Introduction: How to Dye Yarn: Handpainting

I've been dying to dye my own yarn for months now. I've been a knitter for many years and the beautiful yarns that are available now inspire me to create my own. I finally did it, and documented the process here.

All items used here should NOT also be used to prepare food.

Materials you will need:
Yarn - I got mine at Dharma Trading, 75% wool, 25% nylon fingering weight (sock yarn)
Dye - I used Jacquard Acid Dyes
Distilled white vinegar
Synthrapol (available at arts & crafts stores; I got mine at AC Moore) or Dawn dishwashing liquid
Dust mask
Small tub for soaking
Plastic wrap - my sources recommended brand name (thicker ply)
Measuring cup
Measuring spoons - plastic or stainless
Little containers for the dye
Sponge brushes
Sprinkler or spray bottle
Microwave oven (ideally an extra one, not one you use to cook food in)

Step 1: Prepare the Yarn

Prepare a skein of yarn by securing it with figure-8 ties.

Step 2: Soak Yarn

Soak yarn in warm water to cover, plus 1/4 cup vinegar and 1/4 tsp Synthrapol, for at least 1 hour.

Step 3: Prepare Work Surface

Prepare work surface. First I covered the table with plastic trash bags, taped down. Then I laid down a couple layers of plastic wrap in an oval shape.

This would also be a good time to write out your instructions, and put them up on the wall. Years ago when I took organic chem lab they made us write out the lab instructions prior to performing the experiments, and I found this to be a very helpful preparatory step. Also actually referring to your instructions as you go is a good idea.

Step 4: Take Safety Precautions

Put on dust mask & gloves. The dye starts out as a very fine powder, and it's best not to inhale it or come in contact with it. Sensitivity to dyes is cumulative, and once you start being sensitive to it, it will only increase. So it's best to try to keep contact to it down to a bare minimum if possible. I usually tend to be very casual about these things, but even I used a dust mask & gloves during mixing and dyeing.

Step 5: Mix Up the Dye(s) and Let Rest for 1 Hour

This step should be done in an area that does not have a lot of moving air, because you don't want the dye to be blowing around.

The recipe I used was: 1/2 tsp dye to 3/8 cup of hot water, plus 1 tbsp vinegar. Start by adding a very small amount of the hot water to the dye to make a paste. Then add a bit more of the water to thin the paste, and then add the rest of the water and the vinegar.

Let the dye solution sit for an hour.

Step 6: Lay Out the Yarn on the Plastic Wrap

Remove the yarn from the soaking bath and strain out the water in a colander. I wrung it out, but very gently.

Lay out yarn on the plastic wrap. Try to spread it out so as much of it is visible as possible, not mounded up.

Step 7: Paint Dye Onto Yarn

I did a stripe of brown across the skein in intervals, then alternating blocks of red between the stripes, and some yellow blocks scattered around as well. You kind of dab down with a loaded sponge-brush, and let the yarn sink in. You want to make sure you get it all the way through to the bottom layer of yarn.

I am just learning what various painting methods do to the final product, so this is an experiment. I would encourage you to experiment with your own methods as well. The end result might look like crap, which is okay. It's all a learning process.

Step 8: Sprinkle Yarn Liberally With Vinegar

My mom has a sprinkling bottle that is made from a rubber stopper and a top that has little holes in it; she's had it forever, and I've always coveted the thing. She used to use it to sprinkle water on clothes when ironing. Anyway, I made my own, from a water bottle, by poking holes in the top with a hammer & nail. I used this to sprinkle vinegar around the yarn oval.

Step 9: Wrap in Plastic and Cook

Wrap yarn in plastic wrap. Put into microwave, keeping it level so the dye doesn't spread.

Microwave in intervals - 3 min on, 3 min off, 3 min on, 3 min off, 3 min on - a total of 9 min cooked, but with resting intervals. Otherwise, if you try to nuke it nonstop for 9 minutes, the yarn will actually burn. This step should be done outside if possible, because it STINKS. If it's not possible to do it outside, make sure to have a lot of fans on so you air out the place. I don't know if it's toxic to breathe it or not, but it definitely takes your appetite away.

Alternatively, you can steam the yarn in a vegetable steamer and a stainless steel or enamel pot, for half an hour to an hour.

Step 10: Cool, Soak, Rinse ... Repeat?

Very important: Let yarn cool! You can easily burn yourself if you open up the plastic wrap too soon.

Soak yarn in warm water plus 1/4 tsp Synthrapol for 5 min.

Rinse, starting with warmer water, then going to lukewarm, until water runs clear.

Air dry until completely dry, then reskein for maximum effect.

Step 11: Source Materials

The Yarn Lover's Guide to Hand Dyeing, by Linda La Belle. New York: Potter Craft, 2007, 160 pp.

How a college student dyes yarn

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