Introduction: How to Dye Yarn With Food Coloring (Plus Other Tips!)

About: I like to make things, like everyone else here.

It seems like everywhere you look (ok, maybe not everywhere, maybe just on pinterest), there's a tutorial on how to dye yarn with Kool Aid. When I first saw that you could do that, I'll admit, I got pretty excited. I immediately went to the store and bought a ton of kool aid and I dyed every white/natural skein of yarn I had with that stuff. I got really good results too! Good results only made me want to do it more, so I bought more yarn and went back to the grocery store to buy more kool aid. When I got to the drink mix aisle, I couldn't decide which colors to get though. There are only so many kool aid flavors and a lot of them are some sort of red. I wanted to make green yarn but my store didn't have lime kool aid. I also wanted to make deeper colors because I can only use so much neon yarn in my life.
After the initial excitement of dyeing yarn with a drink wore off, I realized how restricted I really was with the colors. I left the store without any sugary drink mixes that day and vowed to figure out something else to use that would give me the rainbow of colors I wanted. And food coloring seemed like the most obvious choice. 

Step 1: Supplies

Dyeing yarn with food coloring is just as easy as dyeing it with kool aid, but you do get a fuller rainbow of colors. You probably already have everything you need in your house too! (And if you don't, it's all incredibly easy to find.)


Yarn - Your yarn has to be 100% animal fiber. This means wool, alpaca, cashmere, etc. Wool is the easiest to work with and the least expensive, so I recommend starting with that. There are a lot of wool yarns to choose from which can be confusing sometimes. If you're having a hard time deciding on which yarn to buy, I recommend Lion Brand Fishermen's Wool. It's a worsted weight, which makes it very versatile, you get a lot of yarn for your money (465 yards!), and it's pretty inexpensive. Usually it sells for ten dollars or so, and even less if you bring a coupon to the craft store. (Make sure you check your craft store's website for one. Michaels, Hobby Lobby and Joann's usually have a coupon for 40% off one item!

White vinegar




Small spoon or scooping device

Microwave safe bowl
clear glass will be helpful later on but it's not required

Food coloring - You can use every day grocery store food coloring just as well as Wilton's gel food coloring. Each one will give you good results. The only difference between the two is saturation. Wilton gel food coloring is a lot more concentrated so you'll be able to get much brighter, richer results with it. They also have a ton of colors to choose from and can be found in the same craft store you found your yarn in.

Gather everything together and get ready to dye some yarn!

Step 2: Winding a Hank

The first thing you need to do is get your yarn into a workable state. It comes all wrapped up on itself in a skein and we need it wrapped in a hank! To do this, find the end of your yarn first. There's usually an end tucked into the middle on one end. It's hard to find sometimes, but keep looking. It's there, I promise.
What we need to do is make a big loop of yarn so all of it can get access to the dye and vinegar. There are a ton of ways to do this, from winding it around the back of a chair, wrapping it around your arm like an extension cord, using a niddy noddy, or someone else's out stretched arms.I'm going to show you how to make a niddy noddy out of your arm. This provides a few benefits over the other options. It's free, you're not bothering someone else, and you're not going to accidentally wind your yarn around something that had a lip on the edge and realize you can't get the yarn off when you're done. Yes, I've done this. A few times actually. 
It also gives you a longer loop of yarn to work with, in case you want to use multiple colors.

I don't know how much sense this is going to make, but here we go...

Take the end of your yarn and wrap it around your thumb once, catching the end under the first wrap around. This will keep it in place without cutting off the circulation to your thumb like a slip-knot would. 
After you have it kind of secure, start wrapping the yarn down the length of your arm, under your elbow and back up to your pointer finger. Once you get there, wrap the yarn around your finger and wind it back down the length of your arm, around your elbow again and back around your thumb. I made a diagram, because I knew explaining this would sound confusing but I'm not sure it's any less of a mess. 
Make sure you keep each chunk of yarn separate on your elbow! I didn't in the picture and I ended up with a tangled mess.
Just keep wrapping the yarn around and around until you run out or you end up with the amount of yarn you want to use. 

You'll know you're doing it right if you can tell you're making a long loop that's just bend in half around your arm. If the yarn is crossing anywhere, it's not right. Just imagine you have a big rubber band hanging on one thumb, stretched around your elbow and hooked on your pointer finger. 

I don't know if any of that made sense... If it didn't, use one of the other methods I described...

Step 3: Tie It Up

Once all of your yarn is wrapped around your arm, carefully take it off and place it on a flat surface. (If you wrapped it around something else, feel free to keep it there while you tie the string. It's just hard to tie up yarn when it's attached to one of your limbs.) Grab your string and scissors and cut a bunch of pieces of string. I cut six. Tie them around the yarn, equally spaced, to keep it from getting all tangled while it's being dyed. 
Don't tie the pieces of string too tight! You want there to be some wiggle room in there. Tying it too tight will prevent the dye from getting into all the fibers and you'll end up with a white line in the middle of your beautiful color. 

