All Tangled Up In Color

Sunni's picture

Snolf the First and I have been; and Snolf the Second is eagerly awaiting her turn.

My dear friend Lewlew introduced me to the joys of using food colors to dye yarn some time ago. It’s taken me far too long, but I finally screwed up my courage and gave it a try. This kind of dyeing truly is an experiment each time, as all kinds of variables affect the result—pH; presoaking the yarn (and if so, with or without acid in the water); dye choice(s); method of applying the dye(s), etc. That’s a good part of why I had to work up to it: I didn’t want to go through all the effort and end up with something ugly.

I began, as so often I do, by going completely overboard and buying cones of white sock yarn. I now have miles of sock yarn to play with—but that means the first step of the dyeing process is actually winding off the desired quantity of yarn. I don’t have a way to measure the yarn as it comes off the cone, so Snolf the First and I devised a rough approximation of a yard. He measured it out while I skeined it. He requested a uniform, dark green color [I think he wants me to go blind knitting him dark–colored socks], which my researches suggested would be best achieved by combining two shades of Wilton’s icing gel colors.

My first hand-dyed yarnThe only problem was, the purple broke in to its constituent red and blue, and then started turning to brown in some places. Also, I tied my ties around the skein too tightly, so there were areas that weren’t getting any dye. In a panic, I mixed more dye, and added it; then I grabbed regular green food coloring and started adding it to the pot, both dropping it directly on white patches and swirling it through the water. You can see the result in the photo to the right. Well, you can see part of the result—the truth is the skein has bits of purple and white in it, that splotch of yellow, and a lot of brown in addition to the various greens.

 Forest floor Snolf the First was not very pleased, although he did say it was pretty. The photo to the left is the same skein; the brown is much more visible here. I like it well enough, but it wasn’t what I’t promised him, so after doing some more research, I set out again to get a uniform dark green.

And I failed again, but not as spectacularly as the first attempt. It may have worked if I’d’ve just used a green dye, but I didn’t think the two shades I have would be dark enough. So, I combined purple and yellow to get green. The problem with that method is that the purple dye is fragile—it easily separates into its red and blue components; and they require differing pHs to set in the yarn. That was the source of the brown in my first skein. So, with my second effort, I added no acid at first, then slowly increased it so that all the colorings would set properly.

 GreensOddly enough, theory doesn’t always work that neatly in practice. I started getting some brown again, but rather than panic, I let the original dye exhaust, slowly lowering the pH so all the components could set properly. Then I added both of the greens I have (McCormick’s regular food coloring, and Wilton’s “leaf green” icing gel). It isn’t uniform, as you can see, but it is all green, and Snolf the First is pleased.

The next thing to work on is his measuring technique. I weighed both balls of yarn, and the second one weighs about 30 g less than the first. Dunno what that translates into in yardage, but I think there’ll be enough for his socks. To be certain, I’ll knit them toe–up. Another new technique for me to learn! And Darlin’ Daughter has already put me on notice: she wants her yarn to be pink and purple. Both of those are notoriously difficult to do well (again, because of dye separation) ... so I have my work cut out for me. If I ever get time to dye some yarn for myself, I don’t know what I’ll do ... maybe turquoise and yellow. Or perhaps I’ll try to capture the glorious colors of autumn leaves.

lovely, lovely, lovely


Your experiments with dye have produced incredible results, even if snolf #1 wasn't happy with the first attempt. You've encountered the bain of home-dyeing: getting even coverage. I've found that the most even coverage is from immersing all the yarn into the dye at the same time in a large ceramic pan (like a turkey roaster). For ease, I often use a crock pot to dye yarn the same color, but the result is uneven (albeit still incredibly lovely).

As for measuring, if you have space somewhere set up a yarn winding station. Put two knobs up that will give you a yard wrap (per wrap) from yarn and keep count on the first skein you create. Weigh that skein. And subsequent skeins from the same type of yarn should be roughly the same yardage. Or you can count the yards each time you wind a new skein.

I am looking forward to seeing more of your dyed skeins!!!

