How do you space-dye sock yarn? (part 2)

See part 1 for information on where to put the color on the skeins for a variety of results.

Create the dye-liquor

For hand-painted, space-dyed yarn, with Cushing's acid dyes, a 1% (one percent) solution provides a medium color as shown on the Cushing's acid dye color card. What, you are wondering, is a 1% solution? It means, 1% of dye powder and 99% of liquid, in your dye-liquor. Cushing's being an acid dye, some of that liquid is vinegar -- to be "exact", 12.5% of it should be vinegar. Simple, plain, cheap white vinegar from the supermarket or your favorite warehouse.

A packet of Cushing's acid dye has 1/3 of an ounce of dye powder in it. Conveniently, this means we need 32 2/3 ounces of liquid. So, save those 32 ounce beverage bottles! (but put DYE on them in Big, Permanent Marker!)

Steps to make dye liquor with Cushing's acid dyes -- outdoors or somewhere you don't care about the color splashing:
0. put on some plasticy gloves -- vinyl, latex, whatever. You don't want rainbow fingers!
1. put powder into bottle (use a funnel for this and future steps if it helps -- but mark it dye use only!)
2. add 1/2 cup (4 oz) hot water
3. swirl bottle (put cap in if mess is a possibility) until the powder dissolves. Reds take a while to dissolve!
4. add 1/2 cup (4 oz) vinegar, swirl to blend
5. add 3 cups (24 oz) water (room temperature, cold, hot - whatever you like!), swirl to blend.

Put the color, brand, and date on the bottle, and be sure bottle and cap are marked DYE.

If you are using another brand of dye, check their concentration need for a medium solution; I noticed my Jacquard acid dyes said they needed a 2% solution -- so I'd want to use 2/3 oz. of Jacquard dye powder in my 32 oz. bottle.

Now, that 32 ounces of dye liquor is enough to dye 1 pound of wool. If you're only dyeing a few 4 ounce sock skeins, it will go a long way in space-dyeing! So consider a dye party and share your colors.

I've stored dyes up to a year and had them work fine; others have had the vinegar develop a "mother"; your results may vary. Store them in a cool, dark place if you do store the left-overs. If there are left-overs...

Prepare the skein
Now, having read part 1, you have already skeined up your yarn to suit your dyeing, and added so many figure-8 ties that a trip to the moon wouldn't phase your skein-work, correct? Then, next you need to pre-wet your skein.

Dyers-who-know use a substance called synthrapol - just a little glug in a bucket of warm-ish tap water; dyers-who-dabble (me!) use a squeeze or two of dishsoap in a bucket of warm-ish tap water for the same effect. Synthrapol and dish soap have the property of helping wet the fibers and allowing water (and thus, dye liquor, later!) to travel more easily through the fibers.

For regular wool/animal fibers, 5-20 minutes is enough. For silk, a tightly spun yarn (for example: yarns that are i-cords or chains, cable yarns), or knitted tubes or blanks, soak it for at least 2 hours, overnight even to get it really well wetted down.

When you are ready to dye (not much sooner, since you don't want it to dry!, take it out of the bucket, squeeze out what water you can, and holding the skein carefully so as not to tangle it, "wuzz" it -- swing it in a large circle, preferrable outdoors where you won't get anything that can't handle the water, wet. Water will fly in all directions! Your skein will be damply wet, but will take a few seconds before it starts to drip, after you've done this step.

Now lay your skein out on plastic wrap on your dye table -- which is covered in a tarp or with one of those really huge automotive oil drip pans, right? If you have a 3-part fair-isle skein, you'll want a separate piece for each part, even the undyed middle section.

Apply the dye
This was really cool: one of the dyers at Lacey wrote the basic rainbow colors plus black and brown on the handles of my foam brushes. Red, Blue, Orange, Yellow, Purple, Green, Black, Brown. It worked great for sharing brushes! A quick rinse and you knew you'd be "okay" to use the brush in your version of Purple (we had 4 purples that day).

Put on your gloves and have paper towels handy to mop up spills.

Write the color you are using on your cup, and pour some of the dye liquor into it. I had 6 ounce styrofoam cups, paper work too, and filled them usually not more than 1/3-1/2 full at a time.

