Friday, February 03, 2012

Dyeing Wool-- 101

(This post has NO images—but there are lots of links to images)

Yesterday's post generated some questions...
First, Yes, I did dye the yarn. I dye yarn all the time. I am not scientific about it.. I am artistic—I enjoy the process, and while the results are not always what I envisioned, I am rarely disappointed.

To start—some dying basics. To dye anything you need –dye (color) a fixative, and sometimes, a mordant.
Dye can be natural (boil up a pound or more of onion skins, or beets, or red cabbage, or walnut (black walnuts in there husks)or....
Or dyes can be chemical—Red dye 40 or other food safe chemicals are one choice, (these are sold commonly as food coloring) or professional dyes, many of which are toxic.

A few years ago, I found a supply-- at an odd lot store—a huge collection of regular food color kits (the little boxes of four bottles) and a few of the neon color ones—I bought them all! Some of the packages were damaged—I wouldn't use them for food—but they are perfect for dyeing.

I have also stocked up on egg dying kits after the Easter holiday, and I have once in a while used Kool Ade-- the little (sans sugar) envelopes—these come with citric or acidic acid built in. But they also impart a fruit smell-(that washes out eventually—but not fast enough for me!)
For the most part, I stick to food safe chemical dyes.

The fixative for dye varies—there are 2 major choices: for cottons and plant fibers, an alkaloid is needed—Most commonly—they are pretty strong ones--Lye is one common choice. Safer, but less effective, are salts like common salt, baking soda, or washing soda.

I don't do a lot of dyeing of plant material. Partly because of the chemicals, and partly because I don't use cotton as much for knitting.
Dyeing plant fiber is a whole different science than dyeing animal fibers. This tutorial is about dyeing animal fibers (mostly wool).

For animal fibers, an acid is need. And mild acids work fine. Most often I use vinegar (plain white vinegar) –about ¼ of cup of vinegar to a quart of water (sometimes less!) but you can also use acidic acid--(food grade acidic acid can be found with spices or condiments as “sour salt”)--These are perfectly safe to use in your kitchen, with out any special pots or utensils. After all they are all food safe!

Mordants are chemicals (various salts—but not common salt) that both change the color (making it deeper, or changing its properties) and they can increase the fixative power—making a dye more color fast--which is especial important for natural dyes.   I almost NEVER use mordants. Some are fairly safe, but many aren't. Some natural dyes need them, which is another reason I tend to use simple, ready made food coloring for my dye stuff.

I stick to simple vinegar and water, and food coloring. The kind of dying I do is more like coloring eggs than anything else! (You can use egg dyeing “tabs” for dying—but its harder to mix custom colors)

That said, Dyeing wool is easy. You can use food coloring (and vinegar for the acid). YOU can work with pots (enamaled) or glass that you use for food—since your dye and acid are food grade materials. But I don't—I always uses plastic bins (I use the ones from 3 lb packages of meat, or from 1 gal milk containers (cut off the top) as my cheap, and easy dye pots.

First -get the wool wet. (soak for at least 15 minutes in warm water.)
HOW?  Method A-soak wool in plain water; method B, soak  in water with a splash of vinegar)
Method A- will give a more even take up of color and create a near solid color.
Method B-will take up the color unevenly –making a semi solid—with very un-even color.
The results are similar to hand painted yarns, but with out the effort (and with out the precision!)

If you've used method A: remove the wool, add vinegar and food dye, stir well, return the wool to dye bath (this results in an almost solid, even color) Heat to set the color.
B: carefully pour in small amounts of dye (diluted with vinegar) into the dye pot—with the wool still in the pot. Do not stir! Just puddle the dye in.--You can stir lightly if you are using a single color, and want something close to all over color (see the green of the hyacinth socks). I sometimes use a drinking straw to pour the dye deep into the pot (and not just have it puddled on the surface.)

This method results in blotches of color. At places, the color is more intense, and in other places, less intense. If you uses more than 1 color, the colors can bleed--(that is blend together to create new colors). Move the dye pot slowly and carefully—the more you jiggle it, the more the puddles of dye will spread.

Heat and cool. (and repeat as needed)--I use my microwave. I cook for 5 minutes on high, let cool for 20 or 30 minutes, and then repeat, if needed—and sometimes 2 or 3 cycles are needed. Eventually all the dye will be absorbed by the wool, and the water will be clear!

I find this works better than stove pot cooking—and eliminates the temptation to stir (Stirring can cause the fibers to felt!)--It does require some patience--If you are working with children it can be difficult for them to wait 20 minutes (or an hour, or more!) to see the final results. (But I don't have children(at home) so its not an issue!)

You can start with method A (and make a base color) and then finish with method B and add other colors to the base. That's what I did with my most recent skein, the nectarine color way.

My nectarine yarn started with a base of apricot (neon colors green and pink)--and very little dye to create a light base color.
Then I added orange (plain red and yellow) and crimson (neon pink and a very small amount of red, and a single drop of blue) and red violet (neon pink and neon purple, and red and blue!) --I followed the 2 different “recipes” on the box for different purples, and then mixed them and added a bit more red.

