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Adventures In Wool Dyeing

Author Photo
By Keba M Hitzeman | Dec 11, 2020

Photo by Unsplash/Jelleke Vanooteghem 

Up to this point, I have been using all of my home-grown wools in their natural colors. That works just fine with the Shetland wool since they come in a wide range of creams, browns, greys, and black. But I’ve been shuffling around three cones of white Corriedale mill-spun yarn for several years, wondering what to do with it. Nine pounds of yarn with no project in mind, so it all sat in a tote, waiting for something to happen.

Meanwhile, in my fiber storage area, a Greener Shades dyeing kit sat in a box. Nine colors of the rainbow, advertised to be less toxic than other acid dyes, and it looked like a relatively simple process to dye yarn. And there it sat.

Recently, the switch flipped. There was unused yarn, there was yarn dye, I had a stainless steel pot with nothing to do. Let’s order some pH testing strips and block off a few hours to see what kind of mess I could make! While I was waiting for the testing strips to arrive, YouTube entertained me with “how to dye wool yarn” videos, giving me a little more confidence that no, it really wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined it to be. I skeined up some of the Corriedale yarn and pulled out a hat I had already knitted from that yarn to see if it would take the dye any differently than the yarn – I figured if I was going to experiment, let’s experiment with everything! When the test strips arrived, I read everything at least 4 times, checked the pH of my tap water to know how much of the citric acid I should add to set the dye, took a deep breath, and started dyeing yarn.

Dyepot with yarn soaking up the blue dye. Photo by  Keba M Hitzeman

Each sample bottle of the dyes was indicated to dye about 3 pounds of yarn, but on my first venture, I didn’t want to commit that much yarn, so I dyed about a pound and a half total – 2 large skeins and a completed hat, all from the Corriedale yarn. The process is not difficult but is time-consuming. Wash the milling oils off the yarn, heat it in the stockpot with plenty of water so the yarn can move (although I’m thinking that if the yarn was in less water, the dye would absorb better in some spots, leading to a more spotted yarn, which would be neat!), add the dye, let it simmer, add citric acid to set the color, let it cool overnight, rinse it the next morning. The skeins were hung up to dry, and the knitted hat is downright spectacular. I proved my hypothesis that I could indeed dye a completed item, which means I can now knit directly from the cone, without having to measure out the amount of yarn I need, wind it to a skein, dye it, wind it to a ball, then knit. Life is good.

The white spots are where the yarn didn’t take the dye as well – it gives interesting texture to the finished product! Photo by  Keba M Hitzeman

I tend to get unnecessarily nervous when trying new things, especially when I need to take a nice item that I have (in this case, a stainless steel stockpot) and “sacrifice” it to an activity with no assurance of success. But now I have a whole pile of beautiful, brightly colored yarns to knit with. I have done blue, red, and green yarn, and dyed a finished hat orange (that one is for me!).  And I have still have a lot to play around with – I learned from some fiber friends how to mix the colors like paint, sprinkle the dry dye on the wet yarn for speckles, and dip dye each end to make multi-colored skeins.  Those will make some truly one-of-a-kind knitted things. I also discovered that you can dye natural fiber yarns with Kool-Aid powder and Rit dyes. Some fiber friends use the turkey roasting pans that you can get at the grocery instead of stockpots, especially if they are making multi-colored yarns or speckled. So many options!

Skeins of green and red yarns drying. Photo by  Keba M Hitzeman

Moral of the story? Just do the thing. Chances are, you’re going to succeed at it. Sometimes you won’t, but I’m pretty sure that’s part of the learning process, too. And if nothing else, you discover whether or not that thing is something you want to continue doing.

Have you dyed yarn before? What method did you use, and how did it turn out?

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