This is just a first hand account of my experience using different dyeing techniques, but I hope it will serve as a guide (or in some cases a what-not-to-do) for people looking to try hand-dyeing yarn techniques themselves.
One of the main reasons I wanted to try hand-dyeing yarn was to create long gradient color changes (like these beautiful skeins). When my eyes see a beautiful gradient skein of yarn, they send out a signal that immediately blocks the portion of my brain used for rationalizing while amplifying the impulses of NEED! NEED! BUY! NOW! Somehow, I have managed to somehow override this impulse (it’s the guilt that would come from dropping some major dough on this yarn). But now, I can give in, because I can create my own.
First, a little bit of technicality to get out of the way: gradient dyed yarns are just a version of dyeing yarn into long color changes, also called self-striping yarn. For the gradient change I am interested in producing, the color change pattern doesn’t repeat like you would see in a more traditional self-striping pattern. More on that when I try my hand at creating a repeating self-striping pattern for socks.
From what I can tell, there are basically two ways you can dye yarn into long color changes. One, you dye the sections of yarn each in their own, individual dye bath, while the other technique you use only a single dye bath but change the amount of time each section spends in the bath. For this walk-through, I’m using the second technique here, which I think would allow you to control the color for a more subtle gradient change. I want to try out the single dye bath technique as well to see which I prefer, but that will have to wait for another day (and another blog post) when I get a bit more yarn. I highly recommend also checking out this really awesome tutorial posted over at Maiya knits using a crockpot to gradient dye. If you want a gradient color change that repeats through your knit, check out this tutorial on knitty.com.
For me, I used my stove top, McCormack food dyes, and a 100g skein of a worsted weight acrylic wool blend. For a run-through of the general supplies you need for dyeing, check out this post.
Preparing the yarn and dye bath
1. Divide the yarn into mini skeins: My yarn weighed 100g and I knew I wanted to do 5 color changes, so using the back of one of my kitchen chairs, I made the single skein into 5 mini skeins, each weighing approximately 20g (I used my kitchen scale for weighing and it is definitely not the most accurate scale in the world). The important thing to keep in mind while doing this is to keep each of the mini skeins connected to each other. In other words, do not cut the yarn after winding each mini skein – they should all still connect to form one large skein like you started out with. I fastened each of the mini skeins with some scrap yarn to keep them from getting tangled in the dye bath.
2. Soak the yarn: All 5 mini skeins were soaked in a bowl of warm water with some vinegar. I didn’t really measure anything out, but I wanted enough water to completely cover my skeins and then probably about 1 tablespoon of white vinegar went in with that. I left the yarn to soak for at least half an hour while I prepared the dye bath.
3. Prepare the dye bath: In a pot large enough to hold all my yarn, I added enough water to completely cover the yarn and then started adding dye to try to produce a teal color. I used McCormack’s neon food coloring in neon blue and green. I also added some vinegar to the pot. Then I put it over medium heat to get it warmed up to about a simmer – you want to aim for around 160-180F.
Dyeing the yarn
4. Add the yarn to the dye bath: After the yarn had been soaking for about half an hour, I lifted it out and carefully squeezed out any excess water. Then I lowed all 5 mini skeins into the dye bath and give them a gentle stir while keeping track of which skein marked the end of my chain of mini skeins.
5. Remove first mini skein: After about 30 seconds in the hot dye bath, I lifted out my first mini skein and put it into a bowl of warm water sitting next to my pot on the stove. This first mini skein marked one end of my large skein.
Note: It’s important that you don’t change the temperature of the wool rapidly, or you might cause felting. So, if you are rinsing skeins immediately out of the simmering dye bath, they need to go in warm water. Same for the initial soaking of the yarn, if you are putting it immediately into a hot dye bath, you should probably soak it in warm water.
6. Remove second mini skein: After about 5 minutes, I rinsed out the first mini skein in the bowl of water, laid it on some plastic wrap on the stove, and then lifted my second mini skein out of the dye bath (this would be the next skein attached to the one I had already removed) and put it into the rinse bowl.
7. Replenish the dye bath: Because the first two skeins had soaked up some of the dye in the bath, I made up some more in a small container (using the same ratio of green to blue I used when first preparing the bath) and, then, added it to the dye bath off to the side so it doesn’t get directly poured onto the yarn.
8. Keep removing mini skeins and replenishing dye: I simply kept taking the next skein out after a longer duration of time had passed (I would simply lift the yarn out a bit and look at the amount of coloration it had to decide whether I was happy with the color). I think I had approximately 5-10 minutes between each mini skein. When to take out each skein can really just be up to you, but keep in mind once dried, the colors will appear lighter than they do when wet. Between skeins 3, 4, and 5, I kept adding a bit more dye to the bath so that it was never fully exhausted. You can always use a small spoon to scoop up some of the dye bath and see how much color remains. Because you are adding more dye with less yarn in the bath you should end up with a darker color in your remaining mini skeins. With each mini skein I lifted out, I put it into the warm rinse bowl, and then following that onto a piece of plastic wrap while the next skein soaked.
9. Rinse all skeins & hang to dry: Once all the skeins had been dyed, I rinsed them all together in warm water to remove any excess dye and then hung them up to dry.
10. Wait, quite impatiently, while yarn dries
11. Wind yarn back into single skein/ball
You will probably notice about now that my skeins aren’t exactly teal, but more of a gradient from mint to forest green. I found out later that blue can be a bit of devil to dye with. You can read all about issues (and how to hopefully fix them) dyeing with blue food coloring. I think the issue with my dye bath was not enough vinegar. I’m still having issues with getting a good teal shade in my yarn, but one of the exciting things about dyeing yarn is the element of surprise. In the future, I plan on trying baths with more vinegar and a lower green to blue ratio so hopefully there is less green for the yarn to soak up initially (in my brain, this means it’ll be forced to take up some of the blue, right?!).
But I’m happy with my gradient experiment. Although it didn’t turn out exactly the shade I wanted, it still produced a lovely green gradient. I think this yarn will end up as a newborn sweater for my Ph.D. advisor who is having his first baby this fall. And it inspires me to try many more gradient experiments in the future! I can’t wait to have my very first pair of gradient dyed socks.
If you come across any other great resources for gradient dyeing (or tips for dyeing with blue), please let me know. I would love to keep this page updated as I learn more and get more experience.