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© Knitty 2002-2006. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. This means you.


...For Lazy Color Addicts

Some knitters are into texture. Not me -- I love color. The plainest yarn in the world becomes exciting when it's dyed chartreuse, or a deep, rich plum, or both! Even better are colors with a story. I name the yarn and roving I dye after what inspired the color combination. The roving pictured here, called Ohio Autumn Roadside, contained brilliant oranges and yellows as its primary background colors, with notes of green, plum purple and red -- colors you'd see driving down a back road in October.

And while no one would call me lazy, it is true I like to find shortcuts that provide maximum pleasure for minimal effort. For example, I'm a slow purler -- knitting almost exclusively on circular needles makes me faster. Using this method of dyeing fiber, you can design your own multicolor yarn on the cheap without a huge investment in materials or time. As a matter of fact, you'll probably spend less on materials than on two or three skeins of fancy yarn, and it takes less than an hour for the setup (plus a dishwasher cycle). Did I mention it's really fun, too? You'll need the supplies in the box below.

Assemble your materials:

- Natural fiber roving (or yarn).
I used superwash merino.
- Lanaset/Sabraset acid dyes
- Plastic wrap
- Old newspapers, or other table protection
- Clear plastic hair dye bottles (available at beauty supply shops)
- Clear plastic cups
- Spray bottle filled with white vinegar
- Rubber or latex gloves, if you're picky about your manicure (also available at beauty supply shops)
- Stockpot with lid
- Metal colander that will fit inside the stockpot
Before you set up anything else, place your roving in a large pot or bowl filled with water. Gently force it under the water, without swishing it around, and soak until it absorbs as much water as possible. Some rovings take longer than others. Your ultimate goal is thoroughly wet fiber. If your fiber is pure white, it will look almost clear when it absorbs as much as it can!

Now you're ready to prepare your workspace. Spread newspapers everywhere -- the more, the better. Depending on how Jackson Pollock you get with the dye bottles, you'll be surprised where extra dye spots might show up! Form a layer of plastic wrap over the newspaper, overlapping the edges as you go. More overlap = less leaking in the dyepot, so be generous!

If your beauty-supply bottles aren't open at the pointy applicator tip, don't cut them quite yet! Mix the dye inside first. I'm not very scientific. I tend to mix the dye with a small amount of water until it looks strong enough to me. Err on the side of caution. You can always add more dye, and the powders are very concentrated. This isn't dyeing with drink mix. You won't need to use multiple packets of dye to get a strong color! You can also add water to the dye base to make lighter shades. It helps to have clear plastic cups to play Mad Dye-ientist.

Fiber soaked and ready to dye

Drain the excess water from your roving, being careful not to agitate it (the colander will come in handy here), then arrange the roving on top of the plastic. Expose as much surface area as you can. I used a zigzag pattern here, but you can also do circles, squares or any other shape as long as there's enough roving exposed.

Now, it is time to be an Artiste. Feel free to put on a beret for this section.

The art part


Hot tip:

Use clear plastic cups to make small amounts of lighter colors of dye (dilute with water) or new colors by mixing dyes. Pour dye straight from the cup, no need to put it in a bottle.

Squirt dye on the damp roving. Start with the lightest color first, and progress to the darkest. Less is more. More than 4 or 5 colors can be too much, unless they're in the same color family, or you want a very rainbow-like roving. Remember that each spot of color will be much larger when stretched out in the final yarn, so don't worry if some spots look too small. Don't be afraid to leave white space, either. It can add an interesting effect, and mute really obnoxious colors that might be too much combined together. The dye will bleed and overlap a little, too.

When you like the way the dye looks, spray vinegar onto the entire roving with your squirt bottle. The acid in the vinegar makes the dye "strike", or grab onto the fiber. Don't worry about getting too much vinegar on the wool. In this case, better more than less.

Cover the roving with another layer of plastic wrap, and press it gently with your fingers to work dye through to the other side. (You may want to flip your roving over and put some dye on the back if it hasn't soaked through). Roll it up like a sausage, and try to keep separate sections from touching each other as much as you can. Wrap the entire thing tightly with another layer of plastic wrap. If you're making more than one roving, and they're very different colors, you can be extra-cautious and seal the packets inside individual Ziploc bags.

Place the colander in the bottom of your metal pot, and put the fiber packets in it. Cover with the lid, then put the pot and contents into your dishwasher for longest, hottest cycle possible. You may need to place the pot on a cookie sheet to keep it upright, or send it through two cycles, depending on how hot your dishwasher gets. Leave the pot inside until it cools down. Acid + heat sets the dye, so err on the side of caution.

When you open the lid, the packets will be steamy (surprise!), and the colors will appear slightly darker, as if they've melted together. You thought dye-squirting was the messy part? No -- this next section is -- so it's best done outdoors, or in a laundry sink. Unwrap the packets, and pour off the extra dye. Almost inevitably, some will run off and gather in the pot, no matter how tightly you've sealed the packets. Place the fiber in the corner of your sink and "push" water on to it with your hands. Remember, running water directly onto the fiber increases the likelihood of felting, and you don't want that! Some dye will come off during the rinse.

Hot tip:

Lynne Vogel, of Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook fame, uses a salad spinner at this point to extract as much water as possible from the roving. If you're doing several rovings at once, or you don't have optimal drying conditions, buying yourself a second salad spinner will save you lots of time. (I wouldn't recommend using the same one for salad greens and green dye!)
When the water runs clear, hang your roving to dry, either outside or above something where it can drip. Wet roving is heavy, and it will stretch if you don't hang it properly. If I'm drying inside, I take a heavy plastic clothes hanger and loop the roving over the bar multiple times, zigzag style. Outside, I use a laundry line or a metal rack and sawhorses.

Don't worry if the colors look too dark -- they will lighten up quite a bit as they dry. Of course, if the colors are too light for your taste, you can always repeat the dyeing process. Now knit yourself something special, you artist, you!

Psst: concerned about safety? Read this.


Shannon Okey is the author of Knitgrrl, Knitgrrl 2, and Spin to Knit (Interweave Press, fall 2006). She also recently co-authored a felting book for Interweave with Heather Brack (coming spring 2007), and is highly unlikely to slow down soon.

You can read about her fibery exploits at