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Ever wish you could dye your own yarn to get the variegated color effect? Well I just learned how to do one method, and I’m going to share it with you here.

Knotted Skein

What you will need:
Large bowl
White vinegar
Food coloring
Saran Wrap
Small cups for mixing dye
Large syringe
Large pie plate for microwaving yarn
Towel

There are many types of dyes, but chemical dyes can be hazardous and have to be used very carefully. Food coloring, on the other hand, though it may sound like kindergarten, is very safe and offers up some amazing results. You can buy the McCormick’s liquid colors in the supermarket, but I like to use the cake decorators gel paste colors because they come in many different colors.

First of all, food color dye will only work on protein/animal fibers. You will want to buy wool yarn. I am overdyeing my llama yarn which is heather brown.

There are a few basic components necessary for dyeing:
• Colorant. I’m going to talk about food coloring here. McCormick’s can be bought in the grocery store, in the traditional primary colors and a neon set. The gel/paste colors can be bought at most hobby/craft stores or on Amazon.
• Acid. In this case, vinegar. The acid opens up the fibers and makes the color stick. The more vinegar, the brighter the color and the faster that it sets.
• Water. I’m using my tap water, which comes from our well. If you have a lot of minerals in your water, you can opt to buy distilled water.
• Heat. Some methods call for using the stove, a crockpot, or the oven. I am using the microwave for this technique.

You will need to have your yarn in a skein. My fiber mill processed my yarn in skeins, so easy peasy. If you buy yarn at the craft store, it will probably come in a roll (sorry, I don’t know the proper name for this bundle). You will need to unroll it and make a skein. One technique is to place two kitchen chairs back to back at the desired distance and unroll the yarn, wrapping it around the backs of the chairs. Or wrap it around the back of a recliner, whatever works. My skeins stretched out are about 26 inches. You want to make your skeins a manageable length for laying out on your work surface.

skein measurement

Once you have the yarn wrapped into your skein, you will want to tie the two loose ends together. Trim as necessary. Then tie some waste yarn around the skein every 15 inches or so to keep the yarn from tangling when you are rinsing it. Don’t tie it so tight that you tie-dye your yarn.

Okay! We are ready to start dyeing. This has the potential to be messy, so find a work surface that you can’t ruin. I use my Formica counter top. At any rate, it’s best to cover your surface with a sheet of plastic like an old shower curtain to avoid staining anything. Same for your hands. Wear plastic gloves if you don’t want your fingers to turn funky colors.

First we need to soak the yarn in a solution of vinegar water. I use 6 cups of lukewarm water and 2 TBSP white distilled vinegar. The yarn needs to soak a minimum of 1 hour, and preferably overnight.

Yarn soaking

I use a large serving bowl. But notice how some of the yarn wants to float. To make sure that all the fiber stays submerged, I place a smaller bowl on top to press the yarn down into the water.

Yarn Soaking

Meanwhile, you can mix up your colors.

I’m going to use two colors for this yarn, but since I’m overdyeing an already brownish yarn, I’m going to end up with three colors. The colors I am using are red and purple. This is not an exacting science, so feel free to play around. I am using beakers and syringes to mix my dyes. I like the 150 ml beakers since I don’t need to mix up a large quantity of dye, and the syringes work well for sucking up the dye and controlling where I place it. Besides, I had plenty of syringes on hand for the llamas. You can buy syringes at any farm supply store. You can also use a squirt bottle. I would think a turkey baster would be too messy.

150 ml beakers

syringes

I use ¼ cup water with about 6 small squirts of the gel dye. Mix well to dissolve. Use warm water when using gel or paste dyes to help them dissolve.

The colors I am using are gel food colorings by Spectrum in Super Red and Violet.

gel dye

You can get a feel for the color and intensity by dipping a fork into the dye mix and blotting it on a paper towel.

fork test

I then use my syringes to draw up the dye.

dyes in syringes

When you are ready to take the yarn out of the vinegar bath, gently squeeze the water out. You don’t want it dripping wet, but you don’t want it bone dry either.

Lay Saran Wrap in an oval the size of your skein and lay out the skein on top of the Saran Wrap.

skein on saran wrap

I’m going to apply the dye in about 4 inch sections, starting with the red dye. I then am leaving a 4 inch space of the natural color yarn. Then applying the violet dye to a four inch section and leaving a 4 inch space of the natural color yarn ,etc. until I have gone all around the skein.

applying dye

Make sure that you saturate the yarn with the dye. Turn the section of yarn over and squirt color on the bottom. Use your fingers to mash the yarn to make sure the color gets all the way through.

This is what the skein looks like when I’ve applied the dye.

skein with wet dye

Notice that the colors look very muted. I was surprised at how much they brightened up after heating the yarn and then especially after the yarn was dry.
Now you want to wrap the cellophane around the yarn like a snake, sealing it the best way you can.

wrapped yarn

Place the yarn in the largest microwave safe dish that will fit in your microwave. Try not to think about how much this looks like the entrails of some animal.

Yarn in plate

Heat the yarn in the microwave at full power for about 5 minutes. Remove the plate from the microwave and let the yarn cool until it is cool enough to handle.

Rinse and Dry
Unwrap the yarn and rinse carefully in the sink or in a bowl of water with a small amount of mild detergent.

Continue rinsing until the water runs clear.

I like to add a little hair conditioner in the final rinse. It makes the yarn super soft. And it smells nice, too.

Gently press out as much water as you can. Wrap the yarn in a towel and press to remove more water. Then lay flat on a dry towel to dry completely.

I was completely amazed at how beautiful the colors came out when the yarn was dry.

dyed skein

This is what the yarn looks like as it is being knitted into a scarf.

knitted up

I can’t wait to experiment with more colors.

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