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The Grooviest Way to Tie Dye, Thanks to Vegetable Scraps

Don’t compost your compost just yet.

May  1, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

In this wild time, I think it’s safe to say my body composition is now 90 percent caramelized allium. I’ve been eating jammy-tomato-paste pantry pastas, rice-cooker mujadarra, wontons dotted with jars and jars of homemade chile crisp. I’m now able to peel an ungodly amount of papery skins without crying and in only one act of a This American Life episode.

When done, and I’m admiring my papery thin rings on one end of the cutting board, it’s very hard to ignore the equally large (if not larger) mound of papery skins on the other. Any way you slice it, I spent the same amount of time harvesting the skins, as I did the “meat”. Could I give them a destination nobler than the compost bin?

Enter, my partner’s oil-stained (probably my fault!) white tee. And, a free Saturday afternoon. We already know of turmeric’s beautiful golden hue or red cabbage’s bluish blush, but what other natural dyes are hiding away in our food? Apparently, a natural, rust-red or oxblood-red dye (with very good staying power) can be extracted from boiling onion skins (yellow for the former, red for the latter) in a pot of water.

While it burbles, crimp and crumble, twist and tuck and band (the fancy word for this is “shibori”) your t-shirts, tote bags, and old socks. When your onion stock reaches the intensity you’re pleased with (by sight, not taste), add in your band of banded fabrics. You can keep the pot at a boil for a more intensely saturated dye, but I just plopped in the shirt, returned the lid, killed the heat, and let it sit overnight. The next morning, I wrung the shirt out and hung it to dry in the shower. We’ve since washed it five or so times, and the color’s been sticking. It’s been especially trippy to eat bowls of chile crisp while wearing the shirt (which is now decidedly mine).

How to Tie Dye with Vegetable Scraps

1. Make onion stock dye.

Place your onion skins in a large stockpot and cover with double-its-volume in water. This ratio is by no means strict—the more onion skins you have, the more intense and fast the dye will be. Lid the pot (you don’t want your dye to evaporate, do you?), bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the liquid reaches your desired intensity.

2. Crimp. Fold. Crumple.

Meanwhile, gather your to-be-dyed items and all your produce rubber bands you’ve been saving (just me?), and crimp and crumple away! (Cotton items, like t-shirts and tote bags, will take especially well to the dye.) I went with the Random Crumple technique, but if you’d like crisper folds and patterns, here are some videos to get you started.

3. Strain the solids.

When your dye is ready, fish out the skins with a fine-mesh strainer, and add your fabric(s). Remove from heat, return the lid, and let sit for at least 8 hours or up to 24.

4. Hang dry.

Remove the items from the dye. Wring out the excess liquid, and carefully remove the bands. Hang to dry—either outside or in the shower, things can get drippy—and admire your artistry.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Picture of shirt would be helpful 😁”
— msstein

I now stockpile my allium skins in a bag in the freezer—what should I dye next?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Wyndham Traxler Carter
    Wyndham Traxler Carter
  • msstein
  • Stephanie B.
    Stephanie B.
Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.


Wyndham T. May 29, 2020
Even though it's called "natural dyeing", be aware that it is still fundamentally a very chemical process. Before you progress very far, you will need to be mindful that the vessels you use must be inert: stainless steel, enamel, glass, and in the long haul, it's not considered good practice to cross-over between food prep and dyeing/mordanting.
msstein May 8, 2020
Picture of shirt would be helpful 😁
Stephanie B. May 3, 2020
Yes, onion skins are usually the first thing yarn dyers do to dip their toes into when they start natural dyes because they don't require a mordant. I never got that far, but if you check out natural dye stuff on instagram, you'll probably love the amazing pinks that lichen dyes end up!