natural dyes

I used to love dyeing eggs as a kid — those little copper hexagonal dippers that came with the tablets in the PAAS kits, the smell of vinegar, and the blue Spode teacups with broken handles that only came out of the cupboard above the stove once a year for egg-dyeing. I didn’t care for hard boiled eggs — I only ate the whites, and detested the chalky, sulfurous flavor of the yolk — but I could sit all afternoon and dye eggs. We would take our colored treasures over to my grandparents’ house where my grandfather baked them into knots of dough, little eggs in a basket. I loved getting the “baskets” hot from the oven, and even more loved the look of the table afterward, with the mosaic of egg shell shards amidst the crumbs and  greenish-yellow yolk.

So when my son was just a little guy, I wanted to share this tradition with him. But I was concerned about the chemical colorants in the dye — since he was so little, there was a lot of contact between skin and dye bath. Since our skin is our largest organ, and pretty porous, I pursued the lofty goal of keeping poisons out of his body. Thus began our exploration of natural dyes.

natural paletteThe first year we kept it simple. I raided the grocery store onion bins for skins. I was there so long the produce guy came up to chat with me, and went in the back to get some more of the papery skins. Evidently I wasn’t the first crazy lady rifling about in the onion bin near Easter. He was really helpful, and I think of him each year as I scramble furtively for onion skins. We also used red cabbage and beets. We discovered right away that the natural dyes take a longer time to make their mark, but once we knew this, we planned accordingly, dropping them in and running off to play before returning to find out what beautiful colors were emerging on our eggs. We started dyeing eggs with natural materials to avoid the chemicals, but we continue because of the soft, natural color palette you can achieve this way.  A beauty more subtle than their garish neon cousins from the store-bought kits.

The next year we experimented with using white crayons to draw designs on our eggs that would resist the dye. That year I had a HUGE pot of red cabbage dye, so we drew stars on the eggs and left them in the dye bath overnight. The eggs were a deep, midnight blue the next morning, with constellations of asterisk stars covering them. We also expanded from the onion, beet and cabbage into using turmeric and paprika. The turmeric gives such a beautiful yellow that it’s worth the funky smell given off by a large amount of boiled turmeric accented by a dollop of vinegar. P-U! We also added red onion skins to give the light golden brown enough of an oomph to make a salmon color instead.

dye ingredientsAnother year Dante wanted to keep the eggs, so we used a pin to prick holes in the top and bottom, poked a big needle up into the egg to break the yolk, and blew the insides of the egg out. We did this before dyeing the eggs. Which meant that, er, the egg floated. So we had to figure out a way to keep the egg submerged without leaving a mark. Needless to say, if you want to blow the eggs, do so after the dye bath.

onion skins

One year we experimented with coffee and carrot juice (but honestly, if I’m going to juice carrots I’m going to make carrot cake smoothie with them, not dye eggs!), and a couple of years ago we added liquid chlorophyll to our repertoire, which makes a gorgeous, grassy green. We bought a large bottle and have used it for this and other dyeing projects for three years now and still have some left. We also used celestial seasonings red zinger tea which gave a pretty lavender but can’t seem to find that on store shelves any more. We have used black tea to “age” pirate invitations and while we haven’t tried that with the eggs, I bet that would work well. Berries and berry, grape or cranberry juice  also give nice colors in the purple-red department. Next year I want to try some wild sources — violet blossoms are supposed to give a nice light purple, and black walnut would yield a lovely warm brown.

cabbage in the pot

Our basic process has also evolved. The first few years, I covered the chopped beets or cabbage with several inches of water, brought them to a boil, simmered for half an hour and strained. But I felt like the solution wasn’t concentrated enough. Then I tried simmering them down with the plant matter still in, and straining afterwards, but I found it difficult to get enough liquid to cover the eggs this way, so this year, I chopped, covered with water, boiled, simmered, strained, and returned the liquid to the pot to simmer further. I also add vinegar as I simmer the colors to help deepen the color on the egg.

draining beets

We do whatever decorative technique we’re exploring — wax resist, wrapping the eggs in cheesecloth, putting lace, leaves or anything other small flat distinctly shaped objects onto the egg and securing with pantyhose or mesh produce bags, etc — then drop the eggs into the dye. Since we like to leave them in overnight, we put them in the fridge and head to bed. In the morning we fish out our eggs and ooh and aah at our new treasures. If you would like a glossy finish on the eggs, rub them lightly with oil which also deepens the color slightly.
The natural egg dyes aren’t just good for eggs — I tend to make a big batch of them and I hate to waste it all by tossing it after we’ve gotten our fill of dying eggs. This year we bought white tissue paper, folded it up and dipped the different corners into the dye. I’d like to explore this further, but as Lucia noted, the paper comes away with a very, er… earthy, or vinegary smell. So we might need to incorporate essential oils and a period of “de-smelling” before using the paper next time. The present looked pretty though, pink from the beets, blue from the cabbage, green from chlorophyll and a hint of yellow from turmeric.