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Published on December 1st, 2015 | by Angie

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How to dye wool and other fibers with food coloring

Have you ever wondered how to dye wool with simple baking supplies? Read on to learn more! 

How to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more on LoveKnitting

If you’ve been following our DIY yarn dye adventure, then you’ve already read our “science of yarn dye” post, which explains the chemical bonds that the proteins in animal fibers make with acid reactive dyes like Kool-Aid and food coloring. Just like last week’s Kool-Aid dye tutorial, this type of dye will only work with animal fibers like wool and alpaca.

How to dye wool with food coloring: read more at LoveKnitting

For this project, I used Wilton Icing Colors and the Wilton Neon Icing Colors. You can find them at most craft stores, some grocery stores in the baking aisle, and definitely on Amazon. Liquid food dye works just as well, but these food colorings are gel and super concentrated. They go much further than liquid dyes, and in general the shades turn out much more vibrant.

First, you’ll need some animal fiber like wool, alpaca, or cashmere. Any animal fiber will suffice, and you can even experiment with fiber blends if you like to live on the wild side. You will also need some simple distilled white vinegar, found in almost any grocery store. The vinegar creates an acidic environment for the protein fibers in the yarn to bond with the dye molecules in the dye. You must use vinegar, or your dye will not be wash fast.

How to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more on LoveKnitting

You need to soak your yarn in a vinegar and water bath for at least 20 minutes before you start to dye, to allow the fiber to soak up the acidity. A good rule of thumb is 1/4 cup of vinegar for every 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of yarn, with enough water to cover the yarn.

Dye bath

A dye bath is one of the most low-maintenance way to to dye yarn. For this method, you simply put your vinegar-soaked yarn into a pot with another 1/4 cup of vinegar for every 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of yarn. Put the food coloring into the pot and gently stir to disperse the dye. Remember, these dyes are very concentrated, so add the dye one toothpick drop at a time. I chose to use the Teal and Purple shades from the neon icing pack, and used 4 toothpick drops per shade.

How to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more at LoveKnitting

You will need to slightly agitate the yarn to disperse the dye, but be gentle! Heat the pot slowly – you don’t want to shock your yarn and felt it on accident. When the water is almost boiling, Take the pot off the heat and let it cool to room temperature before you use room temperature water to rinse the yarn and hang it to dry. If you use cold water, you could felt your yarn. Patience is key!

How to dye wool and other fibers: read more at LoveKnitting

This yarn is Cascade 128 Superwash, a bulky weight yarn that’s spun with 100% wool. It’s super soft and machine washable, even after dyeing! I like to have big variations between light and dark in my yarns, so I didn’t agitate my yarn. If you want a more solid shade, you’ll have to poke at your yarn periodically, being careful not to felt it.

fd14

Hand painted

If you feel more creative or want a variegated or self-striping yarn, you can hand paint it. You can use squirt bottles, sponges, or paintbrushes to achieve a number of stunning results. Make sure you use gloves, so you don’t dye your fingers along with your yarn!

I chose to use sponges for more control. I used 2 tablespoons of vinegar, 4 ounces of water, and one toothpick dip of dye for each shade used. I cut a kitchen sponge into 4 pieces and used one chunk per shade to sponge on the color.

How to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more at LoveKnitting

Using this method, you can create a slight variegated yarn, like I did by using Teal, Neon Teal, and 2 concentrations of Kelly Green (read more on color formulas below). This yarn is West Yorkshire Spinners Bluefaced Leicester Naturals DK, spun with 100% wool from sheep in Leicester, England.

How to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more at LoveKnitting

Or, you could create a self striping yarn with a warmer color palette. I used Lemon Yellow, Golden Yellow, Orange, and Red, using half the dye as the normal color formula to get a pastel look. I used sponges again for this method.

Hoe to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more at LoveKnitting

You’ll note that the stripes repeat more frequently than in my previous gently variegated skein. For this version, I used Cascade Highland Duo, a super soft blend of merino wool and alpaca that will make any knitter’s heart sing as you work with it.

Finally, you could sponge or squirt dye to make a fast repeating stripe, which works well for small projects like accessories and socks. I chose a pattern of Rose, Magenta from the neon pack, and Violet.

How to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more at LoveKnitting

Again, I used sponges: I found them to be much tidier than using a squirt bottle, but you can choose whichever method brings you more joy. After all, this is all about delight and creativity, not rigid rules. This yarn is Berroco Ultra Alpaca Light, a DK weight yarn that’s super soft and takes dye like a dream. I think this skein is destined for a pair of bright and bold socks!

How to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more at LoveKnitting

Lastly, you could use a small paintbrush for a more delicate, mottled effect. I used this method On GGH Baby Alpaka Natural, a worsted weight undyed yarn. I chose Sand (02), and used Burgundy, Brown, and a darker concentration of Brown to create a mottled, heather-like shade.

How to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more at LoveKnitting

As you can see, this effect is not dramatic or bold; rather, it creates a delicate effect that’s perfect for spicing up a neutral shade of yarn.

