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Handpaint Your Own Yarn

Never dyed before? Here's a guide to creating your own handpainted yarn.

Ever had a desire to create your own variegated yarns? Mix exactly the colors you want on exactly the yarn you want, to create something uniquely your own? You’ve come to the right place. For years I thought it would be too messy, too complicated, and too expensive to dye my own yarns. I was wrong. What it is, is fun. With a potential for mess, sure, but it’s FUN! And did I mention, fairly inexpensive?

Below are three common ways to make handpaint yarns; I’ve arranged them in order of difficulty, though none of them are truly hard to do. The only real dangers are making a mess, felting the yarn (though that’s easily avoided by using superwash), or making something ugly. The yarn police won’t come after you for making ugly yarn. Come on, give it a try.


Regardless of what method you use, there are some factors to consider.

Using acid dyes developed specifically for dyeing protein fibers can be dangerous. It’s suggested you wear a filtration mask when handling the powder to avoid breathing it, avoid coming into contact with it, avoid breathing the fumes when you heat it to set the color, and you can’t use any utensils you use when dyeing for anything else. The dyes have to be special-ordered or purchased from hard-to-find retailers, and used in conjunction with other chemical additives that are just as difficult to find and often just as dangerous. Then there are the disposal issues for whatever you don’t use.
Organic, plant-based dyes aren’t much better; the plants themselves are often poisonous (pokeberry, anyone?), and the mordants can be insanely toxic –arsenic and copper sulfide are just a few of the more deadly chemicals you’ll play around with. I have a toddler, and the idea of having anything like that near her makes my blood run cold.

The answer? Food coloring. I know, I know. It all seems so grade-school to dye your wool with food coloring, and the colors are so candy-bright. But the safety considerations are just about nil (you could DRINK the stuff if you didn’t mind multi-colored innards) and you can use all your regular kitchen utensils to work with it. Candy colors can be avoided with overdyes, clever mixing, or careful regulation. Though I, for one, like bright colors. It’s one of the reasons I started doing this; most handpaint yarns are done in bleeding pastels or darks, which while nice, just aren’t my cup of tea.

To dye with food coloring (well, to dye with anything, really, but we’re sticking to food coloring), you need five things:

-Yarn. FOOD COLORING AS A DYE ONLY WORKS ON PROTEIN/ANIMAL FIBERS. For beginners, superwash wool is your best bet. It’s unfeltable, easy to find, and affordable. If you’re looking for bright colors, get white (I have produced neon colors with neon food coloring on bright white yarn in the past). Cream is good for normal colors and pastels, light gray for pastels and neutrals. Cream is probably best for starting off with. In these tutorials, all yarn is Patons “Classic Wool” worsted weight, in color ‘winter white’. It’s not superwash, but it IS what I had on hand when I decided to dye some yarn for this article. Which is another great thing about dyeing your own yarn – you can transform what’s in your stash into something new. You can even, gasp, dye light yarns in solid colors with this method, but where’s the fun in that?

-Colorant. In our case, food coloring. For most of my dyeing I use Wilton’s paste food coloring, but occasionally I will use McCormick’s liquid food coloring (the stuff with four colors in a box, with little dripper bottles). For each dye job, I specify which I used, but either one works. Both are available on line. Wilton’s can also be found at most craft stores that cater to cake decorators and candy makers, and McCormick’s is available in most grocery stores. Regardless of what you use, you want to dissolve it in boiling water before use, paste and dry or granulated colors in particular. If you can’t find the brand names mentioned here, get something else. They’re all made with the same dyes and chemicals, they just have different names. To preview the color, dab a bit of your dissolved color into a white paper towel.

-An acid. In our case, vinegar. Safe, easily disposed of, and available at the grocery store in one gallon jugs if you want to buy in bulk. Acid opens up the fibers, chemically speaking, and makes the color stick. The more acid, the brighter the color, and the faster the dye ‘hits’, or takes up into the yarn. There also seems to be some funky reaction going on between the vinegar and food coloring; if you use more than ¾ cup/175ml vinegar at a time, it can make blues and purples take up red and blue at different speeds. The best way to avoid that is to soak the yarn in vinegar-water the night before and then add a small amount of vinegar to the dye pot, instead of just using a whopping dose with the dye. For each dye method, I specify how much vinegar went where. You are welcome to experiment, and do it your own way. There’s no wrong way to do this.  

-Water. Seems like a no-brainer, but depending on the chemicals and minerals dissolved in your water, your dyes won’t necessarily look the same as mine do. If you know there’s a lot of chlorine or iron in your water, you may want to consider using filtered, or picking up a couple gallons of spring water at the grocery store. I used tap water, but the water in my city is fairly clean.

