I received a note today asking me about medieval natural dyes from my other site, The Medieval Tailor. Their question was, which is the cheapest to use. Onion skins. You can get them at the grocery store, always good to catch them when they’re clearing the bin, they’re usually happy to give you the skins, you can scoop them into a bag and pay for them, probably less than $.25 as they are so light, or you can save them from your own cooking.
Different onion skins and different fabrics will give different color results. You can get anything from a creamy yellowish ivory to various rusts and if using red onion you might even get blues and lavenders.
This is cool stuff, totally better living through chemistry. Get brown after soaking in blue and yellow? Well pooh, not what I was gong for. Throw it into an ammonia bath and instant green. INSTANT.
The witchy potential is pretty vast. Dye with plants that have special properties not caring about the resulting color but the infused fabric with magickal elements and intention. You can dye fabrics like wool, linen, silk, and cottons. You can dye paper. You can paint with it. I could go on but I want you to take this as a starting point.
One day I had the distinct pleasure to spend the afternoon with a friend who I consider to be very skilled in the arts of medieval dyeing. She had many pots, some hot, some cold, some large, some small, but all containing vegetable matter of one sort or another. Things like walnut shells, turmeric, weld stalks, brazilwood chips etc.
- Blues – Indigo, Woad, and in the case of the bottom shade, Brazilwood first then indigo in an attempt at purple
- Browns – Walnut shells
- Greens – Indigo, Weld, Turmeric
- Reds – Brazilwood, Madder, kermes (an insect not a vegetable)
- Yellows – Weld, Turmeric, Saffron, Onion Skins
Better living through chemistry was the motto of the day. For instance, I wanted a green wool and after dyeing a hank first in turmeric and then indigo, I was surprised (and dissappointed) to get brown. I already had brown. Lots of brown. “Toss it into the ammonia bath.” Which I did and instantaneously it turned the most lovely shade of moss green. The batch of wool that I dyed in weld and indigo needed no ammonia bath to turn green. But who would have thought. And now we know why urine was so popular for dyeing fibers. It was the period ammonia and it could work wonders.
The colors I show you here in these pictures are the results of that day of dyeing. You will note that the larger bundles of wool have a slightly different shade than the smaller crewel wools. We could only attribute that to the difference in modern manufacturing and fiber processing. They both started out the same color, winter white. I have done my best to make sure that the colors you see in the monitor come as close to what I see with my naked eye. Your monitor might show color variations. You will also note that next to each wool sample is a little card that I made that day showing how many times a fiber was dipped into which dyes, if there was a mordant used, and if there was an ammonia bath or not.
Sadly it turned out the madder we had was too old to dye properly and we came away with very unsatisfying results. This should have given us anything from pink to a rusty red but what we got was something that looked like, white with a little bit of the palest pink here and there. But madder was a very popular dye in the medieval period so use it freely.
For a more colors available and how to get them, check out this page on Natural dyes from Pioneer Thinking. There are also many books on this subject, modern and vintage.