Then, you paint! Dip brush in dye cup, tap it against the side so it's not drippy, and paint. However, the "painting" is not a stroking motion, more of a dabbing/tapping. The harder you dab, the further the color goes.

You want to use as little dye as possible so your skein isn't swimming in liquid when you are done -- so paint the top, then turn your skein over and paint the other side the same. Enough color should show through to do that. Also, check the middle of the skein to ensure the color is working into the middle. You may find that squeezing the skein helps work color into paler spots, once you've basically covered the skein.

If the skein is dripping, then mop up the excess with paper towels before wrapping to to set the dye.

Set the dye

Still with those gloves on, add plastic wrap so both sides are covered, and roll up your skein. I usually separate halves with the plastic wrap, then lay them next to each other and roll it up. If I'm dyeing a fair-isle skein with 3 distinct color patterns, I roll up the undyed section too, and may add a second layer of plastic wrap outside the colored sections in case dye leaches out in the microwave.

Yep -- microwave! Get a cheap/small one at Goodwill or your local discount store and label it "dye use only". Skip the amazingly huge ones that are $5 at garage sales -- if it's light enough to cart around, you can bring it to guild "dye-ins".

Here's how you set the dye: put your plastic-wrapped skein in a microwaveable dish or container that fits in the microwave. Microwave on full power as follows:

Two minutes full power
Two minutes resting (you can slot in a second dye job for these two minutes!)
Two minutes full power
Two minutes resting (keep that second dye job going)
Two minutes full power

So, your skein has had 6 minutes total under microwaves with the resting time between so it didn't get cooked. It will be hot!!! Let it sit. If you have dye-only silicone oven gloves, you can put them on to unwrap the skein while hot, so it cools sooner.

We dyed in 4 oz. and 8 oz. lots -- small microwaves don't fit much more than 8 ounces of yarn comfortably.

Wait for it to be completely cool, because next you need to rinse it, to remove any excess dye. Once it's cool, unwrap all the plastic wrap, and dunk the skein in a bucket of room temperature water. If color shows up in the water, you may need to do several rinses until it stops releasing excess dyes.

Once the skein is rinsed, squeeze out the water and wuzz it again (see "Prepare the skein" above), then hang it outside to drip dry.


If you did a fair-isle sock yarn, you'll need to re-mount the yarn on the winding board. Most boards have an adjustment or an inner set of holes for the pegs so you can put your skein back on -- they just seem to shrink when you dye them, enough to make it hard to put them back on an unadjustable board. Rewind from the board into a hand-wound ball, using a ball winder, niddy-noddy, or skeiner. Usually a hand-wound ball is easiest, as somehow they manage to tangle no matter what. Then you can reskein from the ball once you are done.

Re-skeining is a terrific way to get an idea how your yarn will look when knitted up. The super-regular pattern of your space-dyeing is broken up by using a standard skein size such as 1.5 or 2 yards. Compare the photo at the top of this posting, of mostly not-reskeined space-dyeing, with that below, of mostly re-skeined - the same skeins!

A final note -- hand-dyed yarns can bleed color in hot water. I've yet to find a reliable way to prevent this, though I'm told that steaming the yarn for a long period of time can prevent it (haven't tried it yet!). Reds in particular like to run, so if you've any red, use it in an item for someone who knows to wash in cold water. And, results may vary depending on your water source -- yarns that wash fine for me always bleed for my friend whose well is on a different aquifer.

(these are notes from the dye class I taught at Lacey in April 2007)


Amelia, belle of The Bellwether said...

For a more abbreviated posting, see:
How do you dye self-striping sock yarn?

For Sale Page said...

Wow - What a great resource! I planned on dyeing this summer and this will be my guide.

Thanks - Dawn

Kate/Massachusetts said...

This is an great post! Thank you so much for writing this. I have often wondered how people got started.

Anonymous said...

Knitting socks with space dyed yarn has to be an experience!
One suggestion. I put liquid dye in white tofu containers (you get in the grocery store) with a flat bottom. They don't tip over and you can see the dye color well.