Stovetop method

Thanks, Lewlew. The method I used for both skeins was a stockpot heated on the stovetop. The first time the yarn was already in the hot water, and I’d added vinegar to the dye solution. The second time I mixed the dye solution, added it to the pot of cool water, then added the yarn and let it sit for about 15 minutes before starting to heat the mixture. Once it was 170°F, I pushed the yarn to one side, added vinegar on the other side, and tried to mix it in well. (Someone posted this method on Ravelry as the best way to get even colors with Wilton’s icing gels.)

I can’t imagine trying to dye a sweater’s worth of yarn, even using fingering weight ... perhaps my first efforts are atypical, but I am even more impressed by indie dyers who can replicate their colorways multiple times.

Thanks for the winding tips, too; we’ll give that a try.

too much yarn in the pot...

... is a total bitch. I tried to do three skeins of a bulky weight (what was I thinking?!) in one dye batch. Very interesting, but different, results.

Not one of my challenges

Three skeins of bulky—yow! I bet my largest stockpot could handle that ... but I’d still be nervous about the process. I have several rather large stockpots from the days of feeding growing male teenagers ... one has been set aside as the snake bathtub; the other three are still needed on occasion for cooking. Maybe if I get better at this I’ll get comfortable enough to do multiple skeins in the largest one.

Do you have photos of your bulky dye job posted anywhere?

I do =)

Just in the dye pot, however. I tried to copy the image and paste it here but it did not work. Do I need to upload the photo to my photobucket account and then put a link here?


The first batch would make an interesting sort of heather looking fabric when knitted. I'll bet a scarf of that would be gorgeous!

I'd be concerned that the color wouldn't hold through washings. Is it wash proof?

I finally settled on a way to use the wonderful wool yarn I bought a while ago. I'll simply crochet granny squares! A vest doesn't need to be sized strictly, and I'll finally get some use out of it.

Anyway, good luck with the pink. :)

Mostly colorfast ...

Thanks, Mama—I was thinking of some sort of scarf or shawl for the first skein, too.

I'd be concerned that the color wouldn't hold through washings. Is it wash proof?

Yes; the vinegar sets the dye, so it shouldn’t bleed in a proper washing (mild soap, cool water). I hear that KoolAid dyes can fade with a lot of sun exposure, though; I don’t know if Wilton’s has the same problem.

Your granny–square vest sounds like a great idea. I’ve seen some amazing things created from granny squares on Ravelry.


You need to make sure that the water is clear in the rinse stage, or some colors are notorious for not being colorfast. In my experience, reds and purples are the main culprits. Now, any dyed wool will probably bleed some when washed, but what I'm talking about it having the yarn stain your fingers when knitting with it. If that happens, go through the set cycle again with vinegar.

Then again...

I only tried dying things a few times and never had any real luck at it. I followed all the directions on the "Ritz" box carefully when dying some nice but ugly curtains one time. The only dye that was truly colorfast was what splashed onto the counter and my clothes. The curtains faded fast, both from sun and subsequent washings.

I think I'll just buy wool that is already the color I want... or close enough. :)

Home dyeing is not to die for

Not if you want a truly colorfast item, that is. My very limited understanding is that if a dye doesn’t require acid to set it, it requires a mordant—and they can be not–so–nice chemicals, many with metals we don’t need in our bodies. A long time ago, though, I came across a book on dyeing with mushrooms; apparently they can give vibrant, rich (and sometimes unexpected) colors. As that pursuit would scratch at least three of my itches, I may have to do some research on it.

In our bodies?

and they can be not–so–nice chemicals, many with metals we don’t need in our bodies.

I'm confused. How would the metals, etc. get into our bodies from yarn?

Not from the yarn

The metals could get in via inhaling vapors or contact with skin while dyeing the yarn.

also the disposal of mordants can be an issue

Because of the toxic nature of some of the mordants, not only do you have to be extra careful in your handling of them, disposal is a huge issue.

Oh sure!

Didn't think of that. Seems like one more good reason to buy yarn already dyed. :) At least for me. I'm far too lazy to go to all that work.