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  • Writer's pictureLinda Litchfield


If you are expecting an idea of what to cook for supper, don’t bother to read this…

In the Spring I planted some shallot sets on my allotment. In time some nice pointy green foliage appeared and then I forgot about them. We have had so many hot, dry weeks in London that the plot is now very dusty and arid. The only things that I have had the energy to water have been beans, courgettes and tomatoes. A couple of weeks ago I thought of the shallots. Lucky I remembered where I had planted because, above ground, there was no trace of them. All the foliage had withered away and died. With a fork I chipped away the earth and dug them up. A fairly puny crop but I carried them home and bought the ingredients to pickle them (salt, malt vinegar, pickling spices, muscovado sugar, if you really want a recipe).

It took me nearly 3 hours to peel the shallots, some of them no bigger than a clove of garlic. Peeled weight: about 850 gm. Soaking in salted water was followed by immersion in sterilised jars of cooled, spiced vinegar. With the shallots safely stored in the cellar to pickle, I turned my attention to what to me is the interesting part of the exercise: the shallot skins – brown, grubby and fragmented. Unappetising in texture and appearance but, I hoped the source of a rich orangey-brown dye. I hadn’t dyed with shallot skins before, but I had had good results with white and red onion skins. Shallots are an allium too and I could see no reason why they wouldn’t behave the same. There is something wonderful in getting a bonus from what would otherwise go straight into the compost bin.

I weighed the shallot skins (88gm) then soaked them in water for a couple of hours, before simmering them for an hour and leaving them to cool for 24 hours. An advantage of the heatwave is being able to do in the garden those things that in the Winter have to take up space in the kitchen. I decided to dye fibres which weighed, when dry, about half the weight of the dry skins, so some silk thread, a length of rayon tape, a small piece of cotton fabric and 10 linen buttons were soaked in plain water for a few hours before being squeezed out and put into the strained shallot dye bath. I had previously mordanted the silk thread and cotton fabric, but some books suggest that fibres going into an onion dye bath do not need to be mordanted beforehand.

I did not heat the dye bath after the fibres were inserted, just put a lid on it (to prevent evaporation and anything falling in) and left it in the garden.

I then let time pass and nature do its work, occasionally putting a hand into the bath to swirl the contents around. On day 2 some bubbles appeared on the surface and I wondered if fermentation was possible as it is so warm. My hope was that as each day went by the colour would deepen and darken. Patience and a certain amount of absent-mindedness pays off in these circumstances.

On the sixth day I removed my fibres, emptied out the dye bath onto the garden and rinsed and dried my dyed materials. Very pleased with the results.

This photograph does not do justice to the colours I achieved – actually much more vibrant and orangey than this shows.

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Sep 03, 2018

Such an interesting read.

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