Blog - Botanical Dying with Onion Skins 03.02.21

Blog - Botanical Dying with Onion Skins 03.02.21

Over the last year I have dabbled once or twice with botanical dying and printing with varying degrees of success. Lockdown forced upon us again in early 2020, as is the case as I write this, I have more time on my hands.  So, not being a lover of on-line classes and the ‘virtual world’ I decided to invest in a good old fashioned book to learn a little more about the subject of dying with plants until I can get to a real class with 3D humans!

Book on Wild dying with onion and white linen shorts in foreground
The Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth

My book of choice was The Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth.  A publication I chose not just because of the simple starter projects it contains but also because of its beautiful satin hard backed cover and wonderful deep hued matt imagery to inspire even the most nervous student.

Now, I am never anxious or reticent when it comes to experimentation.  I jump in the deep end with both feet first.  But as I have decided to extend my linen kit range with a ready to wear botanically dyed range I decided that some guidance would lead to fewer errors and therefore more garments reaching my shop more quickly!

I have a full range of over a dozen white linen ready made garments.  Samples made to demonstrate my kit clothing range which I will not be able to use at trade and craft fairs for the foreseeable future.  I am therefore putting them to use in the launch of a one off, hand crafted, botanically dyed range.  I hope these pieces will  demonstrate what can be achieved with garment dying at little or no cost using kitchen waste and home grown and foraged plants.  They will also enable my range of zero waste clothing to reach those who have no inclination to craft and dye their own clothes but love the simplicity and sustainability of my Cut Couture styles.

And so onto dying with Brown Onion skins, and the step by step process I followed.

equipment for dying with onion skins including salt, pan and spoon
Onion Dying equipment

If you want to alter/darken the colour you can add iron water to the dye vat or dip the dyed garment in iron water after dying with onions.  The iron oxide in the rusty water alters the shade to a darker grey/brown colour.  To make your rusty water you need to soak some old nails/screw or metal bits and bobs in a solution of 2 parts water, 1 part vinegar for 2-5 days before you start to dye.  Strain the solution from the nails et voila, iron water!


large pan (catering size is best)

wooden spoon

Table salt to fix the dye into the fibres (1 or 2 cups)

Onion skins from approx 20 onions, the more the merrier

Iron water (optional)

woman at hob with dye vat adding salt and onion skins
Adding Salt and Onion skins to dye vat


  1.  If using, prepare rusty iron water as mentioned above,  a few days before you plan to dye.
  2. Collect the outer papery skins of onions over a period of weeks.  I used the skin of about 20 onions.
  3. Measure out a cup of salt per 5 litres of water.
  4. Dissolve the salt in 5-10 litres of warm water on the hob.  Add your onion skins
  5. Bring to the boil then leave to simmer for 2 hours.
  6. Strain the onion skins out of the dye vat using a sieve and/or through a piece of muslin or similar.
  7. You now have a golden/terracotta coloured dye bath in which to soak your garment or fabric from a couple of hours to overnight.


two swatches of botanically dyed linen one gold one beige
Golden linen and after dipped in iron water

I added a couple of linen swatches to the pot for 5 mins, together with the skins, at the early stage when it was first simmering.  The linen dyed a beautiful golden yellow colour which I could not achieve again when the mixture had simmered for a period of time.  I also dipped a piece of this golden linen into iron water after it had been in the skins for 5 mins.  It went a lovely ochre colour.  Again, a colour I couldn’t achieve later on.

After simmering for a couple of hours I strained out the skins and immersed some fabric swatches for trials and my completed Kathy linen shorts kit. For the first 2 hours (while I baked and prepared dinner!) I stirred every 10mins with the dye bath on a very low heat to keep it hot but not simmering.  In the evening I turned off the heat and left the shorts to soak, stirring only once every 30-45mins.  I then left them to soak overnight held under the water with a wooden spoon pushed in the middle.  I was conscious of the fact that, through experience of dying which chemical dyes, the more the fabric is moved around and the better it is immersed, the more even the colour result.

woman in blue linen by kitchen hob lifting shorts out of dye vat after dying with onion skins
Lifting the shorts out of the dye vat after soaking overnight

The result, considering the use of onions, certainly did not leave me in tears! I rinsed the shorts in warm water in a bowl.  The resultant colour had some variation, which is to be expected with natural dying but overall was pretty even.

botanically dyed linen shorts drying on line
Drying short on the line

After line drying (do not dry on a radiator, it seems to cause the dye to ‘migrate’ into patches where the heat is more intense) I had a lovely soft peachy pale terracotta pair of shorts.

botanically dyed linen shorts with onion skins
Kathy shorts dyed with Brown Onion skins









Not wishing to waste the large vat of dye I had produced I decided to experiment further.  I dyed a few more swatches of linen in the vat with the same peachy pale terracotta results and carried out a couple of tie dye trials then scooped out a medium pan of the dye from the large vat and added to it a cup full of my pre-prepared iron water.

The water immediately turned a lovely chocolate brown colour which I used for further colour swatch experiments and tie dye trials. I love The ‘onion ring’ design produced in this experiment.

notebook with swatches of botanically dyed linen

A few days of experimenting had lead to a whole range of beautifully botanically dyed linen swatches.

I logged each in my note book then crafted into a range of naturally dyed linen face masks which I popped into my Etsy shop.

Botanically dyed facemasks with dying book
Botanically Dyed Masks

Waste not want not!