Mama Pensées

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Dyeing Wool With Food Dyes

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A fun, relatively safe way to break into the world of fiber dyeing!All you need is a protein fiber (wool is easiest to find, but alpaca and mohair will also work, as will silk and some nylon…I have also heard that milk protein fibers can be dyed with this method but haven’t ever come across one to try), water, heat, dye (unsweetened Kool-Aid, food coloring, or easter egg dyes) and an acid to trigger the protein bond. In the case of Kool-Aid, the acid is included in the packet (citric acid). If you’re using food coloring or easter egg dyes, you’ll need to add an acid like white vinegar, lemon juice, or powdered citric acid (sold as “Fruit Fresh” or in bulk in natural/ethnic food markets).

“Professional acid dyes” like Jaquard must be used with dedicated dyepots and utensils, and handled with caution. But the chemical colors in Kool-Aid and the like have been declared “safe for consumption” (although which specific colors are “safe” differs from country to country) and kitchen pots and utensils can be used without fear of poisoning the family 🙂

Even though all the “ingredients” for dyeing with food coloring are “safe,” some common-sense caution should be used. Be careful not to inhale any powders you are using. Don’t eat or drink while you’re dyeing. Don’t stick your hand in a simmering dyepot 🙂 Also, aluminum pots and utensils should be avoided (stainless steel or intact enamel is ok) due to the potential for reaction with the acid. This doesn’t mean the pan is going to explode on the stove, but the chemical reaction will cause some off-gassing and repeated (or extreme) exposure will cause pitting of the aluminum. I personally don’t use aluminum cookware at all, but that’s a different topic 🙂

Aside from the stovetop method that is generally covered in dyeing tutorials (I don’t own a microwave, also topic for some other time, so I have never tried that method), I have had great success with solar dyeing. I’ve seen examples of “solar oven” setups, but for me here in Arizona, “heat concentration” devices haven’t been necessary. I simply put water, acid, dye, and fiber in a glass “sun tea” container or pan with a glass lid and put it outside.

I decided to do a little yarn dyeing today after finding a skein of Universal Yarns 100% wool “Deluxe Chunky” at Tuesday Morning over the weekend. (Tuesday Morning is a mostly-high-end “closeouts” type store.) There was just one problem. The color, which they call “Lemon”.


A quick trip to the grocery store to replenish my food coloring arsenal, and I was set.

I soaked the yarn overnight in cool water with about 4 “glugs” of vinegar from my trusty ol’ household bottle (vinegar is great for cleaning, laundry, getting hard water build-up out of showerheads…and dyeing yarn 🙂 ). This time, I decided to use the ceramic insert for my crockpot. It’s black and has a glass lid–perfect for trapping and holding onto heat.

This morning, I pulled the yarn out of the water a little and added 30 drops of blue food coloring to the water. Gave the yarn a swish and swirl as I submerged it in the dyebath. Then I put the lid on and set it on the front porch!

It’s “Monsoon” season in Arizona, which means thunderstorms in the afternoons and evenings. I put the dyepot out in the sun at about 9am, and then just listened to the weather. When the thunder started rolling in, I brought the dyepot inside before it started raining.

steamy yarn!

steamy yarn!

Now, protein fiber + acid + food coloring + heat = chemical bond reaction
When that reaction is finished, the color particles from the dye have actually attached to the yarn fiber, and there is no color (or just a cloudiness, depending on what source of food coloring you’re using) left in the dyebath. The bath is said to have “exhausted” at that point.

My dyebath had indeed exhausted, but pulling the yarn out of the pot and moving it a bit revealed a few areas where some yellow still showed. So 20 more drops of blue food coloring into the water (in strategic places to focus on the underdyed areas) and the lid went back on. By this time, though, it was a downpour outside! So I just covered the whole crock and lid with a folded towel to keep the heat in. I checked the dyebath after an hour and discovered that the dye had once again exhausted. I decided to do one more addition of food coloring to deepen the color and enhance the subtly mottled “kettle dyed” look. So 20 more drops of blue food coloring, and back on with the lid. The rain seems to have passed and the sun is out again, and the pot and water have cooled off quite a bit, so back onto the porch with the pot.

And that’s where we are right now! Once the dyebath has exhausted again, I’ll take a look at the color and decide if it’s good or needs one more round…and then I’ll take more pictures and explain how to finish up the “Kool-Aid dyeing” process 🙂


Written by Sada D.

August 1, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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