start. Their skins produce rich, vibrant shades of yellows and browns, depending on which skins you use. Onion skins, however, do not contain tannin so you will need to pre-treat your fabric with alum if you want stronger, longer-lasting colours. When added to madder dye baths, the colour becomes more orange. When over-dyed with indigo, you can get vibrant shades of green.

It’s so easy to collect onion skins. I store them either in a paper bag or keep them in the fridge. I would never suggest storing them in an airtight container as they will go mouldy, especially with Taiwan’s high humidity! How many skins you use in your dye bath depends on how strong you want the colour to be.

Step 1 - Preparing your Fabric

Firstly, you need to decide what you want to dye. Make sure it is either 100% cotton, linen, silk or wool as natural dyes won’t work on man-made fibers. Next you need to thoroughly clean the fabric. This is done by a method called ‘scouring’. Take your fabric and put it on a normal wash cycle in the washing machine. Add 1tbsp of washing soda or soda ash. This will get rid of all the dirt and oils, leaving you with a lovely clean surface to colour.

Step 2 - Making your Dye Bath

You will need:

  • stainless steel pot
  • wooden spoon or tongs
  • heat source (induction stove or gas)
  • sieve
  • bowls
  • dyestuff (onion skins, dried or fresh)
  • soda ash for scouring fabric
  • fabric to dye, must be 100% cotton, linen, silk or wool

 To extract the dye:

  1. Pre-soak your fabric in a bowl of water for about an hour.
  2. Tear the onion skins into smaller pieces to make it easier for dyeing.
  3. Fill a large pot with water. Add the skins.
  4. Simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. You should see the water slowly change colour.
  5. Turn off the heat. Sieve out the pieces of onion skins, making sure you are left with a clear dye bath.
  6. Add your pre-soaked, wet fiber. Simmer for between 30 mins and an hour. Turn off the heat. I prefer to leave my fiber overnight in a cold bath to get a stronger colour but it’s up to you.
  7. When you’re happy with the colour, rinse in cold water and hang to dry.


Naturally dyed garments are just that - natural. They can be sensitive to strong heat sources and changes in pH water when washing. A few suggestions to keep your colours vibrant: 

  1. Always wash your naturally dyed garment with pH neutral soap or detergent.
  2. Hand wash in cold water if possible.
  3. Never use fabric softener.
  4. Air dry in the shade.
  5. Store out of direct strong sunlight.
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