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Pink Needles
Black Lamb


Welcome back to another round of ‘what we can do with a little food coloring and some fiber?’ Recently I purchased a spinning wheel and began learning to spin. Being a color addict, and dyeing my own yarns regularly, it was natural for me to move on to dyeing raw fiber. This is intended as a continuation of my previous opus (using fiber instead of yarn), so I will not be going into as much gory detail as I did last time.

Safety First
No matter the type of dye you use, it’s a good idea to keep your dying gear: pots, stirrers, etc separate from eating and cooking equipment.

I have a couple of reasons for using vinegar and food coloring to dye protein fibers, I have a small child and a small house. There is nowhere to work other than my kitchen, and the idea of working with toxic chemicals in the same place I prepare food makes me crazy. Add in a small child who gets into everything AND is more susceptible to toxins than an adult, well, it’s food coloring as dye for me.


To dye protein fibers, you need four things:
Colorant (food color), acid (vinegar), heat (usually the oven, sometimes the stove, microwave, dishwasher, you name it), and water. All these things are either in your house already, or easy to find at the grocery store. Yet another reason to love this method, besides the safety issues.

One last thing that is uber-handy for dyeing is a lobster pot [see left]. By ‘lobster pot’, I mean a fairly large (1 gallon/4 liter) pot with a draining insert that fits inside it, and a lid. Normally these are used to steam or boil shellfish; you fill the pot with water, put the insert in, then put in your shellfish. When your shellfish is  done, you pull out the insert and voila, yummy shellfish right there cooked and drained.

One day, looking around for something to soak a pile of wool in, there it was. After putting the wool in the pot, I filled it with water, THEN put the in the insert and pushed it down. This squooshes out all of the air in the wool and allows it to suck up water faster. I’ve cut my soak time in half with this little trick. It’s also great for dyeing loose fiber; in place of stirring, you can work the liner like a plunger a couple times to swoosh the water and dye through the fiber. Then, when you’re finished, you can put the liner back in AGAIN, and turn the whole shebang over in the sink (minus the lid) and let the water drain as long as needed. Truly, a glorious tool for dyers. Especially if you can pick one up at a yard sale for a buck.

Food Coloring
In terms of food coloring, I have been reading up (teaching myself some chemistry, a sign of the apocalypse for sure) and found some other, fairly safe, chemical dyes related to food coloring that can be used. Unfortunately I only know the US Government’s terminology and classification, not any other country’s terms. You overseas folks may have to do some research.

In the US, food colorants are referred to by the code “FD&C”. That stands for “food, drug, and cosmetiic”, meaning it is safe for all those uses. However, there is a second class of dyes, called “D&C” meaning “drug and cosmetic”. In a nutshell, they are chemically similar to the FD&C colors, but for various reasons are considered safe in small doses, but larger doses are to be avoided. Since we’re not going to be drinking the dyes, they’re as safe as the FD&C colors for our purposes.


These can all be dyed with the same methods used in my first article about dyeing yarn, with a few modifications to allow for the fiber being loose. I suggest using white or natural light-colored roving of whatever protein fibers you prefer (wool, alpaca, silk, angora, mohair…) Everything shown here is a very lovely natural merino roving from my buddies at Kendig Cottage.

All rovings, regardless of fiber, need to be soaked in water and vinegar. I use about 250ml/1 cup of vinegar per 100g/3.5 oz of fiber. Time depends on both soaking method and fiber; wool with the lobster-pot-squish method can be as short as a couple hours, silk has to DEFINITELY soak overnight (and probably longer, depending). For most purposes, I suggest overnight.

Felt warning! Remember when dyeing feltable fibers the worst possible things you can do are heat shocks, and agitation. So avoid both at all costs. (You can boil wool; I do regularly. You just have to gradually raise the temperature.)

