My friend Silvana has recently discovered knitting and with it, all the pretty yarns that come with it. This also means she's since been hoarding fibre like a madwoman (read: like a perfectly reasonable person who has a nice and respectable hobby that might, hypothetically, lead to the purchase of a few extra shelves to store all the pretties.) It was no time at all before she wanted to reproduce some of the colourways she saw on commercial yarn.
A few weeks ago, she bought a yarn dyeing kit on impulse, without realising the dye powders that came with it weren't food safe - any utensil used for dyeing could never again be used for food preparation. Owning a few of those dye-only utensils, I suggested she pop by my studio and use them, which happened last Tuesday.
Dyeing fibre is a lot of fun, once you've internalised all the health and safety issues and move on to the fun stuff. If you think about it, a full colour wheel can be obtained by using only three primary colours mixed in different ratios; once you see the results, it can rapidly turn into a rabbit hole of possibilities.
For someone whose wardrobe is mainly all black, colour has sure steeped into my life with a bang since I've begun hand dyeing yarn and fibre.
We started out with some commercially spun, undyed skeins of yarn that I keep for my shop supplies and proceeded to prepare them for dyeing: opening the skeins and retying the knots so there's no undyed spots, then soaking the fibre in lukewarm water and a bit of Synthrapol (a wetting agent that helps the dye penetrate better, and can also serve as a detergent for washing fibre after it's been dyed).
Whilst the fibre was soaking, we moved on to making dyestock. This is done by adding hot water to the dye powder in precise amounts (if you want repeatable results, otherwise just eyeballing it is fine). I also add citric acid to the mixture and other agents to make the dye adheres optimally to the fibre.
Here's a pro tip for you: if you find your colours aren't coming up as lovely as they should, maybe it's your water that's the problem. I have to use bottled water for my dyestock making and general dyeing, otherwise the limescale in the tap water ruins everything - thank you, London Thames river.
Always remember to protect your surfaces when working with dyes! I use cling film on my kitchen counter so I can toss it out once I'm done working, plus I keep lots of kitchen roll paper to pick up spills and other accidents. I also keep all my windows closed shut when making dyestock - you don't want the powders to become airborne.
Ideally, one would do all this in a dye-exclusive location, but let's face it, I live in a tiny London flat and I'm lucky to simply have a kitchen. I make sure I wipe every surface with moist roll paper in the end, to get rid of any dye that might have fallen where it shouldn't.
Once the needed dyestock is made, it's time to mix your colour to get that special shade: having a notebook handy to write down your dye proportions is a great way to ensure you can repeat colourways in the future.
I also write down the name and brand of the colour I'm using as base, plus the date I made the dyestock and what strength it is (the more concentrated you make it, the darker the colour you'll get; on the other hand, diluting it a lot will result in pastel-like colours). I like to work on a 1% concentration, but some people like to use 2% or even 4% as a norm - you are the boss of your dye strength!
Once your yarn is perfectly soaked through and your water is simmering, it's time to add the yarn and the dye (depending on the technique you're using and the effect you're after, you might reverse the order). The citric acid and heat will do their magic and bind the dye to the fibre, and after a while you should see that your water no longer hold any dye (this is called "exhaustion," and means all the dye has been absorbed). Still see a lot of dye? Let it simmer some more, and maybe add a little more citric acid/vinegar to your water. If, after this, you still see a lot of colour in your water, it probably means you added too much dye, so use less next time.
After you let the water cool down, you rinse the yarn to get rid of leftover dye particles, the acid, and just generally make sure your future washes don't involve a lot of colour bleeds. A wool wash is a good option, but my favourite method is adding a little Synthrapol to lukewarm water and letting it soak for a few minutes, then carefully rinsing it all out with fresh water.
Reds and very saturated colours will tend to bleed a little, which is perfectly normal. It's just part of the dyeing process! Not the most pleasant aspect, but even commercial yarns bleed out...
After you've rinsed your yarn, it's time to let it dry. The photo above shows the yarns we dyed that day: two kettle dyed red tonals, one speckle-dyed yarn and two hand painted skeins in various shades of green.
I really like how the skeins turned out. I like how vibrant the reds are, and how the greens got together to create a lovely shade of brown here and there. My favourite skein however has to be the speckled one. I absolutely love how the light, light blue base complements the purple and teal green speckles - I like this so much that I might even make some to add to the shop (and keep for my stash)!
Have you ever dyed yarn/fibre? How did it go? If you have any troubleshooting questions, don't be afraid to ask them in the comments section, I'm happy to help.
A huge thanks to Silvana for the fun day and for all the photos!