-Heat. You can get it from a crock-pot, a boiling pot of water on the stove, steam, the oven, or even your dishwasher, but you’ve got to get the yarn as close as possible to boiling without going over, for about fifteen minutes, to set the dye and make it colorfast. I used a crock-pot for two of these dye methods, but with careful heat management you could do the same thing on the stove with a large pot.

Notice you can buy all your supplies but the yarn at the grocery store? Yep. Safety is our middle name. (Well. Really our middle name is ‘cheap’, but we like safety too. Cheap and safe at the same time? Bliss.)


I never thought to include directions on this, until someone asked me how to do it. Then I realized it really isn’t something everybody knows. So here you go.

If the yarn is in a ball, wind it off onto a niddy-noddy (if you have one), or a handy piece of furniture that’s nice and sturdy. I regularly use my kitchen table to wind off longish skeins. The advantage to winding it on your table is, it’s automatically the right size to spread out on the same table later, if you’re doing cold-pour dyeing.

If the yarn is already in a skein, you can leave it as-is, or wind it off onto a longer or shorter skein, as desired. If you leave it as-is, make sure it has enough wrap-ties to keep it from tangling in the dye pot and wash.

The length of the skein determines the length of the pattern repeat. If you have something specific in mind in terms of self-striping yarns, you need to knit up an example, unravel it and figure out how much of each length you need, and figure out how to arrange your living room furniture to wind it into the proper length skein (around the recliner, over the coffee table, around the couch…). Me, I just wind it off as the fit takes me and see how it knits up later. Longer pattern repeats I do on my kitchen table, shorter pattern repeats I do on my niddy-noddy. If I ever decide to try a really long pattern repeat, I’ll probably use the living room furniture.

Tie the beginning of the yarn to the end, and trim as needed. You don’t want long ends hanging out. By tying the two ends together, you ensure that the yarn doesn’t tie itself into knots, and when you find one end later, you’ll have both of them.

Get some waste yarn (nice smooth cotton in a light color is ideal) and weave it through the yarn; up and over a few times, wrap it around, and come back the other direction, like in the photo. Knot the ends together. (I used the blue thread in the photo so you could see what I was doing. It did, indeed, bleed onto the yarn later and turn it light blue. Stupid, stupid, stupid.) Put one of these wraps every foot and a half/half meter or so. They keep the yarn from tangling. Don’t make them so tight you accidentally tie-dye your yarn.

Ready to try something? Here we go.


This is the easiest and least-messy of the three dye methods; essentially you put your yarn in a crock pot and pour dye over it. There are some finicky details, but that’s really all there is to it. Keep in mind that the more dye you use, the more they mix together when poured into the pot. Ditto, the more colors you use, the more they mix. So for this method it’s best to use related colors (like blue/purple, or in this case, yellow/orange/pink) or colors that mix into something pleasant (blue/yellow/green). Avoid complimentary colors (blue/orange, red/green, yellow/purple) because they look like mud when they mix. Unless you want mud.

I skeined up the yarn on my niddy-noddy and soaked it overnight with ¾ cup/175ml vinegar mixed in, because I wanted the dye to stick to the yarn quickly when it was poured into the pot. (If you want yarn that is murkier with the colors more blended, don’t use any vinegar in the overnight soak.) In the morning I drained off the soak water (and with it, any vinegar left) and put it in the crock pot with enough water to cover and ½ cup/125ml vinegar. The amount of water to use in this case is tricky; the more water you use, the more the dye will spread when it is poured in later. You need enough water to cover the yarn, but after that, the amount is up to you. I put the crock-pot on high (with no dye yet) until I could see steam rising off the water; that took about two hours for my crock-pot. If you’ve got any meat or candy thermometers around, you can pop one of those into the crock-pot to monitor your progress (remember, all this stuff is food safe, so you aren’t destroying the thermometer OR the crock-pot).

While my yarn was heating, I mixed up some dyes. I put three drops of McCormick yellow in 1/3 cup/75ml water, and dissolved 1/16 teaspoon/.2ml of Wilton’s paste food coloring, colors rose and creamy peach, each in their own ½ cup/125ml boiling water. There were three colors, total; yellow, rose, and peach. I used liquid measuring pitchers, one for each color, to make them easy to pour later. (Paste food coloring HAS to be dissolved in boiling water, with a lot of stirring.) If you wanted to mix colors, this would be the time, when the colorants are dissolved in water. Add a little yellow to make a green pop, put some blue in the rose to make magenta, that kind of thing.

