How I Dye, Part 2

In the last post, I talked about preparing dye stock to use for hand painting. In this post, we’ll discuss hand painting yarn. The very same process is used for hand painting top or roving from animal fibers (wool, alpaca, angora, mohair, etc.) and silk. You need a different type of dye for plant fibers like cotton and linen.

The first thing to do is to tie off your yarn. You want it tied in 3 or 4 places, leaving space to move the yarn around inside the tie. I recommend adding at least one tie made of a bright-colored acrylic yarn so it’s easy to find and pick up the yarn easily after it has been dyed. If you’re dyeing top or roving, you probably can skip this step altogether until you are doing yards and yards all at once.

The next thing to do is get your yarn or fiber wet. I’m going to call it yarn from now on just so I don’t have to keep writing “yarn or fiber,” but like I said, the process is the same. If you’ll be dyeing silk, set it to soak the night before. It takes a looong time to get silk fully wet–as much as 12 hours. If you’re dyeing animal fibers (let’s call it wool), allow at least 30 minutes for it to get fully wet. Two hours is better. I add a squirt of Dawn detergent as well because it makes the dye absorb better. Others use Synthrapol or any number of wonderful-sounding wool washes like Unicorn Wool Wash. So far, I’m happy with blue Dawn.

Next, set up your dye space. I dye on my back porch and feel very fortunate to have such a big space to work with. Dyeing is messy (at least for me it is), so I prefer being outside. I have a table set up there with a sheet of plastic on top of that. If you don’t happen to have a big sheet of plastic lying around, garbage bags will work.

Now, there are lots of ways to heat your yarn, but I find the easiest and most hassle-free method is to use the oven. To do that, you need to have something to wrap the yarn in so the colors don’t get mixed while it’s cooking. I use Saran wrap. According to another dyer, Saran wrap and only Saran wrap won’t melt in the oven. I just took her at her word. I don’t know if the generic brands melt or not, but I can say from experience, that the Saran wrap works just fine. It’s one of like three things in the world that I buy the brand name for–and Dawn is one of the other ones. I forget what the third one is, but it probably has something to do with fiber arts!

On top of the plastic, I put a large enough piece of Saran wrap for the skein of yarn to rest on. This will be wrapped around the yarn when it comes time to cook it.

I didn’t think to take a picture before I started dyeing, but you can see the yarn on the Saran wrap here.


Next, take your squeeze bottles with dye and citric acid or vinegar, and get going. If you want to be able to repeat what you’re doing, take good notes. If not, just have fun. I recommend using gloves. I just got a huge package of food handler gloves on Amazon here, but you can also use (and reuse) a pair of dish-washing gloves instead. I like being able to change gloves easily when I switch colors dramatically, but the dish-washing gloves would certainly be more environmentally friendly.

You can smoosh the dye in with the gloves (be careful if you aren’t using superwash wool not to felt the yarn), and they keep your hands from being all sorts of funny colors when you’re done. Somehow, I always manage to get dye on my hands even when I do use gloves. Not sure how it happens, but the good news is that it wears off after a few days. Did I mention that you should wear old clothes for this? Chances are, you’ll get some dye on them at some point. If not, you aren’t playing hard enough.

Try to only use enough dye to cover all the yarn. Ideally you don’t want the table soaked when you’re done. I do one side in one color and then flip the yarn over to get the other side. Then I separate it a bit with my hands to make sure I haven’t missed any spots. I find leaving white areas unintentionally really doesn’t look good, so I try to avoid it. If the space around the yarn gets very wet, you might want to dry it off a bit with a paper towel before you wrap up the yarn so the colors don’t shift around.

Once the yarn is all covered in dye, fold up the Saran wrap over the yarn such that the different colors aren’t touching each other. You’re aiming to make sort of a yarn sushi roll like this.

First wrap the Saran around the bottom and top of the yarn.


Then start rolling it up like this, making sure the Saran wrap is fulling covering all sides of the yarn as you go:








And here’s the “sushi roll” of yarn all ready to go into the oven.


