I have been wanting to try dyeing my own yarn for a while now, but just hadn’t set aside the time to actually do any research on the topic (unless ogling hand dyed yarn on Etsy counts as research). That was, until this weekend, when I just decided to dive head first into a giant vat of yarn and dye. And since I had done the work to look some of this stuff up, why not share it for anyone else who is teetering on the edge of trying dyeing at home. Or even if you aren’t teetering on any edges (except perhaps the edge of sanity), maybe you will be inspired to give it a try. Why? Because it is fun as all get out, it’s relatively cheap, and you can probably do it with things you already have in your home.

But before we actually jump into any dyeing, we should probably get our acts together and get organized (at least a little bit, otherwise you will have a giant mess on your hands…. literally).

Things you need for dyeing yarn at home (in more detail than you probably wanted, but you’ll thank me later)

1. a yarn base

To dye yarn, you need yarn. The best yarn for at-home dyeing is composed of 100% animal fibers (like wool or alpaca). Most people swear by wool because it’s easy to get and relatively cheap. You can go with a white/cream colored base or you can even find undyed fibers specifically sold for people looking to dye their own. Here are a couple sites I’ve found to order natural, undyed skeins of yarn:

For my initial dyeing experiments, I just used some white yarn I had in my stash. Two of them were wool acrylic blends (more on that in just a bit), and one was Cascade 220. I have gone ahead and ordered some more yarn for dyeing, specifically for making socks. I’m trying this merino wool and nylon blend and this 100% wool fingering yarn in “Snow.”
Your yarn doesn’t have to be white/cream/natural – you can actually use previously dyed skeins that need a little extra life. This technique is called overdyeing and would be a great way to re-inspire leftover and/or ugly color-challenged skeins of yarn you have lying around in your stash.
If, like me, you have wool acrylic blends on hand and want to give dyeing a shot – go for it! Just be aware, the acrylic will not dye. At. All. So the higher the wool content, the darker your color will be. In the end, you will get a bit of a heathered look to your dyed yarn because only the wool will be colored while the acrylic will remain white. It can still look quite nice, but the colors won’t be as bright and true as if you were using 100% wool. Here’s my acrylic wool blend dyed in a gradient of green. You can see as the color gets darker, the heathered appearance is more obvious.
Next, you’ll need…
2. dyes

You may be surprised to learn you probably already have what you need in your kitchen cupboard. You can get great dyeing results without using professional dyes – all you need is some food coloring or some packets of Kool-Aid or both! I ended up using some McKormick neon food color drops that had been in my cupboard for probably 500 years (this is just an approximate date and has not been scientifically tested with carbon dating). Here’s what I’ve gathered about the various “supermarket” dyes you can use:

Food coloring: you can use the dropper style (like you find in the baking aisle of the grocery store) or many people like the Wilton’s concentrated gels. The benefit of the gel is that you get lots of color in a little jar and Wilton also has many beautiful colors available. Wilton gels are found in your usual big-box craft store, like Michaels, and, of course, can be found on Amazon. For the liquid drops, you will need a lot more to get a rich color (we are talking the whole tiny bottle for 1 skein of yarn) and you will have to play around be artistic when it comes to making up new color combinations. 

Kool-aid: Cheap, readily available at the grocery store, and a surprising amount of colors! To me, Kool-aid dyed yarn comes out either bright and rainbow-y or a bit pastel-y, but doesn’t get you the deep rich colors that you could achieve with the food gel dyes. Here is a pretty little visual guide to the different colors associated with different Kool-aid flavors. Of course, you can also mix and match flavors to achieve different colors. This blog does a really nice job of covering several ways you can use Kool-Aid to dye yarn.

Other junk things you’ll need for dyeing at home:

3. vinegar*

The vinegar helps bind the dye to the fiber and can be included in an initial soak bath as well as in the dye bath itself, although this depends on the type of dyeing you are doing and your personal preference.

*Necessary for dyeing with food coloring, but not for Kool-aid. I don’t know if this is a scary fact or not, but Kool-aid is acidic enough all on it’s own and doesn’t require any extra vinegar. Yay?

4. cling wrap/old towels/newspaper

To keep things neat-ish if you are hand “painting” the yarn with colors on a flat surface rather than dipping/soaking it into a dye bath or doing kettle dyeing.

5. large pot(s)/glass dishes/mason jars/disposable roasting pans

You’ll need a large bowl or pot to do your soak and rinsing (though clean sinks work really well for this, too). For dyeing, if you go with the dip dye method, are just dyeing your yarn a single color, or want to try the wonderfully unpredictable kettle dyeing, you will need non-plastic containers that are large enough to hold your piece of yarn and enough water for the yarn to be completely submerged. These containers also need to be heat-tolerant.

6. foam paint brush/turkey baster/syringe

If you want to apply different colors to your yarn while hand painting to get color changes (what’s the point of hand painting if you can’t use lots of pretty colors?!), you’ll need something to apply the prepared dyes. I’ve seen people use foam paint brushes (really puts the painting in hand painting), while others squirt the due on with a turkey baster or other type of syringe. I used an old flavor-injector I had in my drawer to apply my dyes.

7. stove top/microwave/steamer/crockpot/oven/the sun

No matter what staining technique you use you will need something heat up your yarn while it is soaking up the dye. For most people, this will be your microwave, which makes dyeing relatively quick. If you live in the 1800’s like me, and don’t have a microwave, do not despair. For dip dyeing or kettle dyeing, you can just use your stove top or a crockpot. You can even use the sun if you want to go full hippie. For hand painting the yarn, you can use a steamer insert with a pan on the stove or if you have a rice cooker with a steamer insert, that works, too. I haven’t tried this myself, but some people also “bake” their yarn in the oven in large roasting pans. Aim for under 200F, and make sure the yarn is covered so it doesn’t burn.

8. gloves

This is where that literal mess on your hands comes into play. Me, I am a glove-free bird. You cannot cage me with gloves. I feel the tie-dye mess on my hands makes me look like an arteest. But you may be less inclined to walking around in public with neon finger tips, so you’ll probably want some gloves. You can buy disposable latex gloves at pharmacies usually.

I think that’s it. All the important stuff (i.e. what I can remember), anyway. Later on this week, I’ll post another update covering my journey into gradient dyeing. Also, as I continue to explore and learn, I keep this and all following tutorials updated. I’ve also compiled a pinterest board with some of the sites I’ve found the most helpful during this process.

Please let me know if you find these tutorials helpful/confusing/mindless babbling, and if come across other great resources for hand-dyeing yarn, please share!

4 Comments on Adventures in hand dyeing: Getting your act together

  1. this is a great post. I’ve just started experimenting with dyeing yarn as well. I buy my yarn at wool2dye4.com, as it’s cheap and what I’ve tried so far is a nice quality. I’m using disposable foil casserole trays and baking the yarn/dye baths. I tried a few methods, and I like this one because the container has a large area, so I can spread the yarn out a bit more to apply colors more easily, but all the mess is still contained. also, i can fit a couple in the oven at once, which is nice as well.

    can’t wait to read more about your dyeing adventures! c:

    • Thanks for the link! I will add that to the list. 🙂

      I also think the oven method is brilliant. Do you cover the yarn while it is in the oven? I have heard of “baking” the yarn around 200F to help seal in the color and I was thinking of trying it during my next hand painting experiment as my steamer is so small and the plastic wrap can be really messy to try to deal with. Thanks for all your tips!

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