Adventures in Natural Dyeing: Part I

Natural dyeing with onion 1Natural dyeing with onion 2We've been having so much fun trying out different techniques for making our own fabrics! We've tried printing, Inkodye, fabric fun pens, photo transfers and home dyeing. Recently we tried out natural dyeing for the first time! Natural dyeing is using items found in nature (fruits, vegetables, insects, etc.) to color fabrics. It can be a lot of fun but the results are often quite inconsistent. We consulted our friend Missy about what items to try first and she suggested onions—so we did along with beets. Here's how it all went down:Natural dye steps1. Choose items that are made of natural fibers (like cotton, wool, bamboo). I used a thrifted denim skirt and a homemade jersey scarf. 2. Pre-treat the garment(s) in a mordant. There are different kinds of mordant treatments but I mixed hot water (enough for my fabrics to move freely in) with 2 teaspoons alum and 1 teaspoon cream of tartar for 1 hour. 3. Chop up your vegetables and simmer them in hot water for 1 hour. Strain out most of the veggies and add your fabric. I let mine soak in the hot water (as it cooled) for about 5 hours. 4. Rinse garment(s) and then soak in a vinegar wash; using 1 part vinegar to 2 parts water for 20-30 minutes. Hand wash and dry. Beet dyeing failWhile the yellow onion skirt turned out really pretty our beet jersey scarf was a fail. Bummer! Since we used the exact same method for both this was very surprising. It may be that brighter/deeper colors need to soak in the dye bath longer. Also, since we had made the jersey scarf from scratch we had not washed the fabric prior to dying (while the thrifted skirt had been washed many times before). So that may have also contributed to how to the color didn't take well. Live and learn!Natural dyeing with onion 3Thanks for letting us share our first adventures with natural dyeing. We are hoping to try out some different techniques and natural dyeing materials soon—it's fun learning something new! If you have done your own natural dyeing experiments and have any tips or suggestions you'd like to share let us know. xo. emma and elsie

  • Hi to all, how is the whole thing, I think every one is getting more from this web page.

  • great post!
    i’ve done a lot of natural dying, and i’ve found that beets always fail me. they are beautiful when cooked and to eat, but the dye/color they “stain” your cutting board never lasts in the fabric.
    Onion skins are amazing though! I usually let the fabric soak longer, and the dye turns out an incredible golden or even peach color. Here’s a picture of a wearable-sculpture I made using this process!
    looking forward to more posts like this!

  • Thanks for putting this together….always love natural method

  • Hey ladies! I’m a student at Rhode Island School of Design in the textiles department and natural dyeing is our first “experiment” in our Dye Class! We use this book in our studio! –

    The book is called Wild Color and it’s amazing! The colors that you can get from nature are incredible! Onions can make all sorts of colors depending on the type of mordant you use. When you used Alum, it turned it yellow, but you can use other mordants too to change the color! Or you can use more onions to make the color stronger! It’s so fun! Some of my friends also did a whole semester in natural dyeing. They foraged for all of their own dye materials in Rhode Island and made a little blog to share their results here –

    I hope some of this helps you guys out! Natural dyeing is so fun to do!

  • Nettles! It comes out in a range of colors, light green to mossy gray… Also, cochineal makes pinks & reds 🙂

  • In Croatia, red onion peels are used to dye Easter eggs a beautiful, rich red-brown hue. I wonder if it would work for fabrics, too!

  • Hmmmm maybe that’s a nice idea for my favourite shirt! Now it’s white with yellow sweat stains in the armpits, but I could dye it with red cabbage… That would turn out blue or purple right? And then you won’t see the sweat stains 🙂

  • my sister and i just dyed some clothes using rit dye, but wished there was a better way to do it…now we know! thanks so much for this 🙂

  • That skirt looks lovely!

    I found this beautiful soft pink chiffon dress online that I would love even more if it was off-white instead of pink… You wouldn’t happen to know if it’s possible to dye chiffon?

  • Thanks for the comment above about using rhubarb leaves as a mordant! I’d never heard of that before, and I’ve just found rhubarb growing in my new garden 🙂 Also: I’ve tried doing many things with beet juice. It doesn’t stain well for me…

  • Try pure henna – soft oranges, browns, maybe even red like on hair? Also indigo for blue 🙂

  • I’d be afraid that it would smell too… Looks great though!