Once the yarn was hot, I poured in the dye; peach on one side, pink on the other, then blops of yellow in any empty spaces. I clapped on the lid and left it alone for an hour. When I came back, the dye pot had ‘exhausted’ (meaning the water was clear, and all the dye had stuck to the wool), so I turned off the crock-pot and let it cool for a couple hours, lid off. When the yarn was back to room temperature, I gave it a careful wash until the water ran clear, ran it through the spin cycle of my washing machine to get out any excess water, and then hung it up to dry.

You can see from the photo there were a good many places where dye didn’t reach the yarn. You can fix that by pouring in more dye, though that will lead to more color mixing. Or, you can wait until the dye pot exhausts, stir the yarn around, and pour in more color, leaving it to heat-set again before cooling and washing. If I’d been using superwash wool, I’d have done the stir-and-dye-more method, but I didn’t want to felt the yarn, so out it came with no stirring.


This one’s a lot more labor-intensive, but you can pinpoint exactly where you want your colors and run much less risk of mixing them together. As you can see from the example, I put compliments next to each other (blue/orange) and pulled it off with minimal mixing between them. You’ve got a much larger potential for mess on this one, too. MUCH larger. For small spills I suggest using bleach wipes to clean up. For large spills, well, I’ve been lucky so far, but mop them up and then get the jug of bleach and a rag and have at it.

You’ll need good-quality plastic wrap, an oven, a baking dish of some kind, aluminum foil, and I suggest rubber gloves. You don’t NEED the rubber gloves, but you run the risk of turning your hands and fingernails wonky colors without them. There’s no real danger in handling the colors, though, just destruction of your manicure. Up to you.

Skein up your yarn (I wrapped mine on the kitchen table) and soak it with ¾ cup/175ml vinegar overnight. Again, you want the dye to stick to the yarn pretty quickly, so vinegar in the soak water.

In the morning, preheat your oven to 250F/120C and mix up your dyes. I used ¼ teaspoon/1ml creamy peach in ½ cup/125ml water, and ½ teaspoon/2ml each teal and sky blue in 1 cup/225ml water, to make three dyes, peach, teal, and sky blue.

Spread plastic wrap out on your work table in a circle. Drain your yarn (you want it dry enough that it’ll take up your dyes and not drip, but not bone dry) and place it on the plastic wrap, adjusting carefully so everything’s positioned right. Then pour your dye onto your yarn where you want it, squishing it into the yarn as you go so you have even coverage. I suggest starting a small distance away from where colors meet and squishing the dye up to where the two colors join, instead of pouring directly onto a color join. That helps keep the colors distinct. (If you want them to blend, why, then, squish them together. You get the idea.) When you’ve got dye squished into the yarn where you want it, wrap it all up in the plastic wrap and carefully transfer it to a baking dish. Keep any light colors at the top of the yarn pile so that the other dyes don’t run down into it and muddy it up.

Cover the whole thing with foil to hold the steam in, and pop your baking dish into the oven for a couple hours. If you’ve got a meat thermometer laying around your kitchen, tuck it in between the layers of yarn (since it’s all food-grade dye, you can use your meat thermometer on your pot roast again, even if it turns colors, which it shouldn’t). You want the yarn to stay just below the boiling point for at least fifteen minutes. The thermometer makes it easy to tell what’s going on without lifting the foil and letting out all the heat you’re trying to accumulate.

Once the yarn’s been heated, take it out, remove the foil, and let it cool; that will take several hours. When it’s room temperature, take it to the sink, cut it out of the plastic wrap (be careful not to cut the yarn when removing the plastic wrap – one lesson learned the hard way), and give it a wash. Be careful to keep the light colors away from the dark until any leaking dye has been removed from the plastic wrap, and everything’s been given a quick rinse; again, that’s to avoid muddying up the lighter colors. I have heard tell of permanently melting plastic wrap to yarn with this method; that’s why I suggest getting good-quality plastic wrap and not cheaping out on the generic stuff, just this once.

When the yarn’s been washed until the water runs clear, give it a spin through the washer (or roll it up in a towel and stand on it) to remove the excess water, then hang it up to dry.


The main reason I used this method was to show the wide potential for color variation with food color dyes. All colors on the skein were done with unmixed royal blue color from Wilton’s. Of all three methods shown in this article, I think this one has the most potential for disaster. The technique isn’t difficult – none of them are – but this one involves handling the yarn a lot, exposing it to a lot of dye, a lot of heat, and a lot of vinegar. Plus there’s a lot of mad scientist mixing and pouring and stirring going on, so if you’re ever going to pour dark blue dye over your kitchen floor, it’s most likely going to happen during this method.

I created a long skein on my kitchen table again, about two yards/two meters long when held up from one point and allowed to hang, maybe four yards/four meters in total circumference. I put in a lot of loop ties to prevent tangling, because I knew this yarn would be handled a lot. Then I soaked it overnight in plain water with no vinegar. With a dip-dye, you want the dye to soak in slowly, over a period of time, not stick the instant you dunk the yarn. So no vinegar this time around.

