Ever since hand dyed yarn started to become “a thing” on Pinterest and Etsy I wanted to do it myself. All that beautiful colourful and unique yarn – just gorgeous. In the beginning doing it myself was a way to have exactly the colours and shades I wanted, and to have hand dyed yarn at a price I could afford.

What I’ve learned in the past years of dyeing yarn is that it is easy, it’s quick and it’s very accessible to everyone. It’s something you can do at home without special equipment, and it’s possible to get something amazing that nobody else will have.

At the Craft Room I mainly dye animal fibres – meaning wool, alpaca, mohair, silk – mainly because these are easy and quick to dye (and I love to knit with them). I do also dye cotton, but this is a more time consuming process – plant fibres need a lot of soaking and rinsing. I’m going to concentrate on the animal fibre method I use in this post.

What you will need
  • yarn – 100% animal fibre (wool, silk, alpaca, mohair, camel etc.)
  • some acid dyes (commercial ones, or food colouring)
  • vinegar (cheap, white or light, not too smelly) or citric acid
  • plastic gloves, apron, and something to protect your work area from dye
  • cling film
  • big paintbrushes, squeezy bottles or droppers for spreading your colours
  • some plastic or glass containers to mix the colours in
  • washing up liquid or wool wash
  • sink or bucket in which you can soak and rinse yarn
  • a source of heat: microwave, steamer, oven, hob or even the sun!

Note: If you use pots and pans for dyeing these can’t then be used for food. I admit though that I do use my microwave for both food and yarn, but my method of dyeing yarn means that my yarn is fully “isolated” and no splashes are possible. It’s up to you if you decide to risk it.

If you want to try out dyeing some yarn without having to get all those supplies, I do also run yarn dyeing classes at the Craft Room. If there are no dates posted then just drop me a line to find out when the next one will be or to set up a custom class for you.

I use commercial acid dyes to dye my yarn – mine are Jacquard dyes, because that’s what I can get here in Switzerland (via Amazon) for a decent price. You can mix colours exactly like paints so technically you can make any colour you like from 3 primaries and black. In reality it’s very difficult to get exact shades that you want, so you will want to buy colours that are close to ones you want to use, but you really don’t need to buy hundreds of colours. I have around 20 different coloured dyes and this does everything in the Gundeliyarn range.

If you don’t want to buy commercial acid dyes, there are a few things around your house that might work. Food colouring is one – food colouring is a subset of commercial acid dyes that have been classified as food safe. Not all food colouring is created equal however – but a good quality one like Wilton gel will work perfectly. Some will be too weak concentrations to get a good dye without using lots, but others might work really well – it’s a bit hit and miss, but if you don’t want to spend money on dyes then this is the way to go. If you have sachets of Easter egg dye, this is also acid dye (food colouring in fact) or if you have Koolaid – these contain acid dye food colouring (and citric acid so you don’t technically also need the vinegar).

Here you can use plain old vinegar. Yep, nothing fancy, just vinegar. Don’t buy super expensive apple cider or something dark though, any bog standard white or light coloured one will do. Don’t worry about the smell, it will be gone after rinsing. You can also use citric acid if you happen to have it, but I can’t get that easily here in Switzerland, so I use common old table vinegar.

Yarn to dye
As mentioned, if you are using acid dyes you need animal fibres. To get a good colour you need 100% animal fibre – it is possible to dye yarn with some acrylic percentage, but you will not get as good depth of colour because the acrylic part will not take the colour. The lower the animal fibre % the less successful it will be. The only exception to that is nylon (polyamide) which will dye perfectly with acid dye (so, sock yarn which typically has 20% nylon in it will be fine.) Note that nylon is polyAMIDE and acrylic is polyACRYLIC – the former is fine to dye, the latter cannot be dyed by anything.

You don’t need to have undyed yarn – for sure it’s nice to work with a blank canvas undyed yarn (and all my Gundeliyarn is using un-dyed yarn as a basis) but if you happen to have an already coloured yarn that you want to change the colour of, you can over-dye it and if you have yarn that is commercially dyed white or beige then it will behave exactly like undyed yarn.

How to do it

1. Prepare yarn

It’s best to have your yarn in a skein (hank) rather than a ball so that you can get the colour to all areas of the yarn. If you have a yarn swift then this is really easy, but otherwise wrapping your yarn round the back of a chair or someone’s arms also works. You need to tie the yarn in several places to stop it from tangling when you handle it.

Now you need to soak the yarn in water and acid. In a very precise method I fill a washing up bowl or bucket with hand warm water (not too hot) and glug some vinegar in…. then press the yarn into the solution, giving it a squeeze so that there are no air pockets making it float, and then leave it for at least half an hour. Probably it’s about half a cup of vinegar to 2 litres of water, but I haven’t measured it!

After it’s done soaking, squeeze out most of the water, gently, and put it to one side.

