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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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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Last updated: December 3rd, 2015.