Natural Dyeing Across Islands: Onion Skins on Shetland and Texel Yarn

After the success of my onion dyeing adventure a while ago and the lush colour obtained from that dyebath, I was keen to do some more experiments. In this post I’ll be dyeing two island yarns with onion skins and showing you the results of both endeavours.

I decided to dive into my stash and see if I had more skeins lying around that I wanted to dye. What I found were the leftovers of a cone I used to make my “One Shawl to Rule Them All” Hap. The main bulk of that was knit in in this light grey Shetland wool. Even though I knit an enormous shawl with it I had quite a bit left of it on the cone. I have since found out that this light grey is a hard colour for me wear as it is does not do its best work with me or my wardrobe. Since I figured that out I tried to give it a place as the main colour in a vibrant allover but that didn’t work out as it was still quite a lot of light grey. I then figured that I would just use it as a smaller contrast colour by and by. I still think the latter also would have worked, but once I found it during my search for stash stuff to dye I was so taken with that idea I decided to just go for it.

The yarn is shade 203 from Jamiesons & Smith 2ply Jumper Weight range. It looks like an undyed natural grey would look but I don’t actually know if it is undyed. As with the Istex yarns this yarn is also heathered, so while the overall colour is a light grey there are darker and lighter fibres carded in there.

Other skeins I found during my stash dive were a collection of 3 DK-weight skeins that together formed a fade of undyed white to light grey to a very dark grey. They are a selection of natural coloured undyed yarn skeins made from fibre of a Texel (the breed) sheep that actually comes from a flock living on Texel (the island). My brother gave me these as a gift some years ago. So like the Shetland wool this too is an island yarn, for which we have to go down on the map just a bit. For those not in the know, Texel is a tiny island in the southern part of the North Sea, situated in the Wadden Sea, an intertidal zone famed for its biodiversity and a haven for many bird species. As this is a small scale company, each skein is labelled with the location of where the flock grazed and the year which it was shorn which is a nice touch which I think many of you will appreciate as well.

This yarn being from a flock of Texel sheep actually living on the island makes a differences in terms of yarn feel – the yarn is a bit coarser and more rustic than Texel yarn I’ve previously bought from other places. The batch I have is made from fibre from White and Blue Texel sheep (these are very similar, but different breeds), but the company also keeps and sells wool from Zwartbles sheep. Personally I love yarn that shows the landscape it came from and I have no issues with hardier wool types. The company, previously named the Noordkroon and now simply “Texelse Schapenwol”, meaning Texel Sheep wool, champions the beautiful natural shades of the texel sheep and only sells them in undyed colours. Which is perfect for natural dyeing as I get my best and most favourite colours from undyed coloured sheep fleece like grey, beige, brown and even the darker shades. It’s funny because while planning knitting projects I sort of stray away from light grey colours, for spinning and yarn dyeing they are actually my favourite colour to go for as the results have so much more depth and interest. So these 3 sister yarns also joined the dye pot.

Most of the onions skins used have been collected over time from onions used for our cooking. I mean, we are eating them anyway, so I just save them by and by. I now have two net bags hanging in my kitchen as a sort of permanent fixture, one for red and one for yellow skins, where they are put whenever in we have them and in time become a formidable collection. When the bags start to overflow I know it is time for another dive into the dye pots.

For dyeing the Shetland wool I first had to take all the yarn of the cone and turn it into a skein. I used my wooden umbrella swift to do this. I just turned it into one big skein instead of multiple smaller skeins just to see how it would go, hoping that it would still have enough movement for an even dye. Turned out I had 282 grams of yarn in that one skein (because of the weight of the cardboard cone I didn’t know for sure before). The Texel wool already came in smaller skeins of 100 grams so didn’t need any special preparation beforehand.

The cones from J&S have a bit of spinning oil on them to make them more suited to machine knitting. I didn’t want the oil to mess with the dyeing process so I gave the entire skein a good and thorough wash beforehand. I just used water and a bit of wool wash for this and repeated this process a few times as it had quite a bit of oil coming off.

I mordanted all the yarn with alum in the exact same way I did for the Istex skein, I just used a bit more alum in total as the volume of wool to be dyed here was higher, but the amount per gram was the same. After mordanting I rinsed the skein again so no tiny bits of alum would be left behind to uneven the dyeing.

I first dyed the cone of Shetland yarn. Initially I was planning to only use yellow onions skins this time and see the effect of that on grey wool vs the red onion skins on grey yarn from the lett lopi dyeing I did. However it turned out that I had so much wool to dye that I wasn’t sure if only using my batch of yellow peels would give me as nice of a deep and saturated colour as I was aiming for, so I decided to supplement it with some of the red onion skins and see what colour I would end up with. I ended up using 57 grams of yellow skins and 15 gram red onion skins for the dyebath. This sounds like it’s not a lot, but peels weigh nothings so the actual volume in my pot was considerable.