    – Angela Marie @

  • Oh and on top of what Jess said, turmeric really is awesome. I found the hot liquid took much better than when it had cooled. Another one that changes colour if you add an avid like vinegar or base like bicarbonate of soda. I’ll leve it to you to find out which makes it bright red and which turns it back to yellow

  • was the scarf a cotton or a polyester jersey? synthetic fabrics will not dye with natural dye

  • In a natural materials sculpting class I took, we did a lot of natural dying. Tumeric can give a really nice rich yellow. And a few students had trouble with the beets too, so they must be a little fussy.

  • That skirt looks great! I’ve been dying yarn with tea for the past month, and using a similar mordant process. However, I’ve been leaving the yarn in the tea overnight for the best color. So perhaps just a longer bath will make a stronger color? Also you should pre-wash whenever possible – a lot of fabric/fiber manufacturers coat their products with waxy stuff to make them look shinier and stay crisp in stores. So definitely try a pre-wash next time! Good luck!

  • just so its clear to everyone, you only need to use the onion skins. the rest of the onion doesn’t have the pigment. i haven’t tried red onion skins but that might work out nicely.

    red cabbage dye is really cool as well. if you add either an acid or a base to the dye it changes colour depending on the pH. so you can get some really beautiful blues and pinks. not sure how this would affect the fixability of the dye though as i only did it on scraps of paper.

    note: using green plants doesn’t work very well as the pigment chlorophyl is oil soluble unlike the other which are water soluble

  • This is awesome! Love the colour! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Turmeric powder (just from the grocery store) works excellent! It comes out a vibrant yellow and maintains that even after it is washed! Other ones you can use are pokeberries and black walnuts, which will make less vibrant, but still beautiful dyes! Good luck 🙂

  • Our family eats alot of black beans from week to week so I stopped buying cans and started buying dried. I graduated college with an Art Major and a concentration in Textiles so one day after taking my beans from the boiling purple liquid that was left I decided to throw in some natural fiber and toss a bunch of salt in with it. I left it in awhile and it came out this really nice earthy lighter purple/ brown. Salt is key. Black beans leave alot of natural dye behind so maybe you want to try this in as little water as possible to make the color stronger. And yes, tea works well too. I’m shocked that the beets didn’t!

  • I really love how you’re starting to share your mistakes as well as your successful projects. It’s a nice reminder that things don’t always come out perfect, and that’s okay!

  • I’m so surprised with this! I heard of using coffee as a dye, but never even imagine that onions could work that well on clothes. Thanks for sharing these absolutely innovative ideas, you guys always make the difference!

  • You should try red cabbage- in science class one year we made at least 9 different colors from the extracts of 1 red cabbage because of the different ratios.

  • Beets are unfortunately, and surprisingly, a terrible natural dye. Onion skins can actually get much brighter. Wool tends to take better than cotton also. (My mom was a big hippy and a botanist)

  • That is really cool! Too bad the beet dyeing didn’t turn out. I can only imagine how beautiful it would turn out.

  • Wow! Did you use the whole onion or just the skins?

    My cousin and I used natural dyes (beet and blueberry) to dye easter eggs, and we had the same problem with beets. The eggs in the blueberry dye came out a fantastic purple-blue, but the eggs in the beet dye barely tinted!

  • Onions, huh? That is just about the craziest thing, but the skirt turned out great! Did dyeing the fabric with onions make the skirt smell funny?

  • Just the other day I dyed t-shirts for my shop using coffee. I needed them a bit aged-looking, and the coffee worked perfectly.

  • I’m glad you had the part about the mordant in there. A lot of people forget that. I have yet to have any luck with food..I’ve tried beets, onions, paprika, etc. You can order some natural dyes (madder is a popular one) from various places on the internet. I actually even got whole madder root from someone on etsy. I just planted a dye garden for a project for school and am looking forward to keeping track of what I learn on my blog. Happy dyeing!


  • That is a seriously cool method – the color of the skirt came out great!!

  • That is so cute! What a fun way to turn something drab into something fun and fab! You’ll have to share any more natural dying experiments you ladies have, especially the beet one. I bet that color would be gorgeous!


  • I wonder what other fruits and veggies can do, this is a great summer afternoon project!

    Thanks for sharing!

  • who knew you could dye something with onions?? cute skirt!

  • The skirt is so cute! I’d have to try this sometime.