A final note. My skeins need to be folded (or bunched) to fit in the dye pots. And HOW I fold them effects how the dye is positioned on the yarn.

A large skein can be folded in half, and half again(a book fold)--or in half and then in quarters--a sort of W shape—or the yarn can be folded into the pot in a shape like an letter I or like an H, or like an E, or just jumbled. Then when I pour in the dye “puddles” I can have one color at one end, another at the other end, and a third in the center. The more colors used at one time, and the way the yarns is folded in the dye pot controls how the dye is distributed, and makes a difference--And again, I don't have a scientific, precise methodology, but I just experiment.

As for colors—I sometimes (but rarely) use the colors straight from bottle. More often I mix custom colors. The color guide on the food coloring package helps--(there are on-line guides to using kool ade). I don't measure precisely (I am not doing a commercial production, I don't need to be able to get exactly the same color, over and over again. I limit my dyeing (for the most part) to one or two skeins at a time—100 gm of sock yarn, or the same quantity (or less!) for accents for color work, or a single skein of DK or worsted weight yarn, for a cowl or hat. I test the colors on a scrap of paper towel—they won't be exactly the same on the wool—but it's a way to get an idea of the shade before you pour. If you like the color, but it's too dark, use less dye for a lighter shade.

All the normal rules, for precise measuring, aren't needed for a one of kind skein.
The DISADVANTAGE to my method—you can't be sure of the out come.
The ADVANTAGE to my method—you can't be sure of the out come!

I have had wonderful successes--(and gotten just the colors I've wanted, in just the right ratios) and near successes, and failures. But my failures? Well, while they aren't what I envisioned or hoped for, but they are still almost always, wonderful—I haven't really ever had a real failure--something that I felt was unusable.

You can see the results some of my experiments on Ravelry—(links below) and on my blog. A few weeks ago, (and still not knit up) I dyed some yarn for a pair of “BlackEyed Susy” socks I want to knit. Mostly yellow, with some brown--the black eye--(which didn't come out as dark as I would have liked) and some crimson—and another skein in a dark green. (I used some black food coloring to deepen up the bright green that is the normal shade you get with food colors. I love the green, but the flower color (the mostly yellow skein-)- were not exactly the colors I hoped for—but not a real failure, by any measure—I think once knit up, in a stranded color work, they will be a perfect success, even with the too light shade of brown.

I also dyed some home spun a brightspring green, (a hat I think) and some Skinny Bugga a peacock blue—My daughters getting married this fall, and her color scheme is peacock—this is likely going to be a shawl for me. (For her? Well she claims she doesn't want a shawl—the wedding is in October, and will be, weather permitting, outside. I think a shawl is in order, but it's her wedding!)

The green of the Hyacinth socks were dyed method B –to create an very uneven semi solid.
The violet of the Twisted chain socks were also done method B (with 2 very similar shades of violet, not one—one was a bluer violet, one was a redder violet--(open the image to enlarge and see the shades clearly.) --a third shade of violet was created where the 2 colors bled together.

The Colorful Cowl? It's an example of a failure.. The colors are much more intense that I thought they would be, and the yellow came out so dark, it looks, for the most part, like orange!--But how could anyone call this color way a failure? Sure-- it's not what I hoped for—but I love it all the same.

Harlequin Spring—I made a big effort, and divided a partial skien into 3 parts, (without cutting, I just gathered up the strands) and dyed each part via method A—and it worked out perfectly!

In the middle image, on the extreme right, you can see that the first few stitches of the yellow section are actually green... (but if I didn't tell you, would you have noticed?) Even I am amazed at how well things worked out!--and I love the mardi gras/king colors for this spring hat.

My Sally Lunn hat also uses a semi solid (method B) dyed yarn—
 (2 packages of Kool Ade—I forget the colors/flavors—except one was grape (and I hated the smell of the yarn!)

Both of these hats are good examples of near solids--Click on the image to fully open (and enlarge) and you'll see the solids are not quite a solid as commercially dyed yarn—they have some variation—and a home dyed/hand painted look.

You don't have to start with plain white yarn either—Blue Leaf started out as a sock yarn I didn't like--(hot pink, red, blue, lime and white!) and over dyed a solid (method A) Blue—became a lovely subtle (vs garish) color way. And several partial skeins (in 2 shades of blue)--and noticeable different dye lots where over dyed for these socks-- a bunch of left overs and mis-matched yarns that became a pair of free (and beautiful!) socks.

As you see, this is something I have been doing on and off for years—Why don't you try it too?


Sigrun said...

What an interesting and thorough explanation. I am curious to try this, too.

florapie said...

Thanks for the details, especially the difference between A and B! You get some amazing greens that I haven't been able to achieve with Kool Aid-time to break into the food colouring!

gayle said...

You're an empiricist after my own heart...
Loved reading about your dye-play. Much inspiration there!