The mighty onion and other plants of note

As of last week, I have pretty much dyed the entire rainbow. The more concentrated sandalwood dye came out really amazing. Mordanting the fabric with alum definitely helped to achieve a better dye uptake. The bright red doesn't seem to fade in direct sunlight, either. The first piece of fabric took up most of the color, but there was enough left to dye some paler pinkish shades. And when I threw in some light indigo fabric it came out a good purple! 

Indigo + sandalwood purple on top, and the most intense sandalwood red below that. The paler pink is from the partially exhausted sandalwood dyebath. Below that: annatto overdyed with weak sandalwood, plain annatto and some assorted other colors.

Indigo + sandalwood purple on top, and the most intense sandalwood red below that. The paler pink is from the partially exhausted sandalwood dyebath. Below that: annatto overdyed with weak sandalwood, plain annatto and some assorted other colors.

Next up: weld. I really needed a good yellow that wouldn't fade in a day or two like turmeric, so I turned to this traditional dye plant. I ordered two bags of 100g and used only one for now, so there's plenty left. The plant material looked rather uninteresting, and smelled a bit like hay when I added it to water to soak. Even after two days of soaking, it didn't look particularly promising. But I still had to heat it to extract the color.

The dried weld before soaking and boiling.

The dried weld before soaking and boiling.

Several websites with instructions on how to dye with weld told me not to boil it, so I heated it to a simmer and tried to keep it there for a while, but I was impatient. So I strained the liquid, which had turned slightly yellow, and added fresh water to the plant material to extract more dye. I immediately added a piece of fabric, mordanted with alum, to the strained dye bath. At first, it didn't look very promising. Even after a few hours - and another pot full of dye boiled and added to the bath - the fabric was still very pale. But the instructions said to leave the fabric to soak overnight, which is what I did. And my patience was rewarded: the next day, the fabric came out a brilliant yellow, almost neon when it was still wet. Dried, it isn't as bright as that, but still a good lemon yellow.

Having read that weld and iron was supposed to turn green, of course I had to try that, so I added one bit of yellow fabric to a water bath with iron solution. It did indeed turn olive green. Not a bright color, but a nice earthy shade, and quite a spectacular transformation.

The weld dye bath after a few hours of soaking, and the dried fabric on top of a pile of indigo blue and indigo + onion green. The brownish olive right under the two yellow pieces of fabric is weld modified with iron.

The weld dye bath after a few hours of soaking, and the dried fabric on top of a pile of indigo blue and indigo + onion green. The brownish olive right under the two yellow pieces of fabric is weld modified with iron.

I had also been collecting onion skins. I already knew this was a good dye, one that didn't even need a mordant, but in my previous experiments it had turned out rather pale. So this time I wasn't going to let that happen and collected as many skins as I could. My local supermarket helped me out by collecting the loose skins at the bottom of the onion crates for me, so I ended up with a bag full of them. Still, I didn't expect spectacular results... but that is what I got!

Mighty onion skins, ready to soak.

Mighty onion skins, ready to soak.

Like the weld, I left the skins to soak overnight in cold water, then heated them. They filled my entire 10 liter pot with barely enough room left to stir. It smelled of delicious onion soup and made me hungry. The water turned orangey brown rather quickly, so as soon as it was almost boiling, I decided to strain it and add fresh water. The fabric I added to the hot, strained liquid turned orange almost immediately. The dye bath looked inexhaustable so I added more and more fabric, and I kept adding fresh water to the skins to extract more and more dye. In the end I must have boiled four full pots of water with the skins and still the dye kept on coming. I managed to dye eight large pieces of fabric a nice orangey yellow, and some pale indigo fabric added to the same dye gave me a lovely grass green. I think there's even more life left in the dye bath so I haven't thrown it out yet - I only hope it isn't going to smell like rotten onions...

Onion + iron was also supposed to turn green, but it came out more as a slightly greenish/grayish brown. Maybe it would be more green on a paler, more yellow onion dye rather than this brownish orange. Onion + weak sandalwood became a warmer orange shade.

The brown in the middle is onion + iron, and the fabric on the right is onion + sandalwood. This picture doesn't actually show the colors very well - the lighting wasn't great.

The brown in the middle is onion + iron, and the fabric on the right is onion + sandalwood. This picture doesn't actually show the colors very well - the lighting wasn't great.

One thing I'm starting to realize now is that I don't actually enjoy it very much to just buy a material like weld, use it as directed and get a solid result. It feels like cheating, and kind of defeats the purpose of the entire process. I enjoy trying out materials, seeing what happens, and being surprised. The onion skins were great because I got them for free through my own efforts, and they turned out more intensely colorful than I expected. Indigo is alright because it is a complex substance that I have to tinker with, and most of its workings are still a mystery to me. But what happened with the weld was so unexciting and uncreative, I might as well have bought a synthetic dye, or even a yellow fabric. It's nice to get good colors without much effort, but that was never the goal. Now I know how to reliably get almost any shade I could wish for, I may need to turn my focus elsewhere... what to do with them, for example!

I'm not entirely done with dyeing - I'm still collecting avocado pits and peels to re-attempt that pinkish shade I accidentally turned into gray a few weeks ago, and depending on what I am going to do with the fabric, I may need more of a particular shade. But at that point it will be more of a production process than one of experiment and discovery. This always happens: there is a point in a process when it naturally stops and tells me to move on to the next step. This can be scary, because I don't know what's next. But it's also exciting, because.... who knows what's next?