The color of onions

Today I want to share a little experiment with you guys. But first, I wanted to let you know that I've got an interview up on the Seamster Sewing Patterns blog. The wonderful Mari asked me a bunch of super engaging questions about architecture, art, and fashion and shares some of her own unique insight as well.

Go check it out!

No really, I'll wait. When you get back, we'll talk about onions.

Collecting the skins, the aftermath of curing onions on a local farm.

Collecting the skins, the aftermath of curing onions on a local farm.

Last week my mother in law came to visit. Now, for most people, I know the previous sentence sounds like a recipe for disaster. But I am fortunate enough to not only like my mother in law, but we get along quite well and enjoy doing a lot of the same things.

Natural dyeing is definitely hip in the fiber world right now. There is growing constellation of tutorials, indie dyers, amazing handmade items, and resources out there. I feel like every other day, I hear a podcast about a natural dyer, or see some shibori pop up on my instagram, or discover a beautiful yarn dyed with plants I recognize from my backyard.

And I can see why its so popular. It feels like magic or alchemy, making colors from things foraged in nature. It gives the crafter power in a way similar to weaving or creating patterns. In the case of onion skins, using something otherwise deemed garbage to create something beautiful is immensely cool.

A bag of onion skins

A bag of onion skins

As a lover of color and nature, I'm intrigued, naturally. I love every single color of natural dyed fiber I see. The earthy, muted, or even vibrant tones all seem to fit in my color palette. It's unlike anything you find at the fabric store. But even though I've felt the desire to work with natural dyes on many previous occasions, something stopped me.

I'm not a scientist, I'd say I have a slightly greyish green thumb, and I'm terrible at following recipes. The idea of mordanting and measuring and weighing all compounded the idea of dyeing into a 'someday' activity, outside my current range of feasibility. But, with the help of an enthusiastic and motivated partner (AKA my MIL), I was able to get my toes wet.

We collected several different types of fabric, pictured below:

Silk habotai, cotton swiss dot, wool twill, cotton lawn (in the shibori bundle), and cotton lace.

Silk habotai, cotton swiss dot, wool twill, cotton lawn (in the shibori bundle), and cotton lace.

We decided to skip the mordanting phase, partially because we couldn't find a large enough container of alum at the grocery store and partially to make the dye process easier and more approachable.

We washed (but did not scour) the fabrics. We filled a large steel stock pot with onion skins and covered them with water. We simmered the skins for 1 hour, then let the pot cool overnight. The next day, we strained out the onion skins. The dye bath was a deep brownish orange, like the color of butterscotch candy. We soaked all the fiber in warm water, then immersed them in the dye bath. The fabric simmered for one hour and was stirred occasionally.

We let the fabric cool partially, with the idea of having it sit overnight, when my mother in law noticed something while stirring. There was a strange black splotch on the wool. We decided to rinse and hang dry the fabric at this point, rather than sitting over night. We didn't want anything else to get an odd black spot.

When we pulled the fabric out of the pot, it was clear that all the pieces had these blackish/greyish/green spots on them. We looked for some sort of detritus in the pot, but found nothing. There was nothing strange per say in the dye bath. We were a bit let down, but mostly just baffled. While the color results were quite nice, the anxiety of the unexpected black spots set the tone for our 'reveal'.

The dyed fabric, left to right: Cotton lawn shibori, warm dyed wool, cold dyed wool, swiss dot, silk habotai, cotton lace. You can see the weird splotches best on the shibori, where it created part of the pattern.

The dyed fabric, left to right: Cotton lawn shibori, warm dyed wool, cold dyed wool, swiss dot, silk habotai, cotton lace. You can see the weird splotches best on the shibori, where it created part of the pattern.

As an experiment, we threw the swiss dot, another piece of wool, and the cool dye bath (strained a second time) into a bucket and let it sit on the porch for a few days. We figured it was worth a go, since the dye bath was still so strong hued and we wondered if something in the pot had caused the splotch. When we removed the fabric, the wool had taken about 50% as much color in the cold 2nd run dye bath as it had in the preliminary round, but with no splotches. The mystery still stands, but we've narrowed it down to: something odd in the pot, the printing on one of the rubber bands, an oak leaf we found in the sink after rinsing the pot.

Left to right: Wool simmered in dye for a few hours, wool cold dyed for 2 days, undyed wool.

Left to right: Wool simmered in dye for a few hours, wool cold dyed for 2 days, undyed wool.

I suppose this is the kind of result that had me nervous about trying natural dyes in the first place. And it happened! And it was ok. Aside from the weird splotches, the colors are quite nice. While the flaws in the fabric kept us from using it for anything big, I figured I could cut around the weird splotches, since the color was so pretty otherwise.

J and his mom picked up some awesome mid-century armchairs last week while I was doing a sewing workshop. While beautiful - and a steal - they aren't the most comfortable chairs ever. We eventually plan to reupholster them, but for now some pillows will do to soften them up. Do you ever have a project idea zap into your head instantly, like you can already see it in place? That's what happened with these pillows.

I've been experimenting with quilting lately and have been enjoying its geometric looks as well as its methodical, meditative process. I bet this 'block' has a name, but I have no idea what it is! As far as a pattern, I kind of winged it. I decided to make the diamond square the main focus, with the undyed wool as a bit of a border, since the pieces weren't wide enough to make a block that spanned the whole pillow. Looking at them now, I think I might have preferred a wider border, but I like how they turned out, regardless.

If you'd like to make some pillows like this, here's the recipe:

Two 14" pillow forms. I removed a bunch of their stuffing, as they were nearly spherical and not very comfy.

Color A: two 8.5" squares

Color B: eight triangles, made from four 6.5" squares cut in half

Color C: four 2"x11.5" strips, four 2"x15" strips. When the fronts are done, cut two squares the same size for the back.

Assemble the blocks using a 1/4" seam allowance, then sew the front to the back using a 1/2" seam allowance. I omitted a closure and whip stitched these closed along one seam, since I didn't have two matching zippers and figured wool pillows wouldn't need/want too much washing.

What's your proudest lemons-to-lemonade craft moment? Best happy accident?