An Introduction to Dyeing Yarn Using Natural Dyes

Sep 2020

It seems that 2020 is the year of picking up new hobbies, and with knitting and gardening being some of the most popular lockdown hobbies, we’ve found the perfect way to combine the two.

Natural dyeing is a wonderful offline hobby that allows for some escapism from the real world, and will be loved by anyone who loves to experiment or those of you who have become particularly green-fingered this year. Natural yarn dyeing is an artform, not an exact science – with so much variation in the dyeing materials, the whole process can be very unpredictable and experimental. It’s more of a case of throwing things together in a bowl and seeing what happens – but that all adds to the fun of experimentation and trial and error.

To give you a bit of a guideline, we’ve put together some advice on what dyeing materials to use, the best yarn to dye with, and a guide to the dyeing process.

Natural Dyeing

What You’ll Need

It’s unlikely that you’ll need warning – but natural dyeing can quickly turn into a very messy process, so now is not the time to pull out your best pots and kitchenware. Anything you use, make sure you won’t be upset if it gets stained and don’t to use anything that you’ll want to cook with again if you’re going to use a mordant (don’t worry we’ll get to what a mordant is in a minute).

SUPPLIES:

  • 100% wool yarn
  • Dyeing materials
  • Mordant
  • Vinegar
  • Large cooking pot
  • Washing up bowl/bucket
  • Strainer
  • Tongs/mixing spoon
  • Measuring spoons
  • Gloves – very important if you don’t want your nail beds to match your yarn!

Choosing a mordant

So what is a mordant? A mordant is the element that will help your dye to stick to the yarn. You can dye without a mordant if you’re struggling to get hold of one, but the final colour won’t be as bold or saturated. A quick google search will give you a lengthy list of mordants and a lot of conflicting advice – but a common ingredient to use as a mordant is alum. When using alum, check the instructions on the packet and never go overboard when measuring it out, as this will give your yarn a slimy texture – and nobody wants that.

Choosing your yarn

Protein fibres such as wool or silk are perfect for dyeing as their texture guarantees a more saturated colour and consistent dye, whereas plant-based fibres such as cotton will always be much more subtle. Our 100% British wool range includes a super chunky weight yarn, that you can purchase in 1kg hanks – that’s plenty of yarn for experimenting with different dyeing materials!

During our Yarndale weekend only – you can get a massive 2kg of yarn for only £20. Think of the dyeing possibilities!

Choosing Your Dyeing Materials

The beauty of this hobby is that you can use and experiment with materials that you already have – or if you don’t have a garden or anything in the cupboards, it’s a great excuse to get out and about and do some foraging.

Remember to be cautious about any materials that you are foraging and do your research to make sure they’re not poisonous.

We’ve put together a list of dyeing materials and what colours you can expect from them. As with everything else in the natural dyeing process, the dyeing materials can be unpredictable – for example, avocado skins will dye a peach-pink shade rather than a green.

Onion skins – orange/yellow

Turmeric – yellow

Spinach/nettles – green

Black beans – grey blue

Red cabbage – purple

Beetroot – pink

Avocado skins & pits – peach-pink

Remember – these aren’t guarantees as every element of the process can influence the final colour. Just experiment, don’t get discouraged when the colour isn’t as expected, and have fun with it!

Natural Dyeing

The Dyeing Process

01 PREPARE THE YARN

Preparing your yarn will involve 2 steps – soaking + applying the mordant.

Soaking the yarn

To start with, we need to soak the yarn in a vinegar and water solution to remove any oils from the wool and ultimately help the dye to stick to the yarn. Mix approximately 3 tablespoons of white vinegar in enough warm water to submerge your hank into. Add the yarn to the bowl of water and soak for at least an hour.

Top tip – whether you’re using a mordant or not, don’t skip this soaking step, as this will ensure an even and consistent colour throughout your yarn.

Applying the mordant

This is the time to apply the mordant that will help the dye to stay in the yarn. Follow the instructions on your mordant – and remember not to add too much.

02 PREPARE THE DYE

Collecting your dyeing materials

When it comes to knowing how much to use, remember this is not an exact science. Whilst some sources will tell you to use a specific amount of dyeing materials per water + yarn weight, the rule here is the more you use, the stronger the final colour – so use as much material as you think you’ll need. For turmeric dye, aim for around 3 tablespoons of turmeric powder for one pot of water. For red cabbage dye, aim for around half a head of cabbage for one pot of water. Just do what feels right and experiment!

Extracting the dye

Add your plant materials to a cooking pot and cover with water – make sure you have enough water so that when you add the yarn, it will be submerged.

Top tip – the more surface area you create on your dye materials, the more colour you will get – so chop things up, don’t just leave your cabbage whole.

Place the pot on the hob and heat it until it is boiling, then bring the heat down and simmer for at least an hour.

Strain the mixture into a bucket/washing up bowl and compost your stewed dyeing materials.

Natural Dyeing

03 DYE THE YARN

Taking your soaked yarn, add it to the bucket of dye and leave it to soak for at least 1 hour.

Top tip – if you want a stronger colour, try leaving your yarn in the dye overnight.

Periodically, gently agitate the yarn and make sure that it is being evenly dyed – but if you’re using wool, be careful not to agitate it too much as this will felt the yarn.

Natural Dyeing

04 RINSE AND DRY THE YARN

Rinsing the yarn

Using gloves, remove the yarn from the bucket and rinse it well with cold water.

Top tip – reserve your dyeing liquid because you can always dunk your yarn back in if you’re not happy with the rinsed colour.

Drying the yarn

Once the yarn is rinsed and the water is running clear – it’s time to hang it in the shade and dry it out. This drying process can take a long time, so be prepared to leave it for a couple of days.

Top tip – dyes like turmeric are not colourfast, so avoid drying them outside in the sun.

Natural yarn dyeing is the perfect pastime for anyone whose garden is now flourishing following an unexpected dose of TLC during lockdown, or anyone who is interested in trying out more natural dyes that are a less harmful to the ecosystem. And if this year isn’t the best time to pick up a new hobby like natural yarn dyeing, I’m not sure when is!

Hopefully, this guide has given you an introduction into the types of natural dyeing materials to use and the overall process of dyeing your own yarn using things in your garden or kitchen.

Remember to experiment, try different techniques and materials, and have fun with it!

Natural Dyeing

We want to see your natural dyeing projects! If you do some yarn dyeing using natural materials, make sure you share them on Instagram and Facebook and tag us using @Woolyknit so that we see them! 

If you enjoyed this tutorial, why not share it with a pin?

Natural Dyeing

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