I try to put light colors on top if I can so that if there is any bleeding it doesn’t bleed onto the light colors. I put the wrapped yarn into a casserole pan. I can fit five or six of these into a 10 x 14 inch pan. I have great stainless steel pans that I picked up at a garage sale, and I use these for dyeing single colors sometimes too. Aluminum pans can react strangely with the dyes, but since the yarn isn’t actually touching the pans in this case, I think you can reasonably use those disposable aluminum pans from the grocery store if you like.

If I’m dyeing wool, I put the whole thing in the oven at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour. If I’m dyeing silk, I keep the temperature at 200 because I have been told that silk loses its luster above 190. However, Sara Lamb, fiber artist extraordinaire, says it really isn’t a problem.

Another method of dyeing hand-painted yarn and fiber is to steam it. Put an inch or two of water in a pot and set it to simmer. Then put your “sushi rolls” on a steamer rack, making sure the water isn’t going to touch the yarn. Put a lid on it, and let it steam for 30 or 40 minutes.

When I first started dyeing, I kept looking for exact temperatures and lengths of time because, well, I just wasn’t sure of myself and didn’t want to mess it up. However, over time I have figured out that those aren’t available because it just doesn’t need to be that exact. You don’t want the yarn to dry out, and you want it to stay hot long enough to set the dye. I have found that an hour in the oven or 30 minutes on the stove is usually enough. Just to be on the safe side, I tend to let the yarn heat set for closer to 45 minutes on the stove.

A third method is to use the microwave. If you decide to do this, you MUST use a microwave that you won’t be using for food anymore. These are actually pretty easy to find at thrift stores. I used to use this method a lot, but the trouble is that it is rather easy to burn your yarn this way, and while it is faster, it requires more hands-on time. I used to cook it for 2 minutes on and then let it rest for 2 minutes and repeat the process 3 times. That worked pretty well most of the time.

Whatever the heat source, when you are done, let the yarn cool for a while. How long a while is depends on how desperate you are to see what the yarn looks like and how willing you are to burn your fingers to find out. 🙂

Once it is cool enough to touch (see above), unwrap your sushi roll. If you are working with silk or superwash, temperature doesn’t really matter, but if you are working with any other protein fiber, feel the yarn and fill a bowl full of water that is approximately the same temperature. I just use my hands to do this, but I suppose you could use a thermometer if you had one handy. Put a squirt of Dawn detergent in the water, and gently set your yarn in it. Swish it around gently with your hands.

It’s common enough for a bit of dye to come out in the water, but if there’s a lot of dye coming off the yarn, something is not as it should be. You may have either used too much dye, needed a higher temperature, or needed more acid (citric acid or vinegar). At that point, the easiest thing to do if your yarn and water are still quite hot is to add another teaspoon of citric acid or glug of vinegar to the wash water and swish the yarn around. If that doesn’t work, you could wrap it back up and cook it for longer or you could just rinse it really well and remember what the problem was for next time.

If there is just a little dye or the water is clear, everything is as it should be. I always rinse until the water is clear. Usually, that doesn’t take much, but after the wash with a bit of Dawn, I put it through two or three rinses the same way–gently setting it in a bowl full of water the same temperature as the fiber.

After that, you can lay it on an old towel to dry or, better still, hang it up on a hook or a hanger. This is where that bright acrylic yarn comes in handy. It makes it easy to see where the individual pieces of yarn belong when you hang it, so your skein stays neater.

Well, once again, this post is a lot longer than I had intended. Dyeing is one of those things that gets to be second nature after you’ve been doing it for a while, but when you’re doing it for the first time, it can seem a little bit overwhelming, and trying to explain it step by step makes it sound more complicated than it really is. Hopefully this will make it a little easier. It’s so much fun!

Next time we’ll talk about how to dye in a pot of water, which is how I dyed these silk chiffon scarves today.


Until next time, happy fiber artistry!