Make Your Own Fabric Dye

5th March — Workshop

Make your own fabric dye in today's workshop for Discover! Creative Careers Week.

Workshop: Make Your Own Fabric Dye

Download Worksheet

Royal Opera House logo

Sometimes costume designers working in film, T.V. and live performance will need an item of clothing to be a particular colour which is not available to buy. In this instance dye can be used - either to dye a piece of clothing a different colour, or to dye the fabric itself before the clothes are even made.

Some dyes are toxic but, in this workshop, you will learn how to create a safe, natural dye from onion skins. You will discover the processes needed to achieve different intensities in colour.

You will need:

Three strips of cotton laid out
All the equipment laid out on a table


This experiment uses boiling water. Please ask an adult before you begin and ask them for help if you need it.

Cotton soaked in vinegar in a bowl

Step 1

Put the cloths in a bowl and cover with vinegar. We call this the mordant and it helps the fibres in the fabric to accept the dye.

Step 2

Put the onion skins into a saucepan with ample cold water to cover them plus an extra 2 or 3cm (approx). Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for 60 minutes. DO NOT ALLOW TO BOIL DRY!

Onion skins in saucepan

Onion skins simmering on hob

Step 3

After 45 minutes the water should be coloured a rich chestnut brown. If it isn’t then keep the mixture simmering for another 15 minutes then check again.

Step 4

Once the liquid in the pan has become a deep colour, strain the onions from the water using the sieve over a bowl. MAKE SURE YOU KEEP THE WATER - this is what we need for the dying process. The onions skins can be put in the compost bin.

Onion skins in sieve

Saucepan with liquid in

Step 5

Wring out the vinegar from the cloths - you might prefer to wear washing up gloves to do this. Put in the saucepan and pour the brown liquid from the bowl over the top. Now put this back on the stove and simmer again for 15 mins.

Step 6

While the pan is simmering, get ready your work station ready with a pan stand and the plastic sheet.

Plastic sheeting and pan stand next to one another on wooden table

Tongs removing fabric from saucepan and hovering over plastic sheet.

Step 7

After 15 minutes you can take out one of the clothes.Put the pan on the pan stand and remove one of the clothes onto the plastic sheet ing using the tongs. Put the pan back for another 15 mins and then, using the same process, remove the 2nd cloth. Return the pan and final cloth back to the stove and simmer for another 15 mins before removing the final cloth.

Step 8

You should now have 3 different shades of dyed material! Allow to dry before ironing flat and inspecting your new creations.

Finished product. Three strips of cotton next to one another and dyed.

Now you’ve learnt the skill why not try this out with an old t-shirt and create a brand new wardrobe?

Make sure you take time to reflect on and record the skills you've used and learnt in today's activity!

If you enjoyed this challenge be sure to check out more opportunities from the Royal Opera House, including their Design Challenge which is a great enrichment project to build a strong portfolio.