I filled my dye pot with this mix of onion skins and water and slowly brought it to just below boiling point. I kept it on this temperature for at least 1.5 hours regularly stirring it. After that I just let it cool down and separated the onion skins from the dyebath. The colour of the dyebath at this point was a lot more brown than the dyebath extracted from the red skins alone looked like (which looked like I boiled a few litres of red wine).

For the dyeing I just placed the mammoth skein into my dye pot and again slowly brought it to a just below boiling temperature for a bit over an hour. Because this was such a big quantity of wool in one skein I made extra sure to regularly (but carefully) stir it. Luckily the pot I use for dyeing is quite big so it had enough room to toss and turn. I let the skein sit in the dyebath for another night and then thoroughly rinsed it until the water was clear(ish).

I hung it to dry on my balcony, with the pot with dye vat placed under the enormous skein so the drips of excess water would fall into the pot. In an unguarded moment one of my cats decided to take a dive into the pot (why? was she warm? Did she like the colour? Did the water look enticing? Did it smell nice to her?) and her normally pristine white paw had a yellow coloured tinge for a day or two. When the skein was dry I went through the trouble of putting it back on the cone again, mostly to make it easier to knit with when I do want to start knitting with it (and also the ball I would make from this would be HUGE). I again put it on my wooden umbrella swift and wound it on the cone by hand.

The resulting colour is a beautiful golden yellow green shade. More golden yellow than green, but it definitely has both in there. If I compare it to the Istex which was entirely dyed with red onion skeins I would say that the colour of the Shetland is yellow first with bits/hints of green in there where the Istex is green with hints of yellow. So the other way around essentially. Interesting to see that despite the dyebath having a lot more yellow skins, it didn’t overpower the red ones enough to completely erase the green.

The Texel skeins I dyed a bit later when I had supplemented my onion skin stash enough to give it a go. As mentioned the preparation of these skeins was the same as I did for the Shetland cone. The total volume of all 3 skeins together was slightly more than the Shetland cone and while I might have gotten away with throwing them all in one pot I decided to split these over two dyebaths just to be sure and give the yarn enough room to float around mordant and dye evenly. I grouped the two grey skeins together for mordanting and dyeing and later did the white skein separately.

I dyed all 3 Texel skeins with only yellow onion peels and was curious to see the difference in hue it would yield particularly on the grey skeins when compared to the istex where I used only red onions and the Shetland yarn where I mixed yellow and red skins. I used slightly over 50 grams to dye the two grey skeins and then used the exhaust bath from that dye session to dye the final white skein. However I did top op the exhaust bath with a fresh dose of new yellow onion skins to make sure I got a nice saturated yellow colour.

All 3 skeins yielded beautiful and different shades of yellow which was the goal. The result of this dyebath is much more of true yellow than the golden green tones of the Istex and Shetland dye efforts with red onion skins. The dark grey took the dye and became a warm heathered brownish yellow, while the light grey became a beautiful heathered dark ochre. The white was the only skein that wasn’t naturally heathered and as a consequence came out as a beautiful solid egg yoke yellow. As usual the skeins shedded quite a bit of colour when washing them out after taking them from the dye pot. For example, before washing out the bright yellow skein was more of a yellow orange almost tangerine colour before revealing its true colours after a wash. This is normal and makes natural dyeing all the more exciting; you really do not know what you’ll end up with until the very end!

At first I had planned to use these 3 together in a project but wasn’t sure any more after the seeing the results as I thought the skeins had quite different feel to them between the much more rustic heathered brown yellow and ochre vs the very vivid and bright yellow which packs more punch. Yet, with the skeins having dried and me gotten more used to the brightness of the yellow I think they still pair quite nicely together. So we’ll see what it ends up being, in any case I think all 3 of them are very fitting colours in my life.

As with the Istex dye experiment I am really pleased with the colours obtained from these dyeing adventure. Onion skins really are become a firm favourite in my natural dyeing adventures. The types of shades obtained are truly my cup of tea and I instantly started dreaming about the possibilities for these yarns in the future. It also seems that from green to yellow to orange and to brown and red brown there is a lot more to explore when it comes to colour obtained from onions. So yeah, I guess the harvesting of onion skins will be an ongoing project at the Treehouse for the foreseeable future.

3 thoughts on “Natural Dyeing Across Islands: Onion Skins on Shetland and Texel Yarn

  1. Prachtige uitleg over het natuurlijk verven van de eilandgarens. Wat geven uien prachtige tinten eerst al verschil van garen en schapenras en kleur van het basis garen. Dan nog de uienschil kleur en dan de tijd dat je de wol in het verfbad laat zitten. Is inderdaad spanend wat de uiteindelijke kleur zal zijn. Het zijn prachtige tinten geworden, klaar voor weer een ander project. Wat een mooie paraplu waar je het garen omheen wikkelt. En dat kleinere is dan de kegel? Mooi gedaan en leuk het met ons te delen. Groet Margot

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