SOLIDS: For solidish colors (there will always be a bit of variation in color, when hand dyeing, even if you use only one color of dye), add the food coloring to some liquid (if using a paste dye, this is easier in hot or at least warm water), stir it up, and then pour it into the container you’re soaking your wool in. For this method, you should soak your wool in an ovenproof container, like a glass baking dish or a lobster pot. Stir in the color as much as possible (you can gently prod the wool with a wooden spoon to move the dye around), and let it sit as long as needed for the dye to move through the fiber.
Glass baking dishes are great for this, because you can see all the layers of fiber.


Pop the dish into the oven at 120C/250F for an hour, then check to see if the dye is exhausted; the water should be clear and all the dye sucked into the fiber. If not, pop it back in at 175C/350F for half an hour. Any dye left after that probably isn’t going to stick.

IF YOU ARE DYEING ROVING WITH SILK CONTENT, be aware that temperatures over about 82C/180F will ruin the luster of the fiber. Put it in the oven at about 80C/175F for as long as it takes; silk usually takes up dyes quickly, especially if the silk is degummed, which is normally the case with wooly/silk blends and silk rovings. 

Let the fiber cool in the liquid for a couple hours, pour off the liquid, and put the fiber (carefully) into a colander. Pour or run water over the fiber until the water out the other side runs clear; try not to let the running water pound on the fiber, because that can cause felting. Leave the fiber to drain in the colander (or you can squish the water out with your hand; I do, but it risks felting). Turn it out onto a towel and leave it for several hours. The towel will wick the water out of the wool. After that it won’t be dry, but it’ll be dry enough that you can hang it up to finish the drying process.

You’ll wind up with something like this:


VARIEGATED 1: A quick, easy variation on the solid color method is to pour in more than one color of dye, not stir, allow the colors to soak in, and pop the fiber in the oven. How you place the roving in the pot has a great deal of impact on the final result.


Soak overnight, pour in whatever dyes you like, put in the oven at 120C/250F for an hour, then if needed 175C/350F for half an hour. Drain, rinse, and dry as above.



See the colors of the examples above? They’re all colors that mix together well and sit next to each other on the color wheel: blue-green-yellow, pink-purple-blue. If you mix complementary colors – yellow/purple, red/green, blue/orange – you will get mud. By mixing complements, you are introducing all three primary colors to the pot.  For instance, the yellow/purple combo: yellow is a primary, purple is made up of primaries red and blue. All three. Mud. That is almost always a bad thing, unless you’re going for gray-brown colors.  [ photos: bluepurple in progress and finished.]

But you want to use complements? Something that’ll pop your eyes out? Okay. We can do that.

VARIEGATED 2: In this case, it doesn’t matter what you soak your wool in, but you’ll need some kind of baking dish to heat it in. Soak the fiber overnight, then drain it, first in a colander, then on a towel for a while until it’s barely damp. (If you don’t do this, the fiber will be too full of water to take the dye.) Lay out the fiber on some plastic wrap...


and CAREFULLY pour your dyes onto the fiber. Squoosh it in gently with your hand, either wearing a rubber glove, or bare. (We can get away with bare because we’re using safe dyes, but it’ll turn your fingernails odd colors. If you’re using this method with regular acid dyes, you’ve GOT to use gloves.)
Let it sit a while if you want the dyes to soak in, then wrap it up in the plastic wrap...


put it all in a baking dish, and pop it in the oven. Try to keep your lighter colors and yellow shades on the top of the pile of fiber, so if the dyes run (odds are good they will), darker colors won’t run into your light colors and mess ‘em up.

Do the usual, in the oven at 120C/250F for an hour, then 175C/350F for an hour. This is safe to do IF you use the Saran Wrap brand; some of the cheap stuff will melt onto the wool, but Saran Wrap just melts; it can still be cut off the wool.


Rinse and dry as for the other two methods. Then you get something like this:


SILK HANKIES AND CAPS: And this brings us to the oddball of protein fiber dyeing: silk hankies and caps.


