I first learned how to dye yarn back in 2016 and though the basic principle of dyeing yarn isn’t all that complicated (wool + heat + acid + dye = beautiful yarn), it would take me years before I was comfortable enough to start selling the yarn I had dyed. Why? Because it took me years of trial, error, and reading textbooks on the subject before I was confident enough in my actual understanding of this particular sector of Fiber Alchemy.
And alchemy it truly is! Yarn dyeing is equal parts science and magic! I experimented with many different brands of dye, many different bases of yarn, and many techniques for applying the dye before I landed on a technique I truly loved and could also dependably repeat.
There are so many unique ways to add color to wool, but kettle-dyed yarn is by far my favorite. I love it because variegated tonals/semi-solids are my favorite colors to knit with. Kettle-dyed yarn makes for an interesting fabric that’s not too busy and therefore pairs well with plain stockinette as well as textured patterns.
Plus, the subtle striping reminds me of my feline familiars and my late soulmate Lucille, a brindle-butt Pit Bull who left my side (but never my heart) last year. This “brindle” effect in the color results in painterly stripes of varying contrast, just like the fur of my favorite familiar beasts. Though I dye my yarn in small matching batches, no two skeins will be exactly the same …that’s also true for every animal I’ve known and loved.
I hand-dye each skein the old-world way, one pot at a time on the stove. In my little stainless-steel cauldrons (aka stock pots) I carefully monitor every step of the dyeing process. The temperature, pH, and dye concentration in the dye bath must remain at specific levels in order to create a permanent bond between wool and dye. If the correct balance isn’t achieved and maintained, the wool fiber can become irreparably damaged and/or the color will bleed.
Each skein of yarn has a finite amount of molecular points where permanent dye adhesion can take place, just like a parking lot has a finite amount of parking spaces for cars to park. Once a parking lot is full, the lot closes and no more cars can park. The same thing happens when dyeing wool! If you overload the yarn with too much dye, those dye molecules have nowhere to go and will inevitably fall back out of the yarn. This is why wool will sometimes bleed or “crock” when knitting and blocking, even if it was dyed at the correct temperature and pH.
To avoid the “too many cars in the lot” phenomenon from happening, I meticulously formulate my dye recipes using a gram scale and Depth Of Shade percentages rather than measuring in teaspoons. As someone with dyscalculia, I find this extra math to be a tad stressful (I’m not ashamed to say I need Google to help me check my work) but I know it’s worth the trouble in the end!
As I mentioned, monitoring the temperature, pH, and dye strength together is absolutely integral for a successful dye application. Acid dyes get their name because they require citric acid to work properly, and it’s the level of acid in the dye bath that changes the pH. If the pH is too high, the dye molecules will only superficially attach to the wool resulting in a bond that isn’t permanently lightfast or colorfast. If the pH is too low, the protein molecules within the wool start to break down which can compromise softness, strength, and make the wool brittle.
Think about it this way: homemade lemonade that’s made well is the perfect amount of tart and doesn’t hurt your stomach to drink, but stomach acid itself is super caustic and literally breaks down proteins. Adding too much citric acid to your dye pot can result in a pH level that’s the same as stomach acid! I use pH strips routinely to make sure this doesn’t happen.
If the dye bath isn’t hot enough the dye molecules can’t find their way through the outer cortex and into the core of the wool, again, compromising permanent adhesion of color and preventing the dye bath from properly exhausting. If the dye bath gets too hot, or the temperature is raised too quickly, the wool can felt and also become “ring-dyed”, an effect where all the dye quickly attaches to the outer surface of the fiber but not the core. Ring-dyed yarn might look ultra-saturated on the outside of the strand but faded within the center of the ply.
I mix all of my dye recipes using just 8 primary and secondary base pigments. It’s much more challenging than having 80+ pre-mixed dyes at my disposal but the art-school dropout in me really enjoys it! The dyes I use are earth-friendly, low-impact acid dyes that meet organic standards and are formulated without hazardous metals or chrome.
All brands of yarn dyes are deemed safe when handled correctly, but I like these particular dyes because they’re not known mutagens or carcinogens, and also not known to cause reproductive toxicity, which isn’t the case with other types of dye powder (especially with certain shades of red pigment!). My home runs on a septic/well system so it’s extremely important to me that I’m not putting anything hazardous down the drain and potentially harming the wildlife around me. No one wants five-legged toads in their garden!
The yarn bases I use are milled sustainably in Peru using mulesing-free fiber and ethical sourcing. Someday I’d love to have a base that’s custom-milled just for me, but until then I’ve found two bases that I’m passionate about and absolutely LOVE working with. Since these yarn bases aren’t exclusively “mine” I’ve decided against branded base names and kept it simple in the description instead: Organic Merino Worsted and Alpaca Sport. In the future I’d like to add a third base to the permanent rotation once I find one I love equally as much.
I’ll end on a more personal note and say I’ve run into my fair share of challenges regarding my disability and the process of creating hand-dyed yarn. It’s been a physically humbling and sometimes discouraging journey, but I never gave up on my dream of offering hand-dyed yarn alongside my handmade bags. Dyeing yarn isn’t exactly easy or inexpensive but it’s incredibly fun and creatively fulfilling!
If you’ve ever had an interest in dyeing yarn, I highly recommend giving it a try. Whether you want to dye yarn for personal projects or to sell in your own shop, I want you to know there’s room for you and your vision. Pick the supplies that speak to you and pour your heart into your work, creating a fiber story that’s uniquely yours. You can be a yarn dyer, too! Ask anyone with a fiber stash — There’s always room for more yarn!