It is interesting to think that the first synthetic dyes were only discovered in the mid-19th century, meaning that all colors used before then, for both clothing and painting, were made by things found in nature.
Doing this project it was interesting to learn how many different items, particularly common house hold things used for cooking can also used for dying and art making.
For this project of working with onionskins as a natural dye I visited my local grocery store here in Brooklyn. I spoke to the person who was in charge of the produce department and I asked if he could save the skins of the onions for me to make a project with natural dyes. He didn’t really understand what I was talking about but after the third time of approaching different people at the grocery store the manager said he would set aside the onionskins for me to pick up in a few days. He set aside skins of three different types of onions; the white onion, the yellow onion and the red onion.
Though I did not think the white onion would produce too much of a color, I decided to try it out anyway. I was nervous to get started on this project and I am not exactly sure why. Possible I felt intimidated by the process because I felt it was more scientific after reading the articles about the chemical compounds that are found in different plants, but once I started the process, I found it to be very accessible and fun!
With this processes I asked my friend Dylan whom I was visiting in Florida to be my assistant for this project. It was fun to figure out the process together. After watching the videos and doing the readings, I decided to just get to it. I ended up taking a more intuitive approach rather than scientific to the process so I did not weigh the onionskins, nor did I take measurement of the heat of the water that I used. I also simply didn’t have a light weight scale or thermometer. I used water from the skin in Tampa, Florida that I do not know the PH of. And for the amount of onion skins, I suppose they were the amount of about a full soup bowl give or take.
With each of the different colored onionskins, I separated them in to three bowls and bathed them in cool water. I noticed that the coloring began coming off right away as we massaged the skins in the water. Because I saw the color coming off right away, particularly with the red onions, I decided to just use the cool water with the onionskins to be heat on the stove. I heated them until the water boiled a little bit and then let them sit in the hot water for maybe 15 - 20 minutes. After that, I strained the skins from the water and I could see that the water had dramatically changed in color and held a very particular color dependent on the tone of the skins.
The white onion gave off a pale yellowish color, the yellow onions gave off an orange, and the red onions gave off a red-ish purple.
In this experiment we used two different types of mordants to raise the PH of the water, lemon juice and vinegar. Using a mordant allows the fibers of the material that is being dying to capture and retain the dye color so that the color will not be washed out upon use or cleaning. The dye becomes atomically linked with the fiber when using a mordant.
After watching the demo video again, I realized I kind of did this process out of order but it seemed to work anyway. After I heated and drained the skins from the water, I separated my colored liquid into to three different parts. I added vinegar to one, lemon juice to another and did not put any mordant in the third to act as my control to see how much of a difference the mordant would work. I measured about two teaspoons of each mordant to each of the mixtures, however the amount of the dyes were not the same in liquid volume.
After that Dylan and I placed small cotton yarn balls in each of the dying baths and let them sit over night.
We also placed a cotton wash cloth in the red onion bath with the lemon mordant. With the wash cloth we tied it with string to try to create a tie-dyed effect
Dylan chose to leave his cotton wash cloth in the red onion bath over night and I chose to take mine out after 30 mins or so.
After 30 minutes, the red onion dye had turned my wash cloth a light pinky magenta that faded into a light pink because of the way I tied it and its exposure to the dye bath. Dylan’s washcloth that he left in over night had a wide rage of deep red-ish purples to pink that created a nice pattern and variation of colors.
Over the nights night we saw that the color of the dyed yarn became more deep and rich as more time went on. A very interesting change was that the bath of red onion with the lemon juice nearly turned black by morning, where as the bath with the red onion and vinegar remained more red-ish with the same amount of time. Also to my surprise the white onion produced a very pale yellowish color on the yarn soaked in both mordents. It was a very pale difference that is only really noticeable when placed in contrasted to the non-dyed white yarn.
All of the yarn without mordents did not retain the color dye very well if at all after they were washed out. The lemon juice mordant seemed to produce the brightest or darkest color with the red onion dye however the vinegar seemed to react slightly better with the yellow onionskins, making the yarn retain slightly more of the orange color from the dye using the vinegar mordant.
Overall I felt that the process was pretty easy, forgiving, and fun. When I mixed up the step about putting the mordant in after the dye was heated, or if I first washed the onion skins in cool water before heating them, these mistakes did not take away from the effectiveness of the dying process.
I feel that this would be a great process to do with kids, particularly tie-dying. It makes the process more interesting and gets them to think more about where the dye comes from rather than a color in a bottle.
Another thing I would like to explore more in this dying process in the folding of fabric to get different patterns from dying.
I feel that this was a successful experience and I learned a lot. For the next step, I would like to try to make dyes out of blueberries and turmeric as well. I am also curious to explore more with using copper to create different color variations.
I still feel a little intimidated by this process just because every part needs to be thoughtful with using particular metal pots, water PH and organic materials but I am sure with more experience it will become more intuitive each time.