Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hand Dying Wool with Food Colouring

I love hand dyed and hand painted wool. Love it. Hand painting my own wool has been on my 'to do' list for a long time. But it has always seemed so involved. And then the cost of the dyes, and the mess…there has always been more reasons against than for. Until the other weekend. It was wet all week. Really really wet.

I just finished crocheting a little pair of lacy trousers in a 100% merino cashmere blend -I picked up half a dozen balls on clearance for $2 each! But, on the downside, they are a vomitous erky baby blue colour, it was always my intention to dye them, but I wasn't keen on exposing the beautiful soft pure wool to what is lets face it, pretty full on chemical dye. It was my nieces birthday and masses of food dye stained little fingers got me thinking……

So I started browsing the web and dying wool with food colouring is totally possible! So I kept reading, noting technique and methods from various places and then with a few skeins of cheap 100% pure wool, I started playing. I am really happy with the results.

What I learnt:
  • This is not for any fussy pedantic types, you're not going to get the colour shades and blends you think you will irrelevant of how hard you try. Once that dye comes in contact with the wool it dances to its own beat and creates a magic symphony of colour no amount of careful measuring, painting and planning could ever hope to reproduce. Let the wool sing, and go with the flow.
  • I need to work on my colour blending, blue, plus green, plus orange, plus yellow, plus red in the world of dye does not equal a rainbow, it equals a mottled brown mess. Now whilst I am really happy with the vibrancy of the colours, the colours I chose to blend didn't turn out so well. But, that is all part of the learning process.
  • Next time, wear gloves.

Now, apparently, food colouring will dye any kind of protein based yarn - that is wool, silk, alpaca etc….I am not sure if cotton fits into this category, I have not tried, I don't expect it will as it is vegetable based whereas the others are from animal (hence where the protein thing comes in I suppose)…. I plan on doing some further experimentation with cottons.

So anyway, here's what I used;

I used 100% Australian wool 8ply - I think they're Moda Vera brand from Spotlight -they're only about $2-$3 a ball.
Queen brand food dye -about $1 a 50ml bottle from your local supermarket.
A splash of vinegar and a drop of detergent.
Cling wrap.
Jars for mixing dyes.
Syringes or paint brushes for painting on the dye. (I just kind of poured and painted this time, but next time I think I will try the syringe)
A big pot for steaming and a steaming insert (I used a colander)

And here’s what I did;

I wound the balls around two chairs to get them into hanks I could work with -about 50 cm across -I tied them off with an acrylic yarn in sections, to keep them neat and tangle free.(The acrylic won't take the dye, so you know which bits are not part of the hanks.)

I filled the bathroom sink with hot water, into which I poured half a cup of vinegar -this is said to help with colour fastness, and just a drop of detergent to help open the wool fibre. Then I immersed the wool carefully in the water. You've got to soak the wool -mainly to get rid of any coatings that may be on the wool and to open up the fibres ready to receive the dye. You need to be really careful doing this as you're working with 100% wool, and with any drastic agitation, it will felt. I left it for an hour, then picking it up by the acrylic knot; I gently squeezed out as much water as possible.

While the wool was soaking, I blended up my dye's. Various sources advise that you need 500ml of water per 50g of wool. I found this to be way too much, -but I expect it will vary with the type of yarn and how fine or coarse it is. To each 500ml of water, I added about 60 ml of dye. –You can obviously use more or less depending on the colour you want to achieve. Remember it dries lighter –the best way to test your colour is to paint some on paper as its hard to judge the shade whilst its in the jar. I just winged it, -where it meets other colours on the wool it is going to blend anyway and create new colours and shade variations.

You want to put your pot of wanter on to boil at this stage so it’s ready for you when you finish painting.

On my table, I laid out cling wrap -one long piece per hank, onto which I placed the wool. Then I poured a little dye onto the wool section by section letting it soak in and blending it through with the paint brush until all three hanks are completed dyed.

Then, one hank at a time, fold the cling wrap in at the ends, then up from the bottom and down from the top until the entire hank is enclosed, then wrap it up into a little bundle. -do this for all three hanks.

Then, place the little parcels in the steamer insert (in my case colander) and steam one way up for 20 minutes, then turn them over and steam them the other way up for an additional 20 minutes.

Then, one hank at a time, unroll it from the cling wrap, and rinse it in a colander until the water runs clear - again, you need to be gentle whilst doing this so that your fibres don't felt. -I found it easiest to move and separate the hanks by picking each up by a section of the acrylic knotting. (You can see the acrylic in the photo below -its the only part still white.)

Rinse all your hanks, and gently squeeze out the water.

You want to get as much water out as possible -I even went so far as to roll them up in a towel to transfer some of the water from the hanks to the towel.

Then, hang your hanks up out of direct sunlight some place to dry.

Now apparently, so long as you hand wash garments made from this wool and dry out of the sun (as you would for any woollen garments anyway) the colour is fast.

Here, is the finished result….

Have a look at these websites for more info, I found these two in particular really helpful.

Organic Wool
Gleason's Fine Woolies Ranch


  1. Hello, I know this is off topic a bit but I'm wondering if you could help me with some info. I'd like to find out how to chart the female cycle with the moon. I've looked around on line a bit but have found it very confusing! Do you know of any sites/info that explains it simply and clearly? my email is nwales73@hotmail.com I'd be very grateful for your help, thanks so much..natalie..p.s I love your blog!

  2. Wow they turned out great Bianca! Congrats on being so frugal and creative.

  3. so clever...love that you used 'acrylic fibre' to tie off the wool, for easy visuals.
    And you're right...cotton is a cellulose fibre, and takes to dyes differently.
    can't see what you are going to make with this lot!

  4. I love how your wool turned out and found your instructions very easy to understand and clear .
    Thankyou very much !

  5. Wow, Bianca, this is beautiful !
    It must have been such an exciting process to follow - you've inspired me to have a go sometime!
    Denise x

  6. Wonderful! Not too long ago my daughter and I cut up and dyed an old wool blanket with Koolaid. It was great fun and the wool smelled really yummy :)
    Of course, we never drink the stuff but it was fun to play with. We ended up making dolly blankets out of some of the wool squares.
    I really like how your yarn turned out. Thanks for the how to!

  7. Great tutorial! Can't wait to have a go at dying some wool. :)

  8. Wow - I love how your yarns turned out! I've done a little wool dyeing (with acid dyes), but with wool fabric rather than yarn. Dyeing yarns with food colouring has been on my "one day" list for a few years (!), but I think I'm inspired to make it sooner rather than later. Thanks for stopping in to my blog too :).
    And I'll be certain to pop back here - lots of lovely things to look at and common interests.

  9. Absolutely gorgeous. I love how the colors turned out. I really should try this some time.


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