For those who aren’t into sericulture, silk hankies and caps are the spinnable version of silkworm cocoons. They’re soaked in hot water and about half-degummed, then stretched out over a frame and allowed to dry. They are stretched one over the other, so they are purchased by weight and sold in a stack. Because of how these fibers are processed, they require some special handling.

The big problem with dyeing silk hankies and caps is worm snot. See above where I say they HALF de-gum the cocoons? Yeah. The other half is still on the fiber. It’s the gook the silk worm produces to make the silk fibers stick together into a cocoon. In a way it’s great, because it adds a lot of strength to the silk, making it much easier to spin and draft. And in a way it totally sucks, because getting the gummy fiber to soak up water and/or dye is a big fat pain in the butt. See this?


That is water SITTING ON TOP of a stack of silk hankies. The other fun thing is to watch the silk float on the surface of the water. For hours. Arg. Very frustrating.

Put your silk hankies into a flat dish (this works for caps too, I’m just going to refer to them all as hankies because I’m tired of typing out the whole phrase), and pour in the water and vinegar. Then weigh it down with something heavy. Soup cans (full), a pot (I've used the lobster pot in the photo above), another, smaller baking dish, whatever. Smoosh it all down into the water. Leave it like that until it’s at least half submerged. (This usually takes at least an hour.) After that, take the weight off, reach in with your hands, and start smooshing the air out of the silk. Place your hands flat in the center of the hankie, and work it out toward the edge. This is silk, not wool; we can handle it as much as we like and it’ll never felt. Keep that up every half hour or so for as long as you can stand it, and then leave it to soak at least overnight.

Pour in your dye.


Remember the bit above about analogous colors. You can allow the silk to sit until the dye soaks through the hankies on its own, which can take days, or you can help with gentle smooshing.


The more silk you dye at once, the longer it takes to soak, of course. Once you’re happy with it, put it in the oven at about 80C/175F for as long as it takes. Once it’s done, let it cool until you can handle it, then pull the whole stack of hankies out of the drink, and hang it over something so the water can run out. (I use the center partition of my two-drain kitchen sink.) Spray on water as needed to rinse out the dye, then leave it to drain as long as you can stand it, or a couple hours, whichever comes first. Pull the hankie into thinner layers (thickness doesn’t matter, it just aids drying) and lay it out flat to finish drying.

There you have it. Silk hankies, dyed by your own hand.


A word of caution, the bigger stack you dye, the less chance there is of the dye soaking all the way through the stack of hankies.


The stack in these photos is about two ounces, and you can see it didn’t get close to all the way through. I don’t mind, I like how it spins up with the colors just around the edge. But if you DO want the color all the way through, dye in much smaller batches, from one-quarter to half an ounce.


Most protein fibers:
-250ml/1 cup of vinegar per 100g/3.5 oz of fiber
-120C/250F for an hour, then check to see if the dye is exhausted; the water should be clear and all the dye stuck to the fiber. If not, pop it back in at 175C/350F for half an hour

-250ml/1 cup of vinegar per 100g/3.5 oz of fiber
-plan to soak overnight
-use hands to push air bubbles out of hankies and caps
-avoid temps over 80C/180F


FD&C fact sheets

To search for potential health hazards of specific chemicals, go here.

D&C colorants are most easily found in craft stores in the soap-making sections; all the colorants available are either FD&C or D&C certified, and usually clearly labeled.



designernameBlank Julie lives in South Carolina, where she likes to play mad scientist in her kitchen, and knit all sorts of things. When not knitting, spinning, dyeing, or playing with her new loom, she can usually be found face-down in a book. Keep up with the insanity at her blog, Samurai Knitter.

When her yarn closet threatens to explode, she sells her dye experiments at her etsy shop, but mostly she likes to hoard them. Oh, and Pierce Brosnan was SO the best James Bond. Yes he was. Was too. Yuh-huh.


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