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Slip-stitch knittingDyeing for grown-ups Summer knitting

Okay, for a few months now you've been dabbling in Kool-Aid dyeing, and love the feeling of creating your own colors. But what if you don't like candy colors? What if that sickly sweet smell makes you gag, or makes your cat drool? You, as an ordinary individual, have access to a hundred years of chemical research, and you can use exactly the same dyes as industry does - the ones where the fabric will shred decades before the colors fade. Better yet, you may want to use animal-protein fibers as a substrate, not just wool and silk but luxury exotic stuff from cashmere to possum. These allow you to use acid dyes, possibly the easiest ones ever invented. In fact, they pretty much work like Kool-Aid, which is where assiduous Knitty reading is its own reward.

You may have thought professional dyeing was a messy, mysterious and possibly toxic process. Your hippie mother might have destroyed a couple of washing machines trying to support a tie-dye t-shirt habit in the '70s. But this is likely due to using Procion-type dyes, which work on cellulose/plant fibers. They do require a non-plumbing-friendly environment, enough salt to desertify a small town, and washing out a lot of dye chemicals into the sewers. The 'natural' dyes usually presented as alternatives aren't much better. Not only do they give pretty unreproducible colors, they often involve poisonous or endangered plants, and much of their use requires mordants to set, a euphemism for toxic heavy metals. On top of that, they often work slowly enough that the smelly mess is left out for long periods of time, inviting accidents from passing kiddies or pets.

Acid dyes however are a lot friendlier, both to you and the environment.
They are, of course, toxic in a long-term carcinogenic kind of way; you
don't want to ingest them. But their bad effects are mostly due to inhaling
them in powder form, just like Kool-Aid. If you mix standard solutions in
water with reasonable precautions (outside, out of the wind, with gloves and
mask on on) you're pretty safe from then on. The solution can keep for weeks or months in the fridge, so you can make enough of it in calm, safe
conditions. Then all you need is to wear rubber gloves, and to use separate
containers for your dyeing - not your cooking pots. No dye will escape in
the air, even in the steam generated by simmering, and if you wipe spills
promptly, it's easy to prevent newly dried powder from getting airborne in
your kitchen. This is one of the things that makes acid dyes so friendly to
apartment dwellers. All you'll be adding to help the dye set is a bit of
ordinary white vinegar, which can even be neutralized with a pinch of baking
soda before disposal if you're concerned about a septic system. If you get
anywhere near the appropriate dye quantity for your fiber, which is
recommended from an economical point of view anyway, all the dye will
'exhaust' or be bound to the fiber, and you'll only be pouring away
practically clear water. Doesn't all that sound much better?

On another level, while acid dyes seem proportionally a bit more expensive than other types by weight, if you consider that they're extremely effective and don't require any extra chemicals, they're actually one of the cheapest ways to go. Likewise, any equipment you're likely to need is just another set of cooking stuff, best acquired at the local thrift shop. A cheap enameled canning/stew pot (standard 3 US gallons) is about right for a sweater's worth of fiber. You might at most want a vegetable steamer to put in there, some measuring spoons, and I use disposable chopsticks recycled from takeout adventures for stirring. The only place where you might want to invest good money is in your dust mask, and in brand-name plastic: Saran Wrap (original) and Ziploc bags will be easier to manipulate and will not melt in the later stages.

As in any other dyeing, you can start with fiber in any form, as long as it's a protein fiber -- that is, some animal was involved in the growing.

Most knitters will want to start with yarn, possibly very cheap yarns in icky to horrifying colors from the sales bin :-). But you can also start with clean fleece or prepared roving, or dye a finished product such as a sweater or fabric. You can start with white and get anything, or you can dye over natural-colored wool or tussah silk for more toned-down effects. And even more conveniently you can overdye other colors. Which means there are NO mistakes in dyeing - if you don't like the results you simply add another layer of color till you get something you like. The only caveat is to start with lighter/ brighter colors and work your way to the darker ones slowly. And I'd also add a small warning peep from the Voice of Experience about trying to mask stains with dark dyes, even deep black ones - it doesn't work.

You want to make some attempt to weigh your dry fiber before you start, because it determines the optimal amount of dye you'll need. This doesn't have to be very exact. You can take on faith the label on yarn balls, you can use a postal scale and add up smaller quantities, you can even use a good bathroom scale and estimate the difference between you weight and that with the yarn. The reason is that you want to aim for about 1-3 grams of dye per hundred grams of dry fiber. You can use less if you want a more pastel look or a subtle overdye, more if you want intense colors, a mix of both for more design interest.

The easy way to figure this out, if you don't want to be dorking with esoteric, expensive equipment like gram-scales, is via solutions. If you make a 1% dye solution, one gram dye per 100ml water, you can easily calculate how much solution you need to get a certain weight of dye into your fiber. The nasty trick here is that the volume of a gram of dye varies slightly by color, so do weigh accurately if you can, but 2 teaspoons will generally cover it. And do I need to mention that this is one occasion where abandoning anti-metric prejudices will really work in your favor? Unless you're really into fraction masochism, metric is your ticket to getting close to the desired results even with relatively low-tech equipment.

It's important that the fiber be thoroughly wet before you start. And in animal fibers, it's particularly important that fiber be clean and de-greased. The best way to achieve this, even if your fiber already looks clean, is to soak it overnight with a shot of Dawn dish detergent. You don't have to rinse out the detergent as you dye, it doesn't interfere with the dyeing process and in fact it might help minimize fulling.

