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How to: Self-Pattering Yarn with Food Coloring [Tutorial]

This tutorial is a combination of


  • superwash wool yarn, about 100g (3.5 oz)

  • food coloring

  • vinegar

  • water

  • aluminum foil

  • clear tape

  • scrap yarn, preferably in white or in a color that will not bleed

  • measuring cups

  • glass jars

  • a pot


  1. Calculate the length of the skein depending on the color sequence you have in mind. Eunny has good instructions. I wanted to dye sock yarn and I know that with my gauge, 1 row equals about 80cm (31.5"). I wanted three color sections: two solid and one self-patterning. I also wanted 4 rows in each color so 4 x 3 x 80cm = 960cm (31’ 6"). This is the circumference of the skein. Divide the length in half: you need to place two objects about 480 cm apart. My one end was the door handle; the other was a shoe rack. Pick objects that are either fixed or very heavy since the yarn can have a lot of pull in it.

  2. Tie the skein of yarn with pieces of scrap yarn about 30cm (a foot) apart so that it doesn’t tangle when you dye and rinse it. Julie’s got great instructions for that. Clearly mark the places where you want the colors to change. When the yarn is wet and in a big lump, it’s really hard to find these spots so use a contrasting color – just make sure it doesn’t bleed into your yarn!

  3. Cut strips of aluminum foil 5 cm (2") wide and about 5-7 cm (2-2.5") long. I wanted a self-patterning section in 1/3 of the skein (320 cm). For 320 cm of yarn with 5 cm strips placed 5cm apart, you need 320 / (5 + 5) = 32 strips of foil.

  4. Wrap the strips of foil on the yarn with 5 cm (2") apart and secure them with clear tape. Then use pieces of scrap yarn and tie it firmly over the foil.

  5. Soak the yarn overnight as per Julie’s instructions. For 100 g (3.5 oz) of wool, I used 1.5 liters (about 3 pints) of lukewarm water and 175 ml (¾ cup) vinegar.


Now the fun part!

  1. Measure 300 ml (1.5 cups) of lukewarm water in each glass jar, add food coloring and 15 ml (1 tablespoon) of vinegar. Mix well. My colors were: jar #1: 3 ml green + 12 ml blue (I wanted teal but got a deep sea green), jar #2: 3 ml yellow + 2.5 ml green (lime), jar #3: 3 ml green + 1 ml blue (bright green)

  2. Gently put the glass jars in a pot, pour water in the pot (not the dye jars!), and place it on a stove. Slowly heat it near boiling point. I have an electric stove so I turned it on setting 1 for about 20 minutes, then turned it up to 2 for another 20 minutes, and then finally on 3 for the final 20 minutes. After about an hour, nearly all of the dye had been exhausted (all dye had been transferred from the water to the yarn).

  3. Let the yarn cool to room temperature. This can take several hours.

Rinse, Wash & Dry

  1. Rinse the yarn in the sink, each section separately so the colors don’t bleed into each other. If the dye was not exhausted, you may have to rinse several times until the water runs clear.

  2. Carefully open the tie-dyed sections and peel of the foil strips. If you dare, use scissors, but be careful not the cut into the wool!

  3. Add a couple of tablespoons of vinegar in the final rinse water and let the yarn sit in it for a few minutes. Drain well. I also like to machine wash the yarn in a wool cycle (30° Celsius).

  4. Hang out the washed yarn to dry and let it dry completely before removing the wrap ties and winding onto a ball or hank.

  5. That’s it, you’re done! :) Take pics of your pretty yarn.

The tie-dyed section knits up into interesting wedge-shaped patterns. I think this yarn wants to become a pair of Jaywalkers. :)

Lessons Learned

  • For a darker color, use darker dyes, not more of the same dye. I wanted teal but could only get a strong but bright sea green. Adding 12 ml of the blue dye was definitely too much: the dye didn’t exhaust and I had to rinse it over and over again because it kept bleeding.

  • It might be a good idea to stir the dye pots gently every once in a while. Now more dye got settled in the bottom of the jar than at the top and the supposedly solid bits came out uneven.

  • It’s painfully time-consuming to wrap the foil strips on the yarn (and to peel them off afterwards) so make sure you have plenty of free time.

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Susanna Winter is a knitwear designer, creating timeless and elegant pieces with clean lines. She has been knitting for over 20 years, knit blogging since 2007, and designing knitting patterns professionally since 2016.

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