A Dyeing Art

(Or where Jules discovers that she's not particularly gifted in the expressive arts but has a lot of fun nevertheless.)

Somehow - somehow - I stumbled upon an article or three online re dyeing yarn with food colouring and suddenly I wanted to try it for myself. I had a ball of the hated green yarn left over from the ugliest socks that I managed to foist on Son#5, and then I had an online order of sock yarn arrive that wasn't at all what I expected. The vendor offered to exchange it but I decided to keep it and experiment. I had also picked up a white yarn and some pale beige (I'm really not sure what colour to call it but pale beige will do) and thought I could try dyeing them also.

This weekend provided the perfect opportunity. DH and Son#4 had gone hunting and I had time to fill in and no one to remind me to be careful with dye near our cream cupboards - which by the way, I was - careful, that is - and blue dye wipes off cream cupboards easily since they are presumably not a protein fibre (I have personal experience but can assure you that the worst I said was, 'Oh no!').

This is not meant to be an exhaustive tutorial on how to dye with food colouring. There is so much information online that it will do your head in. Instead, this is more of a personal record in case I ever want to repeat the experiment.

Start with a skein or three or more of pale coloured yarn (apart from the ugly green yarn which I wanted to overdye). Yarn needs to be a protein fibre but it's okay if there is some nylon. Superwash yarn won't felt but I had no problems with the yarns I used (at least three weren't Superwash) and some were dyed twice because I wasn't initially thrilled with the outcome.

If your yarn comes in a ball, you'll have to skein it. I wound one around my forearm, another around a chair (make sure it isn't a chair that has decorative bits at the top or it will be almost impossible to get the yarn off - don't ask me how I know this) and another around two chairs (decorative bits on the top of the chairs don't matter here because you can just move the chairs closer to remove the yarn). Two of the yarns came already skeined and I left them alone, apart from adding more ties. I used cotton yarn since it's not supposed to accept the dye (some did) and was easier to see after the dyeing was complete. You need quite a lot of ties to stop the yarn unravelling and to prevent tangles.

Gather supplies. White vinegar. Food colouring (now is not the time to go natural and organic - you want the artificial colouring stuff). Gloves (yes, you really do need them). Small jugs or bowls for mixing the dye in. Good quality plastic wrap (so it doesn't melt to the yarn). Microwave dishes (all the better if they are glass). Optional: tarpaulin or old towels to cover the kitchen table; apron or old clothes (I forgot to put the apron on and managed to stay clean); timer (especially if doing more than one and you want to go off and paint a window treatment while the yarn is resting - yes, I did do this).

Prepare the yarn by soaking in a solution of one part vinegar to three parts water at room temperature. Gently hold it under the water until bubbles stop rising to the surface. Soak the yarn for at least half an hour and then gently squeeze (Don't Wring!!!) out the water and lay it on a towel while you prepare the dye.

For most dyes I used 3/4 cup of water and 1/4 cup vinegar (use the water you soaked the yarn in if you're not doing more than one skein) and roughly 1 teaspoon of food colouring. Sometimes I used more - a lot more, especially when trying to get the blue I wanted - but that's a general guide.

For solid colours, place enough water in microwave dish to cover the yarn and pour in the dye. Mix gently and then add the yarn. Cover with plastic wrap and heat as per instructions below.

For more fun effects - stripes, variegated, multi, etc - lay plastic wrap out on table and lay the damp yarn on the plastic wrap. Decide where you want the colours to go, and either paint, spoon, or pour them onto the yarn. I found that pouring them into the middle of the area that I wanted the dye to go and then gently squishing the dye along the yarn was easiest for me and worked best. There's probably no right or wrong way. If you want some of the original colour left (whether white or whatever colour the yarn was) you can leave areas without dye.

Once you're happy with it, wrap the plastic wrap around it and gently place into microwave dish. (Yes, I know it looks like something you'd rather not think about but, really, it's not that bad.)

Heat in the microwave for two minutes on high and then let sit for five minutes. Repeat until the water is clear or almost clear. For me, this took ten minutes of heating time for solid colour where there was more water around the yarn, and eight minutes for the hand painted yarns wrapped in plastic wrap. Not all of my dyes were exhausted - that is, the water went clear - but they were noticeably lighter and I was nervous about toasting my yarn so stopped at this point. By the way, if at any stage you hear a popping noise, stop the microwave immediately.

Let the yarn sit until it's cool. That's the official instructions but I was impatient and carefully opened the plastic wrap after the yarn had been sitting about ten minutes. I had no felting and I think by opening the plastic wrap, steam escaped and the yarn cooled quicker. But be aware that these are vulnerable states where too much handling could result in felting.

Once the yarn is fully cool (or close to it), rinse in water a similar temperature as the yarn. Since I was doing several skeins one after the other and had gloves on, the ol' check-the-temperature-with-the-elbow worked for me (for both the yarn and the water).

When the water is clear (and in most cases it will be the very first rinse), gently squeeze the excess water out and hang to dry. You can reduce drying time by using a salad spinner to remove more water (which after thirty plus years of marriage and multiple 'wet' salads I now own since I bought one specifically for this project). Apparently you can use the spin cycle on your washing machine but I'd be nervous about the yarn getting all tangled. If your machine is gentle (my English friend tells me that the ones in England are far more gentle on clothes than the ones downunder) then give it a go by all means, but please don't blame me if you spend hours sorting tangles.

Finally, sit back and enjoy your finished product ... unless you're not pleased with it, in which case you can overdye it. I did this with two. One went back into a bath of a purple dye (which 'split' and now I have a multi-coloured yarn which is not what I expected but since it's for one of my scrap blankets I'm sure it will blend in nicely) and another I repainted the bright green sections to make them less 'bright' (could not get that elusive blue - possibly need a drop or two of black food colouring but I couldn't find it locally). To over dye just some areas, I followed the same directions as above for hand painting, except that I poured some plain water onto the sections I wasn't re-dying so that they were as damp as the rest of the yarn and didn't overcook (I don't know if this was necessary but it certainly didn't do any harm).

When the yarn is finally dry you can rewind it into skeins or balls and, of course, knit with your one-of-a-kind creation.

Round Up of Results:

My favourite. From washed out baby blue to shades of blue, green and teal from light to mid range. I may just have to knit myself something with this yarn!

Hard to capture the difference and I had only a small sample of the original but the new yarn is a shade or two darker than previously and therefore no longer 'ugly'.

As you can see, I kept some of the original colour. I like some aspects of this yarn and am not so thrilled about other aspects. This one rates a five maybe. Perhaps it will look better knitted up?

I had wanted some darker green in this but couldn't work it. Still, it's an improvement on the mint green it was originally - at least to my way of thinking.

My least successful but it looks interesting when wound into a ball and it will get 'hidden' in my scrap blanket where I will combine it with another yarn. Besides, I did learn a lot from this one. The original blue dye left it a mottled green that I then overdyed with purple - which split - giving yarn with various shades of green, blue, red and purple.


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