Dyeing fiber is a great way to add extra zing to your yarn. You can dye fleece, batts, roving, or yarn. Dyeing fleece that is still in the grease can lead to interesting results since the level of grease in different parts of the fleece will cause the takeup of dye to vary over the fiber.
Dyeing with drink mixes such as Kool-Aid™ or cake icing colors such as Wilton's™ is an easy, relatively safe way to dye. Some natural dyes can also be used without poisonous mordants. Mordants are the substances used to make the dye soak into the fiber; for Kool-Aid and Wilton's, you can simply use white vinegar.
There are good instructions available on Kool-Aid dyeing, as well as useful color charts. Wilton's web site also has a good writeup on mixing colors. (editor's note ... this page has moved before, so if it fails, go to wilton.com and do a search on "mixing colors" or "color chart").
Deb Menz's book Color in Spinning is an amazing treatise delving into dyes, color blending, and color theory for fiber in general. Her videos and classes on the topic are also quite wonderful.
Koolaid, Wilton's, and food coloring will work on all protein (animal) fibers -- wool, angora, mohair (wonderfully!), llama, alpaca, cashmere, silk, camel, yak, quiviut, ... and others I've left out inadvertently.
And don't only dye white fiber -- dyeing natural soft tans leads to rich jewel tones, and dyeing greys leads to smokey earthy tones.
Here's what I do: presoak the skein of yarn in a mix of 3/4 warm water and 1/4 white vinegar. It doesn't have to be exact, and the amount only needs to cover the yarn. Leave it for an hour or even overnight, to get fully soaked.
Spread some plastic wrap out on a table, gently squeeze the excess water/vinegar from the yarn so it's not very drippy, and lay out the skein on the plastic wrap.
Thin Wilton's icing dye with a little water or mix the koolaid with a little water. You want a thin paste/thick water consistency, so it's runny enough to spread but not enough to spread too much. You don't need much of the Wilton's, a little goes a long way. "Paint" the length of yarn you want the color you want. I tend to leave a little uncolored in between, more if I've made the thin paste watery, which it is easy to do. Make sure you get all the yarn -- I turn it over and also pick through it a bit. I use a teaspoon to do my "painting", or a needle-less syringe like the one used for baby medicine.
I tend to paint from end to end, not in a circle - it's easier that way, and you end up with one long snake, without any worries about the halves being different colors. Once it's painted, if you want, use a paper towel to soak up the excess dye mix - use a different towel for each color so it doesn't get mixed!
Also, using colors that mix well next to each other is a good idea. Putting orange next to purple is risky, and doesn't always turn out.
Wrap the skein into a snake with the plastic wrap, it can be loose but you don't want it too loose. Think of it looking like a long sausage, if that helps. Roll it into a circle, like a cinnamon roll. Place it in a microwaveable dish or freezer baggy, since invariably the plastic wrap leaks.
In the microwave, do this:
1. high for 2 minutes
2. open the door and let it rest 2 minutes
3. high for 2 minutes
4. open the door and let it rest for 2 minutes
If it looks like there is still alot of dyebath that has not exhausted (gone clear), and the yarn has not taken up the color, repeat once more. I don't tend to get a clear dyebath this way, though it is paler than when I started.
Take the snake, open one end (it's hot, use dish gloves or oven gloves!) and slide out the yarn. Rinse it in cool water in the sink until it rinses clean. There is some danger of felting in this step, so handle the yarn carefully. You can let it sit until it's cool enough to handle without gloves, just be careful the colors don't get mixed up from doing this.
Another fun thing you can do is make a dyebath one color and then sprinkle koolaid of a complementary color directly onto the wool just before wrapping it; it gives an interesting speckled effect. Note, yellow speckles don't show up on orange yarn - it's best if the speckles are darker than the yarn color.
Another fun thing to do is 'polka dot yarn' -- start with a light colored yarn, soak it and lay it out, then put single drops of food coloring on it. This gives you a yarn that is mostly the undyed color, with various colors of polka dots on it.
For related posts, see these:
Can I use easter egg dyes with wool?
How do you dye silk?
How do you use Cushing's Dyes?
How do you dye self-patterning sock yarn?
Do you have some fun tips for Kool-aid or Wilton's dyeing? Please add it in the comments here or put a link to your blog entry or web page on it. Thanks!
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