I have always been fascinated by the idea of dyeing your own yarn with plants and other natural dyes. But the thought of using noxious and hard to come by chemicals needed as mordants has put me off. I’d been vaguely aware of Kool-Aid dyeing, but since Kool-Aid is not readily available in stores where I live, I’d never tried that, either. The article Color to Dye for by Julie Theaker in the Spring 2007 Knitty was a real eye-opener for me: you can dye yarn with food coloring! Those I can find in just about any store that has a baking section.
a 150 g ball of Novita Nalle (75% superwash wool / 25% polyamide) in white (#011), or any natural-colored wool yarn will do (superwash is safest)
liquid food coloring
ordinary household vinegar
large oven pan
I bought two 20 ml bottles of liquid food coloring concentrate, red and blue. I wanted self-striping yarn so I skeined the ball into a long skein of about 10 meters across. As per instructions, I tied the skein with pieces of scarp yarn and then soaked it in vinegar water for about 7 hours.
In each of three measuring cups, I added 250 ml of lukewarm tap water and a tablespoon of vinegar. I wanted something really simple so I was going for a section of blue, a section of bright red, and sections of purple in between. In cup #1, I added about 2 teaspoons of blue dye. In cup #2, I was going for red, but noticed that the red dye is much less strong than the blue one. I must have added about 5 teaspoons. In cup #3, I mixed a little bit of blue and a little bit of red.
For the actual dyeing process, I used the cold pour method described in the Knitty article. Julie warns that if you use a low-quality plastic wrap, it might melt in the oven and get permanently stuck in the yarn. I decided not to risk it, so instead of wrapping the yarn in plastic, I covered a large oven pan with aluminum foil. I then arranged the yarn in the pan and poured the dyes in three sections. What looked deep navy in the measuring cup was a sky blue when poured on the yarn. The red I was going for turned out to be more pink, and the third color was a light violet.
I thought I’d just pour all the dye stock on the yarn and then smush and press it to cover each spot. Bad idea! The color set really fast even at room temperature and smushing it afterwards didn’t get rid of the white spots. Oh, and this is why you need rubber gloves: the stuff really stains. :)
Setting the Dye
Once all the dyes had been poured in the pan, I covered the whole thing with another sheet of aluminum foil and popped it in an oven preheated to 120° Celsius for about 1.5 hours. I checked that all the dye had been exhausted – it had – by dipping a piece of tissue paper on the wet yarn. By this time it was already pretty late at night so I turned the oven off and let it cool to room temperature overnight.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
In the morning, I opened the package and, in the kitchen sink, rinsed each section separately, just in case. There really wasn’t any need for that since all the dye had been exhausted and the colors didn’t bleed at all. In the final rinsing water, I added a splash of vinegar and let the yarn just hang out for about 5 minutes. Then I drained the water form the yarn, popped it into a mesh lingerie washing bag, and machine washed it in a 30° Celsius wool cycle. After washing, I hung the yarn to dry for about 2 days before untangling all the knots and winding the long skein into a neat ball.
The final colors are much more brighter pastels than I thought I’d get, but I can’t be disappointed with my first try. The yarn stripes pretty nicely, and I divided the 150g ball into three 50g ones to knit a pair of socks. :)
Good ventilation is a must. Even if the food dyes are not poisonous, the smell of wet wool and vinegar combined is not very pleasant. This is why I also machine washed the newly dyed yarn right away instead of just rinsing it thoroughly. Add a bit of fabric softener and you get a nice, fresh smell instead of something reminiscent of wet sheep.
The strengths of the food dyes vary quite a lot. You need about twice the amount of red to get the same level of saturation as with the blue dye.
The colors look much, much deeper and darker in the dye stock than what the final product is. I must have used nearly a third of the bottle of the red dye, so the liquid concentrates are not very economical. The dyes set quite fast so it’s better to pour just a small amount of dye on the yarn and rub it in evenly before continuing. And I also had just a hint too little of each dye stock: you’d need about 300ml of dye stock for 50g yarn – I had 250ml.
Color to Dye: Handpaint your own yarn for by Julie Theaker