How to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more at LoveKnitting

If you choose to hand paint your yarn, they still need heat to set. I steamed my yarns in a steamer basket for 40 minutes before leaving them to cool, but you might decide to microwave them instead. Caution: if you choose to microwave, do so in short 1 – 2 minute bursts (for about 5 – 6 minutes) so you don’t accidentally cook your yarn. 

Color formulas

If you’re wondering how much dye to use to achieve these colors, read on! These are basic formulas that you can alter to meet your needs. Remember, it’s not the amount of water used, it’s the amount of dye. More dye means darker colors, and less means a more pastel palette.

how to dye wool with food dye: read more on LoveKnitting

It’s important to note that even though you soaked your yarn in a vinegar mixture, you need to mix the dyes with vinegar as well. For my shades, I mixed 2 tablespoons of vinegar with 4 ounces of water and dye measured by inserting a toothpick into the dye and then placing it in the vinegar bath.

Dye wool with food coloring: read more at LoveKnitting

From left to right, the color formulas are as follows:

– 1 Lemon Yellow

– 1 Golden Yellow

– 1 Orange (Neon pack)

– 1 Copper

– 1 Rose

– 1 Magenta (Neon pack)

– 1 Red

– 1 Burgundy

How to dye wool and other fibers with food dye: read more at LoveKnitting

Again, from left to right, the shades are as follows:

– 2 Kelly Green

– 1 Kelly Green

– 1 Teal

– 1 Teal (Neon pack)

– 1 Royal Blue

– 1 Violet

– 1 Purple (Neon pack)

– 1 Royal Blue + 1 Red

– 1 Black

How to dye wool with food coloring: read more at LoveKnitting

Are you inspired to break out the food dye after learning how to dye wool? Tell me in the comments, and let me know if you have any questions. Happy dyeing!

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About the Author

Jack of all trades, Master of Netflix and video games. A musician by passion, a gamer by choice, and a crafter by chance: I write about knitting and crochet, design fun patterns, and blog at GamerCrafting!


Last updated: August 2nd, 2017.

12 Responses to How to dye wool and other fibers with food coloring

  1. Jackie says:

    For the hand painted yarns, don’t you need to apply heat to set the colour? I’ve seen a lot of YouTube videos where the hand painted skein is “steamed” in the microwave. Is this step necessary? If so, whats your preferred method for heating hand painted skeins so the colours don’t mix?

    • Angie says:

      Hi JAckie,

      I thought I wrote it into the post but I guess I didn’t – I will fix that now. Yes, you need to steam the yarn for about 40 minutes. You can choose to microwave the yarn, but do so at short intervals so you don’t accidentally burn your yarn. Happy dyeing!

  2. SHARRRON says:

    do the colors wash out when you wash the wool or bleed

    • Angie says:

      Hi Sharrron,

      As long as you rinse them thoroughly before you hang them to dry, they won’t bleed. They are wash fast because the colors chemically bond to the wool. Happy dyeing!

  3. sue says:

    very good tutorial, can i just suggest one more thing to add, it’s just a small knitted sample of the yarn, my mind just can’t picture it made up, and that makes it difficult to do a good job.

  4. Carol A. Boomershine says:

    Thanks for this. Bought Wilton food coloring a couple of years ago, but have yet to try this method. Have used the Kool Aid dying and loved the result. Will try the food coloring after Christmas, since it’s getting a bit too close for comfort!
    Knit on!

  5. Roxana Collins says:

    Any ideas on how to die non-wool yarns, like acrylic from Turkey? or over-dying some dark colors into something more interesting?

    • Angie says:

      Hi Roxana,

      To dye acrylics, you would need a direct dye like I Dye Poly (not to be confused with I Dye, which only works on animal fibers). These dyes are relatively safe to dye at home, but generally require excellent ventilation; you also need a pot that you won’t ever be using for food again, because these dyes are not food safe. Disperse dyes can only achieve pale – medium shades, trying to use more intense shades doesn’t work.

      It’s almost impossible to overdye a dark color – overdyeing only works on pale – medium shades.

      Hope that helps! Happy dyeing!

  6. Amy Palafox says:

    I’ve been wanting to hand-dye some wool yarn for a while, but I wan’t sure how to do it. I’ve used fiber-reactive dyes with cotton fabric, but plant fibers and animal/protein fibers are quite different. I’m concerned about using vinegar with wool, but I’m excited about trying this technique. I’ve got a number of Wilton gel colors in stock left from years of cake/cupcake decorating for my kids, and this is easier and safer than all the chemicals used with fiber-reactive dyes.:)

  7. Allyson says:

    I have been dying (no pun intended!) to knit a scarf and then dip dye the ends, and it never occurred to me that food coloring would work! And luckily I have a whole mess of Wilton food colors. The process wouldn’t be any different if I wanted to knit first and dye after, would it?

    • Angie says:

      Hi Allyson!

      The process would be similar, but you’re at a higher risk of felting, so you would have to be very careful not to prod it too much. Happy dyeing!

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