• My Dyeing Day

    IMG_0960I decided a few weeks ago that I wasn’t knitting Baby Jay any more baby sweaters. He outgrows them so quickly, he already has a pile of beautiful, hand knit sweaters he cannot wear anymore. It’s all 12 months and up for my needles from now on! When I found a great pattern online, I decided to knit him the 18 month size, but I didn’t have enough appropriate yarn in my stash. I realized quickly there were going to be a lot of stitches in this little sweater so it needed to be pleasant to knit. I also knew I wanted it to be a superwash merino that it could be machine washed. I also wanted something hand-dyed with some gorgeous tone-on-tone color. I couldn’t find a yarn I loved. Well, I could. I did. The problem was the price tag. Then I remembered: I can dye yarn!

    wetting the wool

    wetting the wool

    So I ordered two 18 month sweaters’ worth of soft merino superwash yarn from Dharma Trading for the same price I’d have paid for a single sweater’s worth of someone else’s hand dyed. As I put enough for a sweater in to soak, I was reminded of a story in Judges 6:36-40.

    Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised— look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.

    Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.

    A professor in seminary once used this story as an example of how some Bible stories seem to have no meaning at all and are really hard to preach. I piped up with, “This is about the absorption properties of wool.” She rolled her eyes.

    Back to the dyeing. Here’s my usual dyeing process for wool and other animal fibers, modified after dyeing with my friend Jaime this week:

    1. Soak yarn in water with a touch of detergent (Synthropol, Dharma Textile Detergent, or Dawn Dishwashing Liquid). Gently drain.
    2. Prepare dye base color and apply to yarn.
    3. Microwave for two minutes and then one minute at a time, taking breaks so the yarn and water can cool, until the water runs clear.
    4. Prepare highlight/lowlight dye and apply to yarn. Repeat microwaving.
    5. Prepare toner dye and apply to yarn. Repeat microwaving.
    6. Rinse in hot water, running final rinse with Unicorn Fibre Rinse (which softens yarn and pulls out any excess dye.)
    7. Hang to dry.

    So I got out the Kool-Aid. Now, Kool-Aid is not professional grade fiber dye, but it has some massive advantages. It is food safe, so you can use your normal bowls in your kitchen. It requires no additives. Wool and other animal fibers love acid, so you usually have to add acid to to dyes to make the animal fibers take the color. Unsweetened Kool-Aid is basically dye and citric acid, so it’s already perfect for dyeing animal fiber. All you need is Kool-Aid, water, a microwave, and a little color sense.

    Using my rule of thumb or one packet per once of yarn, I used 8 packets of blue Kool-Aid, a mix of Blue Raspberry Lemonade and Mixed Berry. (By the way, Kool-Aid is not the color of the packet. It’s the color of the liquid in the glass the Kool-Aid man is holding on the packet.) I added warm water to the dye and mixed. It was really bright Turquoise. Turquoise is one of the primary dyeing colors (CMY: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, just like on your printer cartridges).


    To tone it down, I add the color opposite on the color wheel. Opposing colors look great together, but when you mix them in a dye, they make the color murkier and more sophisticated. Since I didn’t want the yarn to look like it was dyed with Kool-Aid, I added one packet of Orange and got a lovely Russian Blue color. I added about 12 ounces of water.

    8 Turquoise + 1 Orange = Russian Blue

    8 Turquoise + 1 Orange = Russian Blue

    I gently drained the yarn from its mild detergent bath, put it in a big bowl, and poured the dye on top. In the ten seconds it took me to get my phone for a photo, the dye disappeared! The water was white. When I turned the yarn over in the bowl, I realized the dye had never penetrated beyond the top of the yarn. It was all white underneath! I’ve never seen that happen. I knew it would turn white because I was using a lemonade flavor of Kool-Aid, but I didn’t expect it to turn white before it hit the microwave!

    The water turned white in 10 seconds with no microwaving!

    The water turned white in 10 seconds with no microwaving!

