Friday, March 5, 2010

Dyer's Notes: The Basics of My Process


Any time you are handling dry dye powder you should be wearing a mask.  The dyes are extremely harmful in the dry state.  You should also use eye protection and wear gloves.  If using everyday household materials you should have separate things for dying and for cooking.  Make sure any and all utensils are made of either stainless steel or glass or they may be stained permanently.

***This ends the safety portion of today's lesson***

The first thing I have to say is that for me "Kettle Dying" means using a large glass bowl.  I occasionally kettle dye my yarn but more often, I "paint" the dye on to the yarn.  I heat set all of my yarns in the microwave.  Mostly, because I am impatient.  But it also keeps my work surface (the kitchen counters and sometimes the cook-top too) heat free.  This allows me to pile supplies and stuff on the cook-top so that I have as much counter space as possible (not much at best) for the dye containers and a work surface for applying the dye.  

That said, I will walk you through the dying process (as I do it) and  talk about some of my choices.

I start by skeining the yarn if it is not already in this form.  I use a plain wool yarn for tying the skein into sections.  I usually make sure the skein is tied in at least 3 and sometimes 4 places to keep the yarn from getting too tangled in the water.

Here, the first of 5 skeins is in the water.  I've done as many as 8 skeins at a time but an optimum number for the size of the sink is really 4-6.

I fill one side of the kitchen sink about 1/2-3/4 full of hot water (depending on how much fiber or yarn I am doing in that batch).  For each full skein (or 100 grams) I add 100 ml of plain white vinegar and 1 Tablespoon of salt.  The vinegar is the 'acid' in acid dye.  The salt acts as a mordant or fixative agent.  So, essentially the vinegar activates the dye and the salt helps it stay in the fiber permanently.

I gently lay the yarn or fiber on the surface of the water and then gently submerge it making sure to force out any air bubbles.

While the yarn is soaking I mix up any dyes that I don't have enough of for that dying session.  When it comes to mixing the dye you have choices to make.  The dyes do not come with mixing instructions because there is no right or wrong strength.  While I chose to put the vinegar and salt into the pre-dye soak water, most traditional kettle dyers soak the fiber in plain water and put the vinegar and salt in the kettle with the dye.  I prefer to mix the dye with just water.  This way, when I make a stock solution I can store it for up to 6 months without it losing any strength (provided it is in a cool, dry, dark place--which it is).  To make a stock solution I mix 5ml (1/2 teaspoon) dry dye powder with 100 ml hot water.  I use relatively small containers that hold 200 ml stock solution.  Because they are small, and stackable, I can store them easily.

For my work area I start by laying down multiple layers of heavy-duty paper towels.  We got a large box of these at the hardware store.  They are disposable but are also multi use. You'll find them with the drop cloths.

Next, I have an old drawing tablet that still has a few pages on it that I use as a large blotter.  That goes over the towels.  I occasionally take notes right on the blotter but I prefer to have blank paper and a pen nearby to draw diagrams of how I applied the color or to jot down notes or ideas.  This is especially handy when mixing dyes together.  Always measure and jot the amounts down so that you can repeat it (if you want to do that).

Finally, I have a plastic cutting board that helps keep down the amount of liquid that the pad absorbs at any given time.  Paper towels are also always nearby to blot up excess liquid from the yarn or work area.  I also have a little 200 ml beaker type measuring cup, measuring spoons, the containers of dry dye powder, paper and pen, assorted things to pour, drip, and spray dye with within reach. Lastly, a radio/CD player.  Today's tunes are Black  Eyed Peas and Michael Buble. (don't ask).

I usually decide which dyes I am going to use on the yarn before I start applying.  I have some squeeze bottles in two sizes that make applying the dye easier.  Most of the time, especially when painting, I use the dye at full strength and just pour them from the stock solution.  There are, however, times when I want a paler color and the squeeze bottles are perfect when I need to dilute some of a stock solution.  Again, I write down how many milliliters of the stock solution are mixed with how many milliliters of water.

I used a spray bottle to spray blue randomly on the skein before I started adding the other colors in specific sections.  That is why you can see little bits of blue in spots.

This yarn is getting four main areas of burgundy.  As I pour the dye on the individual areas that I want to dye, I use one hand to pour (keeping the container as close to the yarn as possible to avoid splashing) and the other hand works the dye into the fibers by gently massaging it through all of the strands.  You can also vary the results by pouring the dye in just one area and pushing it down the strands.

These skeins have been heat set in the microwave and are now cooling off in the sink.

I left white areas between the burgundy.  In the center of that white area will go a thin stripe of gold.  Finally, I fill in the white areas between the gold and burgundy with a dark blue.

So far, setting up has taken anywhere between 1/2--1 hour.  The actual painting of these skeins has taken between 10-15 minutes.  The final step (heat setting the dyes to make them permanent) takes about 10 minutes.  

When I have finished putting dye on the yarn, I wrap the skein in microwave safe plastic wrap (Saran Wrap is my preferred brand but I have also used Glad Press-n-Seal in a pinch).  Depending on the color placement and how much you want or don't want the colors to bleed on each other determines the method of wrapping with the plastic.  Generally, when I know I am going to be painting the yarn I cover the whole work space with plastic wrap.  Then, as I finish each section of yarn I can roll it up from the outside edge and help keep the colors from bleeding too much.  Unless I want it to blend together.  There really are no right or wrong answers here.

But, however I have wrapped the yarn, I give the whole package another layer of wrap just to make sure it doesn't leak all over the inside of the microwave.  Once it is cocooned in plastic, it is placed in the microwave and heated for two minutes on high power.  When the microwave beeps, I open the door and just let it sit there cooling for three minutes.  Then I repeat the process again.  Sometimes I turn the yarn package over.  Sometimes I don't.  Total time is now 10 minutes.

Make sure you are wearing gloves when taking the yarn bundle out of the microwave.  It will be extremely hot at this point and some steam may leak out of the plastic wrap.  BE VERY CAREFUL to avoid burns.  I drop the bundle in the empty side of the sink and just go on with other colors while it cools.

After the yarn has cooled for about 20 minutes or so, I remove the plastic wrap.  It is still pretty hot.  If there is more than one skein I separate them and leave them in the sink to cool to room temperature (see the picture above).  Once they are at room temp they can be rinsed.  The rinse water should be at least as warm as the yarn, or warmer to avoid felting.  Warm/hot water causes the individual wool fibers to open up at the end.  Cold water causes the ends of the fiber to close down on one another.  It is not the warm/hot water that causes felting, but the repeated opening and closing of the fibers when shocked by temperature changes in the water.  Friction (or agitation) of the fibers helps speed up the felting process by tangling the ends of the fibers while they are open so that when they close they are permanently twisted together.  So, try to not rub the fibers much while dying and rinsing  but be especially mindful of temperature changes in any of the liquids you are working with.

Once the water rinses clean, gently squeeze out as much of the water by hand and then hang the skeins up to dry.  If you have the space, and the weather is nice, go ahead and hang them outside.  Direct sunlight can damage or fade the yarn if exposed for long periods of time.  But the time it takes the skeins to dry will only be a few hours if in the sun, or if there is a breeze so go ahead.  Besides, freshly dyed yarn looks so pretty blowing in the breeze.

Any questions?


  1. Thanks for sharing your process. I have some yarn to dye and love looking at the techniques on how to do it!

  2. Thank you so much for making this post. I really want to try my hand at dying my own yarn, so this really helps alot. :)