How I Dye, Part 1

I spent most of the day dyeing yarn and silk chiffon scarves. I had such a great time. Dyeing is a pretty intensive process, so my husband and I had planned for him to take the youngest children so I could focus on what I was doing, and it was great!

If you are wondering how to dye wool or silk yarn, here’s how I do it. I’m going to focus on hand painting yarn in this post. I’ll talk about dyeing in a pot for solid or semi-solid colors in another post.

First of all, if you want to make repeatable colors, consider going metric. As an American, I feel like I am at a bit of a disadvantage over those of you from “across the pond.” Most of the time, it isn’t a big deal, but believe me when I tell you that figuring out how much dye you need for a 1% solution is much easier using the metric system. I am using 400 gram squeeze bottles, so a 1% solution means 4 grams of dye. Much, much easier than figuring out what 1% of 16 ounces is, isn’t it?

If you are dyeing in a pot, it’s even more helpful. The most common skein size is 3.5 ounces, right? Quick–what is 1% of 3.5 ounces? Yeah–me neither. But ask me what 1% of 100 grams is (same as 3.5 ounces), and it’s a piece of cake.

The first step is to make up the dye solutions. This is where you need a mask because dye powder is very fine and can be a problem for your lungs. Until recently, I used really cheap masks, but since I expect to be doing a lot more dyeing, I decided to get a better kind. After a bit of research, I decided to get the 3M masks that are made for particulates. These are the ones I got:


I got mine on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002AUVWSC/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=aquinashomeschoo&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=B002AUVWSC&linkId=e6f8561f7f3f87f4d96362dd0e68cba0

FYI, I am an Amazon associate, so if you buy through this link, I’ll probably get a few cents from it.

I mix my dyes in the garage because I don’t want to risk any dye powder hanging out in the kitchen, and I don’t want it outside in case of a breeze either. I see lots of people doing this in their kitchen, but again, since I have small children, I’d rather be safe than sorry. Also, whatever you use for dyeing should not be used for food again. I can’t tell you how many times I have stolen from our kitchen when I needed something quickly while dyeing. If you can plan ahead, that’s obviously better and avoids losing your Pyrex measuring cup or the serving spoon from your silverware set like someone I know.

The next thing I do is heat water in my microwave in a Pyrex to almost boiling. I take the hot water out to the garage, put an empty yogurt cup on my itty-bitty scale that measures down to tenths of a gram, and turn on the scale. If it doesn’t say zero, I zero it out. I have Greek yogurt for breakfast most days and just toss these in the dishwasher and save them. They stack nicely, and they are the perfect size to fit on my scale and still show the numbers.


I got this scale years ago, but here’s one like it on Amazon. 

I mostly use Dharma dyes. I have used Cushings with success. I wanted to love Greener Shades, but so far I have not found them to be as colorfast as the Dharma acid dyes. If you dye correctly, pretty much nothing but clear water goes down the drain, and it seems like it would be more environmentally friendly to have the dye fully exhaust than not. So far, I haven’t been able to get Greener Shades to fully exhaust. I may keep trying, but for now, I’ll keep using Dharma.

I just buy primary colors for the most part and mix my own colors from the primaries. In addition to one of their primary blues, reds, and yellows, I have black, brown, and I also got chartreuse because I wasn’t able to figure out how to get a good chartreuse from the primaries. I like to start with 1% and play around from there to get the colors I’m looking for.

So I measure the amount of dye I need while the yogurt cup is on the scale, take the cup off the scale, and add just about a tablespoon of the water to make a paste. I stir the dye mixture with a spoon until all the powder is dissolved. I find that doesn’t take much if the water is good and hot, but some colors definitely take a lot more mixing than others. Once the powder is dissolved, I add more hot water and, if I’m hand painting yarn, I add the citric acid or vinegar now too. If you only dye occasionally, you might as well stick with plain old white vinegar, but if you dye frequently or just hate that vinegar smell, consider getting citric acid. It’s cheaper in the long run. Again, here’s what I buy from my favorite store. In spite of the scary name, acid, this is used in canning and as a preservative in food. It’s basically vitamin C. I put a heaping teaspoon in the yogurt cup.

After that, I keep mixing all my dyes and wait for them to cool a bit before putting them in my squeeze bottles. I once put it straight into a cheap squeeze bottle, and the bottle melted into the dye. Not pretty. I just had this discussion with a group of dyers, and one person recommended these bottles:


She said she could pour hot dye stock directly into the bottles without any problems. I will admit I did just that a couple times today when I discovered I needed a dye I hadn’t made ahead of time. I got the 16-ounce/400 mL size with wide lids, and they are working very well for me. I ended up getting 24 of them.

Since the bottles are 400 mL, if I want 1% dye solution, I need to use 4 grams of dye. With the Dharma dyes, I find that 1% is about the top end of what I use. To make what I call ballet pink, for example, I used 0.1 grams for the whole 400 mL bottle. To make a nice bright yellow, I used 3 grams for the 400 mL bottle. That’s about all the dye secrets I’m willing to divulge. 🙂

After all the dyes are mixed and once they are cooler, it’s time to pour them in the bottles and add cool water to fill it up to the top. If you want to be able to replicate your dye colors pretty exactly, you can do what I did and fill one of the squeeze bottles with 400 mL of water and then draw a line at that point with a Sharpie. After that, I just put the bottles next to each other and drew a line at the same point of each bottle. Close enough for government work as my mother used to say.

I used some sticky labels I had to write the name and recipe on each bottle. For the bright yellow, I just wrote, “Yellow, 3 g yellow.” Many of my colors have several different dyes blended together.

This post is a lot longer than I had anticipated. I’ll talk about how I hand paint yarn in Part 2.