Step 4: Prepping Some More

Pull out your microwave safe bowl and your vinegar. Fill up your bowl with cool water (never hot!! It will felt the wool!) and add some vinegar. I use a rough ratio of 4 parts water to one part vinegar but it's not an exact science. A little more or a little less won't really change the outcome. 
Take your yarn and place it in the water. It's going to float so slowly push it into the water, being careful not to make the solution overflow, unless you like having wet socks. (If you like wet socks, go nuts. There's no judging here.)
Push it down, slowly squeezing the bubbles out but don't agitate it too much. Once the yarn is wet, you want to mess with it as little as possible to prevent felting.

Let it sit in the vinegar/water solution for a minimum of 30 minutes. I usually keep it in there overnight because vinegar also softens wool along with making it acidic. (Quick tip: If your wool is still too scratchy after the dyeing process, mix a tablespoon or two of generic hair conditioner, for "normal" hair, into some luke warm water and slowly swish the yarn or wool through it. Let it sit for 20 minutes and rinse it out with water of the same temperature.)

If you're impatient like I am, this is the hardest part.

Step 5: Add the Color

After waiting for what probably seemed like eternity, take your yarn out of the water/vinegar and gentle squeeze some of the excess  water out. Don't wring it. You don't need to get every drop out because it's just going to get wet again. Put it on the side, maybe in a bowl, maybe on a towel, maybe on the socks you're going to wear later. Whatever works for you.
Dump the solution down the drain and fill the bowl up with cool water again. If you want to make verigated yarn, pull out two smaller bowls and fill those up with water. 

It's time to add the color! 

Like I said earlier, you can use any kind of food coloring you have. Gel food coloring is what I usually use because I already have it in my cupboard for baking but I've used grocery store food coloring too, and it worked out just fine. You just have to use a lot more of it. To get a vibrate color using grocery store food coloring, I usually end up using half the tiny bottle. For gel food coloring, I add about a quarter teaspoon (or a smidgen, like in the picture). This is where the fun happens though. Mess around! Use more or less, mix colors, whatever you want! 
If you want to have two colors, add the food coloring to each of the bowls. Make sure they'll both fit in the microwave at the same time though!

I wanted a maroon color so I added a bunch of red food coloring and a single drop of light blue. I love the photo of the drop of blue dispersing into the red.
Mix the water a bit to get the water an even color.

Step 6: Wet Yarn. Again.

Take the wet yarn and put it in the bowl of color. Use a stick or spoon to push the yarn into the water so it's all covered nicely. The yarn needs to be submerged in the water pretty well, like in the second photo, so if you find you don't have enough water in there, just add a little more and swirl it around a little bit so the water is uniform again.
The amount of water in the bowl has no effect on the outcome of the color. I know that seems weird but the water is just a vehicle for the dye, allowing it to move freely and get sucked into the yarn. Adding more won't hurt anything.

If you're using two dye pots, put one half of the yarn in one bowl and one half in the other, draping it over the edge in between the two. Don't worry about the middle too much. In my experience, the yarn ends up creating a wicking effect, drawing the color up the yarn to the middle. If you want the color to stay bright as close to the middle as possible, put more water in each bowl so the yarn is submerged on each side as much as possible.
A little white in the middle sometimes looks nice too, especially if you're using two colors that don't mix well, like green and purple. That little bit of white in the middle might be preferred to the brown you'll get when those two colors mix.

Step 7: Zap It.

I probably didn't need a picture of this but I'm nothing if thorough. 
Put your bowl or bowls in the microwave and set it for three minutes on high. Let it sit for five minutes after the ding and without opening the door, set it for three minutes again. Let it sit for a few more minutes and then check on your progress. 

Step 8: Ding, Yarn Is Done!

When you check on the yarn in the microwave, you'll know it's done when the water is absolutely clear. If it still has dye in it, repeat the microwaving until it's gone.

You have successfully dyed your own yarn using food coloring!

Leave the bowl in the microwave with the door closed and let it cool down slowly. (Don't take it over to a window to take pictures of it like I did.) The slower it cools and the less it's moved around, the less likely it will end up a felted mess. When the water is hot, felting is incredibly easy to pull off so it's safest to just let it sit there for an hour or two.

When it's finally cool, pull the yarn out of the water and gently squeeze (no wringing remember!) the water out. You can put it between two towels and slowly step on it too. Then grab a plastic hanger and hang it up over your bathtub or a big pot so it has somewhere to drip. and let it air dry the rest of the way. My yarn is usually dry by morning.

When it's 100% dry, feel free to wrap it into a hank (twist it up until it doubles over on itself and tuck one end into the other) or cut the ties and wind it into a ball. If you don't plan on knitting/crocheting with the yarn right away, keep it in the hank. Winding yarn into balls puts stress on the yarn and over time the elasticity disappears, which is no fun.

And... I think that's it! If you have any questions, feel free to ask! I hope you got the beautiful color you hoped for!

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