You can apply the dye directly in what's generally called 'yarn painting'. You lay skeins out on Saran Wrap. Then you can use sponges, stencil brushes, gloved fingers or whatever strikes your fancy to apply dye solution, diluted with a bit of vinegar, in various colors and patterns, working more or less hard to have the dye penetrate the fiber as desired. Or you can do one of my favorites and use syringes to inject the dye directly into balls, which gives small repeats well suited for knitting. Whatever the method, the idea is to have several colors work together and to slap the dye solution on directly where you want it. Or you can use better-known immersion methods, and get a fairly uniform single color all over your fiber, dunking it in proportionally large amounts of water in a big pot.

The important point is that you need to not only get the dye onto your fiber, but you need it to chemically bind, to actually become part of the fiber. This works best if you use the twin secrets of acid dyeing: acidity and heat. It doesn't take much acidity to do the trick, the general rule is a glug of vinegar per potful. That's right, a glug - a scientific measurement of what happens when you just tip the bottle. A small glug will still work, perhaps not so well if you're using very alkaline well water. A large glug will work well if perhaps a bit too quickly, and pure vinegar won't work any better. A small point to remember here is that acidity doesn't harm protein fibers, in fact slight acidity is good for them. Remember how grandmas used to rinse their hair with dilute vinegar or lemon before commercial conditioners came about?

Heat is another matter. The point is to bring the fiber as close as you can
to boiling-water temperature, and to keep it there a while -- about 15
If you're using immersion dyeing, there's no problem there, you just simmer the stuff, and wait till the color is just what you want, and/or till the water is clear. The trick is to resist stirring if you're dyeing something wooly. Remember that agitation in hot water is a prime way to full wool... So you must squash the urge to futz, or you'll have a prettily colored hideous mess on your hands. You might have to leave the room. You also might consider that a roiling boil could cause mild agitation. So you should try to keep the water at Chinese tea making temperature - steam rises off the top, but no actual bubbles occur.

If you've painted your fiber, you won't want to blur the results
irretrievably by dunking them in a lot of water, what you need to do instead
is to steam. You can use the same Saran Wrap that was protecting your counter to wrap the fiber. You should probably seal the whole thing into a Ziploc bag as well, if you painted several colorways in one session and don't want any potential mixing. Then into the usual pot, with a couple inches of water at the bottom and with an ordinary vegetable steamer to hold the packages out of the water. The length of time to steam is a more delicate matter: larger bundles take longer for the steam temperature to reach the inside. This is just like cooking big Russet potatoes whole, or cut up in pieces, you have to adjust the cooking time according to the size of the item, and to the general contents of the pot. It's not unreasonable to steam a potful of painted yarn an hour or so. And be sure not to rinse till the whole thing is back to room temperature, since more dye will be absorbed in the cooling process.

One consequence of all this is that you can influence how sharp your color delineation will be, or how even vs heathered your solid colors. Say you want to tone down a lovely cashmere sweater in a tooth-stripping fluorescent color, like I recently did. If you want an even color, you'll soak the fiber thoroughly first, and use a lot of water so that the dye gets to all the fiber easily. You'll dunk it in almost room-temperature water, and increase the heat slowly. And finally you'll add the vinegar slowly toward the end. If on the other hand you want to get heathered yarn, or even have some fabric come out almost tie-dyed, you'll use all the opposite strategies. Be stingy with the water so it's harder for the dye to propagate. Dunk the fiber in already-simmering water with a generous helping of vinegar, maybe as much as a cup. Some of this also applies to yarn painting: if you want a soft, watercolor
effect, let your fiber sit for 20 minutes before you start steaming it,
giving the dyes a chance to diffuse and mix. If you want clearly delineated colors, rush them to the steam pot the instant you're done painting.

Rinsing is part of the process, but doesn't need to be done immediately, since nothing will harm the fiber. A dash of Dawn will be helpful in washing out every trace of unbound dye. If you've measured your dye, you should get pretty quickly to clear water. If not, you may not have steamed/simmered your fiber enough, and you might want to give it another whirl in the pot, perhaps with a dash more vinegar. In any case, keep in mind that wool is still vulnerable to fulling even if you're rinsing, so don't wring it about vigorously, don't stream water right over it, just lay it down gently on clean water to soak and leave it alone a bit.


Pro-chem sells Sabraset acid dyes, the best available.
Dharma Trading merely calls them 'acid dyes'. Great selection of stuff to dye on too.
Mendel's sells Jacquard brand, best on silk but a fine all-around acid dye, in smallish quantities.


Synthetic Dyes for Natural Fibers
by Linda Knutson. Interweave Press, 1986, out of print.
This is definitely THE textbook for synthetic dyeing. Simple, straightforward, and extremely thorough, you'll never need another.

Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green

An excellent text about how color really works in different media, including color perception. Introduces the concept of using different primaries to get different color effects, and shows color wheels for many combinations.

The Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook: Dyeing, Painting, Spinning, Designing, Knitting

Fine for socks, but really great as a dyeing text. Shows what can only be acquired by long and painful experience otherwise, the relationship between the look of a roving or yarn to how it knits up.


Thanks to Judith McKenzie, Sara Lamb and Nancy Finn for great workshops, and to Nancy Roberts for the initial inspiration.


Marie-Christine's grandmother tried to teach her to knit at an early age "to shut her up". This didn't work very well, but Marie-Christine took it up again later with enthusiasm after being exposed to a wild improvised sweater. She is sadly lacking in her ability to follow patterns and consequently rips a fair amount.

A lifetime of geek jobs has left her with a deep appreciation of textures and colors, but her math instincts have served her well both in the topological visualization of projects, and in the urge toward the simplest solutions. Her output consists mostly of socks and scarves - portable projects - the weirder the better.