The next morning I filled the crock-pot with 8 cups/2 liters of water and ¾ cup/175ml vinegar. In one cup/225ml boiling water, I dissolved an entire teaspoon/5ml of royal blue coloring. (That’s a lot of dye. Wait. It gets crazier.) I waited until there was steam rising from the crock-pot, and stirred in the dye. It was so dark I couldn’t see the bottom of the pot.

I drained the water off the skein, found an end (with it folded in half), and carefully lowered all but a handful of yarn into the brew, swished it around, and immediately pulled four inches/ten cm back out of the pot. Leaving that to hang down the side of the crock-pot into a bowl, I put the lid back on and let the yarn stew for ten minutes. Then I pulled another four inches of yarn out of the crock pot, put the lid back on, and let it go for twenty minutes. As the yarn that had been pulled out cooled, I would squeeze the water and dye out into the bowl it was hanging over, and then move it on to a plate. Note that the very end of the yarn skein never met the dye; the very light blue was created by dye wicking up the fibers from the parts that were dipped.

I continued this for most of the afternoon; each time I pulled out four inches/ten cm of yarn, I would lengthen the time the rest was left in. After the twenty minute pause, I left the next round in for half an hour and pulled another four inches; then forty-five minutes and pulled another four inches. Whenever the dye pot started to exhaust (I could see the bottom of the crock-pot and the water was noticeably lighter blue), I would top it off with another ½ teaspoon/2ml of royal blue dissolved in ¾ cup/175ml boiling water and give it a careful stir. By the time I pulled the final bit (the very dark, navy blue) out of the pot, it had been in there approximately four hours, and I had topped off the pot with dye three times. (It’s a miracle I didn’t felt it into one solid mass; I strongly suggest using superwash if you ever try this. And lock the cat out of the kitchen or wherever you’re mixing the dye.)

Most of the skein was already cool when I pulled the last bit from the crock-pot, so it didn’t take too long to reach room temperature. As always, I gave it a wash. Of the three dye methods I’ve discussed, this one bled the most during the wash and required four or five rinses; it’s heat that sets the color, and the first sections dyed – the pastels – didn’t spend much time at all in the heat, so the dye washes right back out again. Make sure to get it all.

Then I hung it up to dry – away from the baby and the cat, that’s always tricky – and then put it in a more workable skein size on my niddy-noddy the next day. Amazingly, the yarn was not tangled and wound up easily. I can only attribute it to luck and lots of woven ties.

There you have it. Three totally different looks, all created with some food coloring and stuff most people have laying around their kitchens. It really is this easy; the hardest part for me was not spilling dye all over the place and wrangling my toddler during the entire afternoon it took to do the dip-dye. (The other dye methods I did while she was napping.) For cleanup, I washed out my crock-pot with bleach (it did turn a nice shade of blue-lavender during the dip-dye), wash it out again with soap and water, and it was bright white and good as new. If you have a choice between glass or metal utensils, glass stains less and cleans up more easily, but even stained, the utensils are still safe to cook with – I made soup the other night with a bright pink wooden spoon.

Dig through your stash, find something you’ll never knit up as-is, and experiment! It brings out all kinds of happy kindergarten finger-painting memories.

Food coloring available at and your local grocery store. contains information about liquid food colorants.

There were some books I found helpful when learning to dye. In order of usefulness to me, they are:
“The Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook” by Lynne Vogel, which contains a great deal of information about dyeing and spinning as well as socks.
“Dyeing to Knit” by Elaine Eskesen.
“Yarns to Dye for” by Kathleen Taylor.
“Wild Color” by Jenny Dean with Karen Diadick Casselman. This covers plant dyes and their mordants. Very educational and kind of scary if you know hazardous materials. (Mix up copper sulfide in the comfort of your own home! Eeek.)

For food coloring dye jobs, I found The Dye Pot very educational.

There is a fine imperial/metric conversion chart available here. By using it, you can see the amounts I give aren’t exact. Exactness doesn’t really matter unless you’re trying to duplicate something you've already done; otherwise, a few milliliters either way won’t make much difference.

For details of mixing colors and explanations on why complimentary colors look like mud when mixed (among other things), “Color” by Betty Edwards is helpful, though it’s a book mainly slanted toward painters and mixing paint.

All photos by the author or The Husbeast.



Julie lives in South Carolina with The Husbeast, The Baby, and Sekhmet the cat. She knits like a fiend, with the occasional break to amuse herself by creating handpaint yarns, which she sells on Etsy.

Visit her blog and join in the madness.