2. Prepare dyes
Now prepare the dyes. Use gloves and an apron if you don’t want to end up with yellow and blue or orange fingers and clothes! The acid dyes come in powders that you mix with water, and you should wear a mask when handling the powders just in case you inhale something by accident. I normally mix some powder with water and vinegar in a little jar, put the lid on and shake it and then use this as a concentrate to mix the dyes I use on the yarn. I am very sloppy with the measuring here…. if you want your colours to be reproducible then you need to keep notes and measure accurately, but if you are anything like me it will all be just so much fun that you’ll forget and soon you’ll be putting in a splash of this and that with no idea how you got there.

Now you can mix your colours – all the colours can be mixed together – and they work just like paint – so if you mix everything you’ll get brown or dirty grey, but you can mix blue and yellow and get green. To make lighter colours add more water, to make it thinner.

3. Get the dye on the yarn!
Now it depends on what method you are using to get the dye on your yarn. Here are some options:
a) Hand paint
This is my preferred method, because I can control exactly where the dye goes.
Lay your yarn out on some clingfilm and paint the colours on with a brush (use a large brush for blocks of colour). You can use a small paintbrush to make dots of colour as well. Leaving a gap between colours means that you’ll never end up with brown “mud”, but you can also fade one colour into the next by diluting with water. Make sure the dye is all the way through the skein by squeezing and turning over small parts of yarn and painting both sides.

b) Speckle
Speckled yarn is gorgeous, but it can be quite tricky to achieve proper speckles – some yarns will just spread out the colour via “wicking” no matter how careful you are. To try for speckles, lay out your yarn, as for hand painting and use the acid dye powder – tiny tiny amounts – and sprinkle on your yarn – use the very tip of a dry paintbrush and flick it, or a spoon and tap it.

c) Squirt
Lay out your yarn like for hand painting and put your dye in a squirty bottle and squirt some on your yarn.

d) Submerge
If you are going for one colour then you can just submerge your yarn in the dye solution.

4. Heat
The final part of setting the dye on the yarn is to heat it. Now you need to be careful – you want to heat it, but not boil it, and if you have non-superwash yarn you can felt it by agitating it when it’s hot. The method of heating depends on which of the above methods you used to dye.

For hand painted, speckled or squirted wrap your skein up in the cling film – make sure the yarn is completely wrapped with no gaps – and microwave it on high in 2 minute bursts with a break in between, up to 8 minutes. Or you can also put your wrapped skeins in a steamer.

You can also solar dye – where the heat is provided by the sun so you can put your skein – wrapped or unwrapped into a mason jar and put it in a hot place – so no point doing this on a cold dull day. It needs to stay in the sun for several hours, and leave it alone in this time too!

If you are submerging your yarn then you can do this in a pan on the hob or the oven, or in the microwave again. You need to heat it up, but you don’t want to boil your yarn, and no poking it while it’s hot.

With all methods you can tell when it’s done when the water, or the droplets that form on the clingfilm or the jar are clear – that means all the dye has been absorbed into the yarn.

5. Cool it down
Now, after the heating you should really leave your yarn to cool completely before the next bit, but we are all impatient so I often carefully peal off the clingfilm at this point (I have asbestos hands – it is VERY easy to burn yourself so if you risk it be aware that steam is hot!), so that it’ll cool faster. Don’t be tempted to dunk it in cold water to cool it – at least that is what I have read on the internet, in reality I have done exactly that and it’s been fine – it’s up to you if you want to risk something that by now you’ve probably spent hours on. People speak of “yarn shock” and felting…. not nice things. I have been pretty careless with my yarn and it’s always been OK, but if you want to be safe then just leave your yarn until it’s cold.

6. Rinse, wash and dry
When your yarn is cold, rinse it in some cold water. It should not bleed loads of colour – some may come out, especially if you used a lot of dye, but if it bleeds a lot you should spritz it with some vinegar and water and heat it again.

After the rinsing water runs clear, give it a gentle wash with some washing up liquid or wool wash. This will get rid of any lasting vinegary smells or “sheepiness” (undyed yarn has a tendency to have a bit more farm odour than commercially dyed stuff!) and the last bits of extra dye.

Then give it a quick spin. I use a salad spinner for this (it’s dedicated to yarn – I think you wouldn’t want to use it for lettuce after mohair…) or you can roll your yarn up in a towel and press on it to get most of the moisture out. Then leave it to dry. Not in the sun or direct heat, and it may take a couple of days to dry completely – and then it’s done – off you go and knit or crochet with something completely unique.

Have a look at my range of Gundeliyarn in my Etsy shop. If you are local to Basel remember you can always collect yarn that you purchase online at the Craft Room and we will refund the shipping fee that Etsy adds on – just let us know via an Etsy message when you purchase (an Etsy “conversation”.)

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