Well, my workshop/studio does only exist as a plan on paper at the moment which means I spread my stuff all over the house and outside when I am working on something. Ten days ago we had a lovely sunny day and I had the house to myself, just right for a dyeing experiment with onion skins. This project has been in the pipeline for some time. My partner and I diligently collected onion skin when cooking, so that I had a substantial amount ready to use. The book on natural dyes I bought several months ago suggests to use 100% dyestuff, meaning the same weight in onion skins as the weight in yarn or fleece. Jenny Dean, the author of the book A Heritage of Colour – Natural Dyes Past and Present also writes that dyeing with onion skins doesn’t require an alum mordant to achieve colour fastness. I wanted to try that out, because I think it’s desirable to keep the dyeing process as simple and environmentally friendly as possible. For my dyeing experiment I used spun white Cheviot wool and white and grey Cheviot fleece. I used only about half the weight of onion skins in relation to wool because my two pots weren’t big enough for more skins. Because I didn’t mordant the wool first and onion skins are food safe I could use my normal kitchen equipment (colander, pots, tongs). I need to get a few second hand pots, saucepans etc. for further experiments.
In the collage above you can see from left to right: White yarn soaking in water to “open up” the fibres, onion skins simmering in two pots for about 45 minutes, white and grey fleece soaking in water, centre image: the dye liquid after straining, bottom row from left to right: yarn and fleece simmering gently in the dye bath for approximately 45 minutes or longer, dyed white fleece drying, dyed grey fleece, dyed yarn drying on the washing line. Onion skin dyeing is particukarly straightforward and pleasing. The colours can range from vibrant yellows and oranges to rusty brown. In my case the result on the white yarn and fleece was a lovely mixture of yellow and orange shades. The grey Cheviot fleece turned out as a warm brownish grey with some orange tips at the staple tops. I liked the colour and blended both fleeces on the carders into rolags to spin. I am someone who has to try things in order to know whether something works.
This is what the yarns looks like. Expert spinners among you will notice that my yarn is rather chunky and uneven. I haven’t mastered spinning very fine and even yarn yet but in a strange way I like its chunkyness and texture for my projects.
The second image shows the blended yarn knitted into a rectangle. I am going to make another purse from it, this time with black cotton lining and a black zip. I will show you the finished article soon.
And what happened to the dyed white yarn?
I knitted it using a very simple pattern to make this small purse.
At the end of last year I found some lovely fabric squares in a haberdashery and quiltmaking shop in Inverness. One has a pattern with cats, the other in the same colours a pattern with paws. When I saw it, I knew it would go perfectly with onion skin dyed wool and I think it really does, doesn’t it?
Thanks to a generous friend who lent me her sewing machine I could sew the lining which was then handstitched into the purse. I took extra care that the stitching thread doesn’t show through the wool.
And finally, the button. The purse has a rustic look to it and I love wooden buttons. With all these storms in the winter (even today it is very windy) lots of trees had come down in our local woods which provided me with some suitable branches to make toggles from.
Using my Swiss Army pocket knife (a much loved and used present from my parents on my 12th birthday more than three decades ago), I made three toggles. The photo shows the very first stage. From back to front: Birch, Heather and Pine. For the purse I used the Birch toggle, thinking that the colour matches the off-white tone in the lining. I waxed it with beeswax to give it a smooth finish and because I really like the natural smell of beeswax.
One question that remains is the colour fastness with unmordanted wool. In the first wash after knitting the pieces I noticed a slight bleeding of the colour, not a lot and hopefully only happening in the initial wash. I will mordant some wool in the near future and will do another batch with onion skins to be able to compare. If there are any dyers among my readers, what are your experiences with colour fastness and mordanting?