Onions to dye for

As my sweetheart delves deeper into the paleo lifestyle and whole-body health, he has turned his attention to the toxins absorbed everyday by the skin, the largest organ of the body. He cleaned out and replaced his body care products to eliminate all parabens, sulfates, glycols, and -opyl anythings. His toilette thus purged, he turned attention to his wardrobe and noted that his Costco unders are yet another source of toxins and herbicides rubbing against his skin everyday. So instead of googling “organic cotton underwear” like a normal person would do, he ran off to the quilt store and came back with 3 yards of organic cotton unbleached muslin.

“Could you make me some boxers?” asked my love.

He’s been a boxer-brief man for all 10 years that I’ve known him, so I knew this request was not to be taken lightly. Switching to boxers is major lifestyle change. How could I say no?

I found a few free patterns online that involved printing out a pattern at 200%, taping the pages together, and then cutting it out, and I thought that sounded like a huge pain and waste of printer paper. But then I found this free boxer short pattern that included simple instructions to draft your own pattern from just three measurements. The only materials needed were a quilter’s ruler and some butcher paper. I thought I’d start with just one pair just in case they turned out terrible. The shorts were easy to draft and quick to stitch up. I wanted to avoid the ‘homespun’ look so I even got fancy and frenched all the seams. The end result? Perfect fitting boxer shorts. So I whipped up three more pairs.

Joshua says he feels like he should be modeling these shorts in a 1950 Sears Roebuck catalog. I asked if he’d model them for my blog but he declined.

organic cotton boxers

From an aesthetic standpoint, I thought these shorts were kind of meh, but I knew that dye was out of the question for Mr. Natural. Or was it???

Enter: the world of natural dyes. Oh my, that world is vast. I learned that there are a myriad of roots, herbs, flowers, and barks out there to dye fabric pink (blueberries, beets, purple cabbage, etc.), but Joshua was not keen on pink homemade underwear. Not that he’s afraid of getting a wedgy or anything, but…one should exercise common sense.

The other colors often required flowers and berries that are not found around here during the fall, and I wasn’t willing to make more effort than scrounging around my own yard. The Pioneer Thinking website has an exhaustive list of every plant that can be boiled to produce natural dye, and I noted that we had some of these growing just out our front door. Excellent. This website promised (and was corroborated by several others) that iris root would produce a black dye, and sumac leaves would result in a nice manly tan. My iris rhizomes badly needed to be divided anyway, and the sumac needed pruning, so I took generous samples of both, chopped them up, and set them to stewing on the stove, anxious to witness alchemy.

They were both a total bust. I dropped in some small squares of muslin just to see if the clear-looking broth needed to encounter some fabric to make the magic happen, but no, the fabric swatches didn’t look any different after submersion than before.

I found another reputable website that swore that onion skins would turn my fabric an orangeish brown, and they even had before and after pictures to prove it, so I started collecting onion skins from all of our meal preparations and squirreling them away in a tupperware in the fridge.

In the course of my research on natural dyes, I learned that a mordant would be required to fix the dye. The most reliable mordant is alum, which has the added bonus of affecting (sometimes drastically) the finished color of the dye, and also deepening it. But the goal of this project was to use whatever was already on hand, and fortunately both vinegar and salt can be used as mordants, and I already had both. If you’re using berries, you use salt. If you’re dying with vegetables (or plant matter), then you use vinegar at a ratio of 4 parts water to 1 part vinegar.

Here are the steps, in brief:

  1. Simmer your fabric (which MUST be a natural fiber, polyester does not accept dye) in your mordant (in this case vinegar solution) for about an hour.
  2. At the same time, simmer your onion skins over low heat for an hour in a large pot. I’ve heard that using an aluminum pan acts like a mordant in itself, so you can try that out if you cook with aluminum.
  3. After simmering, strain the dye liquid through a mesh strainer, rinse your sauce pan, and add the strained dye back to the sauce pot. Return to boil.
  4. Some directions tell you to rinse the vinegar out of your fabric first, but I did not. It’s important that they are both wet and hot, however. Transfer your wet hot fabric to the dye bath. Stir often. If your pot is crowded like mine, you’ll get some uneven dye spots, so that’s why a big pot with plenty of water is important.
  5. Simmer your fabric in the dye for an hour, stirring often, then remove from the heat and let cool. The longer you soak, the deeper and richer the dye will be. I let the fabric cool in the dye for about 4 hours.
  6. Remove the fabric and rinse under cold water until the water runs clear.
  7. The instructions I read said to line dry, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t throw it in the dryer.

I’m very curious about some of the other natural dyes out there, and I regret that I didn’t come up with this idea when it was still blackberry season just a few weeks ago. Blackberry is supposed to make a nice bluish gray, but I will not buy blackberries imported from California when they grow so readily along the freeway by my house. That’ll just have to wait for next year.

Has anyone had success with other natural dyes out there? Or have evidence that iris root actually dyes fabric black (I’ll believe that when I see it)?

Linked up at: http://salttree.net/ Making The Chicken Chick


One thought on “Onions to dye for

  1. Nice post gwen!

    I know quite a bit about natural dyeing…I even had an intern to a bunch of tests for me. i have a binder of swatches with recipes…many of them local items.

    Also, if Joshua wants to go back to boxer/briefs, you could use the hemp/organic cotton – unless he doesn’t want the 3% lycra.


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