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).
1. Make onion
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.