It was Spring 2017 and the strong smell of onion confirmed I was in the right place. A worker came out and lead me inside. My vision of a quaint upstate New York farm quickly faded as the doors opened to a large facility closer resembling a factory. Once inside, I met Eva, who offered to help. Armed with brooms and dust pans, we began collecting onion skins from the floor and soon enough we had filled ten trash bags. Other workers looked on curiously, wondering how I could possibly want their waste.
I am familiar with these looks. As a natural dyer, I use plants to color fabric. That day I was on the hunt for onion skins, which yield a range of earthy colors. When I first started dyeing with plants, I would gather them myself by cleaning the onion boxes in different supermarkets I visited. After a while, friends (including the managers at the Bushwick Food Cooperative, which I am a member of) started saving them for me. Though I had a lot of onion skins, I still would run out of material too fast.
Thinking how I could get a larger supply, I got in touch with different onion farms near New York City. I only heard back from Ed, the president of a third-generation family-owned onion farm who simply responded, “We have plenty of onion skins if you want to come get some.”
A couple of days later, I was off to the Black Dirt Region in Orange County, New York. Before being drained in the nineteenth century, it used to be a densely-vegetated marsh called the Drowned Lands of the Wallkill. The region sits on what was once an ancient glacial lake, which makes its soil extremely fertile and dark, thus its current name.
Beyond my interest in getting the skins, I also wanted to see how the onions grew and learn more about their lifecycle. The first thing I confirmed was that their harvest does not begin until August. They had onions when I went, only not from the Black Dirt Region, but from Arizona. Ed told me that many farms from the area have diversified their crops to adapt to seasonality. His company chose a different path. To take advantage of the relationships they had with their east coast buyers and become a packing and distributor to farms from other parts of the country, while continuing to grow their own onions. Food for thought about our consumption habits and the resources necessary to satisfy them.
Image: New York Times,
I spent most of the time with Eva, who is originally from Mexico, but has been in the U.S. for 10 years and working with Ed for 5 years. She asked many questions as to how to do the dyeing process and saved some skins for herself. Any time one of her colleagues would ask us what we were going to do with the “trash,” she perfectly repeated my explanation. As we said goodbye, Eva told me she would try at home that night. Then I went back to Brooklyn, where my partner, who also works with natural dyes told me he had just read that plants coming from dry areas yield more saturated colors. After our first test with that batch, we gladly confirmed this by obtaining very rich colors using the onions coming from dry Arizona.
The visit was somewhat different to what I had expected. But it was a good eye-opening experience in many levels. The site I visited was not the quaint farm I wanted it to be, but the owner was transparent enough as to let a stranger visit the site and explain his business model and the onion growing cycle. He did not have something to hide, which is always a positive. Also, both the owner and the workers were happy to find a use for their waste, and asked if I was going to be coming regularly. Which shows they would be open to include this step into their supply chain, something I have found to be very rare (and I have asked a lot)! As of now, I have enough skins for the rest of the year on Fragmentario.
How to dye fabric using onion skins:
1. To prepare the fiber: In one pot or container (stainless steel if possible), place yarn or fabric and water. Leave for at least one hour. Heat is optional. This step is necessary to help the fabric evenly absorb the color.
2. To make the “onion tea”: In another pot or container (stainless steel if possible), place onion skins (try to fill at least half the container) and water. Heat is optional and will affect the color. Leave for at least 6 hours. The longer, the more intense the color will be.
3. To dye the fiber: Remove the onion skins from the second container. Remove the yarn or fabric from the first container and introduce in the second container with the “onion tea.” Leave for at least 2 hours. Heat might be applied and will affect the color.
4. To finish: remove the fiber from the pot and rinse with cool water until the water runs clear. Let air dry.
5. Considerations: this is a simplified version, some people use mordants (minerals or plants that help the dye fix to the fabric), but for the home dyer they are not imperative.
Author Maria Elena Pombo, is the founder of Fragmentario, a natural dye studio based in Brooklyn. It uses plants to create objects and experiences. Check out the site here.