    I only had two packets of blue left. In a panic, I mixed my lowlight color. I mixed two packets of blue with a packet of green, thinking there’d be enough blue in the green to make it work. I added water and had green. Ugly green. Kool-Aid green. So I sat back and thought for a minute. Red is the opposing color for green, but what I needed was more blue. “So if I add purple…” I thought. I got olive. Deep, dark olive. When it hit the yarn, the yarn turned black. This is some kind of Kool-Aid miracle that I will repeat every time I dye from now on.




    Once again, the dye hit the yarn, the yarn changed color, and the water turned white with no additional heat used. The colors looked great, but the yarn still had massive white areas. It wasn’t the tone-on-tone effect I was looking for. I called Alex (who was conveniently already at the grocery store) and had him buy me mass quantities of blue Kool-Aid. I mixed up two more batches of 8 blue and 1 orange.

    For the first batch, I laid the yarn out in a plastic wrap covered pan and applied the dye with a squeeze bottle, which allowed more precision especially with yarn that sucks up the dye so quickly. I turned it over once to get all the spots covered. This took about a batch and a half. As I smushed the dye into the yarn, I could see the yarn was still taking dye without additional heat.


    I added an additional half packet of orange to the remaining half batch of dye to get a murkier color and then carefully dropped in both skeins in at the same time, gently moving the dye and yarn with my rubber-glove covered hands. The yarn wasn’t taking the dye as quickly at this point, but I still didn’t need to add heat. This murkier tone worked to tone down the differences between the darker, black-toned areas and the lighter areas.


    During the last stage of dyeing, toning down the color differences, the dye disappeared without additional heat but took a minute and a little agitation.

    I rinsed in warm water until the water ran clear. It only took about a minute. The super wash yarn really took the dye! I added Unicorn Fibre Rinse in the next to last rinse, and got pure turquoise exhaust, which left me with a greener color on the yarn than I had anticipated.


    turquoise exhaust

    I gently squeezed out the excess water, shook down the skeins, and hung them to dry. They are in low sun right now, drying out so I can wind them into balls this afternoon and cast on Baby Jay’s sweater. It’s not what I expected, but I am quite happy with the results. It sure doesn’t look like a Kool-Aid color!


    The finished yarn, hanging to dry. 26 packets of blue, 3.5 of orange, 1 grape, and 1 green apple total.

    The Bible says a lot about fiber. I preached just a couple of weeks ago about Lydia, “the seller of purple” who was the first European convert of one of Paul’s missions. We buy our clothes at stores, but in the long span of the Biblical era, people’s daily lives were consumed with fiber issues. They had to raise the sheep, sheer them, clean the fleeces, card and spin and dye the wool, weave it, and then make their clothes out of the cloth. Stories such as the one in Judges 6 would have made more sense to people who had to work with wool on a daily basis than they do to us today. I get to choose to work with wool today, and it’s always fun and slightly surprising.

    If you’re interested in dyeing, I’ve added a few notes of interest below.

    1. Be careful with wool when dyeing. Too much heat, agitation, and moisture can cause animal fibers to felt. Always rinse, squeeze, and agitate carefully, even with Superwash.
    2. Superwash wool is notoriously thirsty. It is, in some ways, a dyer’s dream, but it will take the color so quickly there is little room for error.
    3. Kool-Aid only dyes animal fibers. It will stain other fibers (and your counter), but it only truly dyes animal fiber.
    4. Always use unsweetened Kool-Aid packets. The sugar will make a mess of your yarn. Generic varieties also work.
    5. Don’t leave Kool-Aid dyed yarn in direct sunlight. It’s permanent, but it will fade in direct light.
    6. The amount of water doesn’t matter in Kool-Aid dyeing, except in terms of how long it takes to heat (if you don’t have the miracle of heatless dyeing I did!).
    7. The primary colors of dye are CMY, not Blue, Red, and Yellow. Turquoise dyes are notoriously difficult. They tend to exhaust more than other colors, so you generally need to use more turquoise than other colors to get the blue to take. Purple is also quite difficult as it is prone to “break” into its component colors of red and blue.
    8. Use opposite colors on the wheel to get more sophisticated colors than the bright colors of Kool-Aid.
    9. You can continue to add dye until the fibers are completely saturated in color. I do this in rounds, not all at once so I can modify the results on the fly.