Natural Dye Notes – Onion Skins, Cochineal and Logwood

I’ve been dabbling in natural dyes for a couple of years…not consistently or often, but on occasion.  At first I wasn’t hooked.

That’s not really true, I love the concept…taking plants and natural materials and making dyes for our cloth in the same ancient ways as our distant ancestors.  That appeals to me big time.  The hitch is that I am most drawn to rich, saturated colors; think jewel tones.  I’ve not seen many examples of these colors coming from the natural world and so, while I want to be a prolific natural dyer…I also want to produce useful items for my home and my body.

Yet, I couldn’t stop from falling in love with the magic of natural dyes…the beauty in learning to love what you’ve got, here and now.   The myriad of factors that affect your results (hard water, the growing season, the temperature of the water you use to make your dye bath, etc) hooked my nerdy side and let’s be honest, who doesn’t like stirring up little pots of powders and plant materials with wooden spoons and cauldrons of steaming liquid.

My recent foray into natural dyes.

I used onion skins that I’ve been saving for the last 6 months, cochineal bugs and logwood extract with iron.   I began with two t-shirts, two tunics and two skirts, along with various pieces of fabric and 4 swatches measuring 13″x13″.  All fabric is organic cotton jersey at a fairly heavy 12oz per linear yard.   (In the end, I also threw in several linen tablecloths and dresses, because I just can’t waste any dye!)

I began by mordanting all of the fibers in Aluminum Acetate; using warm water and leaving the fabric in the bath for 2 hours or so, turning often.  Then I rinsed the fabric in a wheat bran bath.  To make the rinse, I steeped wheat bran (2 cups in my case, I had a lot of material and it goes according to fabric weight) in warm water and then strained out the wheat bran bits.

A word of caution…I used a mesh colander to strain out the wheat bran and it was not fine enough.  I thought it might still be okay and pressed on.  However, the tiny particles left in the bath stuck to my fabrics and caused some speckling in the color.

Onion Skin dye bath.
Dyed in onion skins. Still wet, the dried garments were several shades lighter.

First dye batch – Onion Skins (golden yellow dye)

I boiled the onion skins (a paper grocery bag full) in a large canning pot of water for 2 hours and let sit overnight to cool.  The next day I strained out the skins and composted them.  Then I reheated the dye bath and added my wetted fabric…1 tunic, 1 t-shirt and 1 skirt, along with various pieces and 2 swatches.    The dye was really powerful and the first garments soaked up the most color, even though it was only seconds between each garment.  (The tunic went in first…)

Grinding cochineal bugs into a powder.
Shirt pieces dyed in cochineal dye bath.
All dyed in onion skins and then over-dyed in cochineal for varying amounts of time.

Second dye batch – Cochineal Bugs (bright pink dye)

I crushed the bugs in a mortar and pestle and my latent alchemist came rushing out, I may have cackled a bit.  I then made a paste of the powder with warm water and added it to my large dye pot, filled 3/4 full of water.   I let it simmer for 1 1/2 hours and then let it cool overnight before straining out the particles, using cheese cloth to strain.  I then dyed with the strained dye bath…adding in the undyed t-shirt and dipping in the onion skin dyed tunic tee and skirt.

Logwood with Iron dye bath.
Skirt Panels folded and dyed in logwood extract with iron
Tunic dyed in logwood extract with iron dye bath – still wet, the dried tunic dyed several shades lighter.

Third dye batch – Logwood extract with Iron (dark, lavendar-grey dye)

I made a paste with the powdered extract and warm water, then added it to my large dye pot, filled 3/4 full of water.  I simmered the dye pot for an hour or so and then added in my undyed tunic, some fabric pieces and the skirt panels that I had folded accordion-style and tied (see image below).  I also dyed the tee that had been in both baths before…it was a tee for my husband and I was trying to achieve a color he would like to wear.   This dye was really potent and I only left the tunic and skirt panels in the simmering bath for an hour or so.   I saved this dye bath and reheated it the next day, adding in some swatches I had folded accordion-style and re-dipping the skirt panels, which had become dingy looking once rinsed.  (the dark dye had bleed onto the white areas and made it look old and dingy and not intentional…so I decided to give them a quick dip in the ironwood to darken the light areas a bit more)

Dye Notes: (pictorial edition!)

Shibori Skirt Panels dyed in Logwood with Iron

Skirt panels, shibori folded, ready to dye in logwood dye bath.
Drying after first dye, before rinsing.  This is still wet, once dried the purple was several shades lighter.
After rinsing and drying, the logwood dulled the white parts.
Dipped back into logwood dye to cover dingy white. Not sure I like it, such is the art of “letting go” when natural dyeing. I’m going to print over this with block printing…hopefully I will love it then.  (a bit heartbreaking, I know) More to come…

Onion Skins and Cochineal dyed skirt, tunic and shirt.

Dyed in onion skins. Still wet, the dried garments were several shades lighter.
All dyed in onion skins and then over-dyed in cochineal for varying amounts of time.  (the tee shirt in the middle was again dyed in logwood and became a nice tan color.  Unfortunately the fit was not right for my husband and in true, Tina-style, I’ve already donated it and neglected to get a photo!)
Skirt, from above, dyed with onion skins and then over-dyed in Cochineal.  You can see the skirt, once rinsed and dried, came out several shades lighter than in the photo above.
Tunic, from above, dyed with onion skins and then over-dyed in Cochineal.    It’s hard for me to capture this, but the color has a depth to it that is really lovely…sometime pink, sometimes golden.

 T-shirt pieces dyed in Cochineal and then dyed in Logwood with Iron

Shirt pieces dyed in cochineal dye bath overnight.
Shirt pieces dyed in Cochineal dye bath and then dyed for 30 minutes in logwood with iron dye bath.

If you’ve been considering joining us for “A Study in Slow Fashion”, this process is part of what we’ll be doing.  Along with connecting, nourishing our bodies and souls, block printing, sewing garments and laughing up a storm.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Julie Lambert

    Tina, I love seeing your process. Thanks for sharing this. Since I just returned from this year’s AGOS retreat in ME, I’m hoping to being experimenting with my own dyeing process. Looking forward to hearing more about your 2019 retreat, too!

    1. Tina with Kinship

      It’s so inspiring to be immersed in making with like minded folks. I returned from AGOS last year, ready to begin a more concentrated dye practice too! There’s so much depth to making, especially making with fibers that have layers of color, effort, intention and time infused in them.

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