  • that’s pretty cool! i love the skirt!

  • That skirt looks cute! Is it just the photo or is the color kind of inconsistent?

    I’m a journalist, and I recently wrote a feature on a woman who spins and dyes her own yarn. She’s been doing it for 18 years and walked me through the natural dying process and listed some of the variations she used:

    Marigolds (the yarn varied in color from a mustard to sunny yellow)
    Black walnuts make rich browns

    Hint: Use a copper pot! It creates a chemical reaction with the mordent and you get different colors…

  • Well yes it’s known that onions are a very good way to dye naturally.
    We dye the eggs for the Easter every year with onion! 🙂

    (New blog needing some love: In Whirl of Inspiration )

  • Chantal Hanna- Yes, it sure did! You should totally wash the garment before wearing it. Maybe even twice if you need. We hope to do an article soon about removing smells from garments (for thrifting or natural dying). Thanks!

  • The skirt turned out so well- we just got back from a month long trip in Guatemala and I was fascinated with all the naturally dyed textiles the woman made- If you are interested here is a link to a post I did about natural dyes from Guatemala.

  • Hi! Not to be a spelling stickler, but please note that it is spelled “dyeing.”

    Dying quite literally means “to die.”

    Seeing a headline called “Adventures in Natural Dying” sounded a little terrifying!

    Love your blog.


  • That’s a sweet yellow! I just used a strawberry dye for a customized headpiece I’m constructing for a client. She wanted a blush pink and I couldn’t, for the life of me, nail down the right pink with any other dyes. The strawberry worked beautifully. Let me know if you’d like me to lay out the directions for this.
    P.s. Of course, it also smells awesome!

  • How cool! I’ve never heard of that before. I hope the skirt didn’t smell like onions afterwards haha 🙂

  • Cute idea guys.
    Not sure if the execution of THIS particular one worked out. It looks either a tiny bit dirty…or a former yellow skirt that seems to have faded. Maybe a different colour would work better?


  • I love dying with natural dyes, I did a section on it while doing my degree in textile design.


  • interesting, never thought that onions could be used as a natural dye . . . just curious, will the clothes have an oniony smell? Thanks for the post!

  • I’ve heard Kool-Aid dyes really well! Haven’t been able to try it myself yet, but you should give it a shot!

  • that is so cool! Where do you come up with such fun ideas??? You’re crazy and it’s awesommme 🙂

  • how fun! I’ve dyed a lot, but never with natural thing, it might be worth a try. Thanks:-)

  • One thing that helps natural dyes hold fast in (natural) fabrics is mordanting/pre-dying them with a rhubarb leaf tea first. While the leaves are poisonous to eat, the very same element that is toxic helps to bind colors to animal and plant fibers. After you rinse the tea out and let the piece you intend to color dry, you’re good to go with the vegetable/plant dyes.

    Plus it’s a great way to use up all those leaves from rhubarb harvests in the spring!

    (And because I think you’d love the results, carrot greens give an awesome chartreuse color…)

  • Oh wow! I never even knew you could dye things with onions! Looks awesome!!!

  • Super fun! A book worth checking out for natural dyeing is Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes by Rebecca Burgess. It’s got tons of great ideas for what to use to dye, how to dye with different things and sourcing natural dye sources in your area.

  • I gotta confess I had no idea there was such a thing as natural dying! wow I’m in awe! thanks for sharing 🙂

  • I did this as part of my first year at University, I do Textile Crafts so we did a rotation in Dye and Print, it was loads of fun! 🙂 we tried so many different natural dyes and i got some really good results! i don’t know if you did this or not but putting salt in to the dye helps to absorb the colour on to the fabric a lot better 🙂 and it definitely depends on how long you leave the fabric in the dye bath for. If you need any help choosing some good dyes, i can let you know some of the dyes that worked best for me!. i love your DIY posts, i cant wait to get going on a few! 🙂 xx

  • I tried dying with tea and it turned out great! You get a subtle colour depending on how long you leave the fabric in the dye bath.

  • Cool! I’ll try with some other natural options and let you know!! 🙂

    Greetings from Madrid. When are you planning to visit us???

  • What a cute skirt…..I have never tried dying so please excuse my next questions naivity…but does it not smell of onions?

  • So neat! 🙂 I’ve never tried it. The skirt looks great. Too bad the scarf didn’t turn out 🙁 ♥

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