News from the Three Fates: Dyeing Workshop

[Before I go any further, I’ll explain the title. Recently, I’ve taken over running Stitch ‘n Time – the textile club at work. I am one of three people, actually, who oversee its budgeting, coordinating meeting topics and projects, and keeping track of our inventory of equipment and finished items to sell. Seeing as how there are three of us, and that we are involved in a club that processes the wool and cotton fibers from the farm – harvesting/shearing, carding, spinning, weaving, sewing, cutting, etc – we jokingly decided to refer to ourselves – at least in reference to all things Stitch ‘n Time – as The Three Fates. I’ll also preface this post with an acknowledgement that this post was originally written much earlier…shortly after the workshop mentioned. The vast majority of it, however, disappeared into the ether before it was published, and it’s taken me a while to re-write it.]

One of the things we decided, when planning out meeting topics for the coming year, was that we wanted to have more structure to each meeting. Prior to our taking over, most of the meetings were what might be classified as “stitch and bitch”…people gathering together to work on their many different projects. While that’s fine when we’re all in fine project-finishing form, desperately trying to complete items to sell at the end of the year, it doesn’t work well for getting (and retaining) new members. If you come in to a meeting for the first time, you don’t want to feel like you’ve happened upon the cool kids’ table, and no one has time or room to talk to you.

So we decided to plan for specific themes for each meeting, and to structure the month’s activities around them. Last month, we did a meeting all about wool washing – what soaps are out there, what their pros and cons are, what works best with the wool from our Hog Island sheep, etc. We washed two full fleeces from our sheep, and worked on some of the mending that had piled up over the course of a year.

The August Stitch ‘n Time meeting focused on dyes – specifically, on the economics of commercial vs. natural dyes. Of course, as an organization that promotes sustainable agriculture, you’d think we’d be focusing solely on the “all natural dyes,” and leaving any commercially produced, chemically heavy dyes behind. However, when you’re looking at sustainability, you have to look at the whole process, to truly weigh whether something is beneficial or not.

Our harvest of Queen Anne's Lace (which made me ridiculously itchy)

Our harvest of Queen Anne’s Lace (which made me ridiculously itchy)

The natural dye segment of the workshop actually started the week before, with Polly, Casey and I trekking out to one of the pastures to cut and hang as much Queen Anne’s Lace as we could possibly find. We were out in that field for a while, sweat pouring down our faces, ticks climbing up our legs and, in my case, getting a fair bit of itchy from the flowers and grass. Then it was back to the barn, to tie and hang the flowers to dry, in preparation for the meeting. The flowers hung in the barn for a week and a half (smelling infinitely better when they were dry, than they had when we originally picked them), before being cut down and hauled to the Education Building.

Sylvia Demar, our fearless leader for this workshop, had set up her materials at least an hour before the

wool and silk, soaking in regular water

wool and silk, soaking in regular water

start of the club meeting, to make sure everything would be ready in time. We tied off our spun wool, and bundled up some of the washed but unprocessed wool in little zippered mesh bags, and tossed them in buckets of water. Before you do anything else with the dyes, you want to make sure that your fiber is thoroughly wet. And you’ll want to make sure that the yarn and fiber has enough room in the bucket to move freely.

Sylvia, prepping for the workshop

Sylvia, prepping for the workshop

Sylvia had a camp stove set up off to one side, with a pot of water and mordant brewing away. When dyeing your fiber, whether it be wool, cotton or silk, it’s important to add a mordant first. This will help set the color, as well as give a more true color with the dye. It’s certainly possible to dye some fibers without this step, but you won’t get as good a result. For this batch, Sylvia chose alum for her mordant. It’s generally the cheapest and most accessible of the main options, as well as being relatively safe to handle and dispose of (with some caveats, of course). Of course, you’re still going to want to take care when you’re setting up and disposing of the alum. Sylvia suggests contacting your local water treatment facility, and seeing what materials are safe to dispose of in a municipal water treatment setting. She also stresses NOT to pour it down the drains into a septic system.

It was a good thing that Sylvia got there early to set up and start things a boiling, as the fiber has to simmer in the mordant for

wool and silk, simmering in a pot of alum mordant

wool and silk, simmering in a pot of alum mordant

about 45 minutes before you can move forward with the dye process. While we waited for the mordant to set in, we set about preparing the Queen Anne’s Lace. We broke the long strands down into smaller pieces, each about six inches long, and set them – flower, stem and all – in a pot of water, to stew down. We added more and more flowers as the materials cooked down over the course of an hour or so.

Boiling down Queen Anne's Lace.

Boiling down Queen Anne’s Lace.

The general rule with most natural raw dye materials is that you’ll need to collect a pound of dye source materials for every pound of material or fiber you want to dye. I say “most” because there are a few natural dye materials out there which produce a nice color with a smaller amount of source material, but you really have to do your homework to determine what you’ll need for each of your choices. Sylvia was also sure to tell us that not every dye source can be broken down and achieved from just boiling it in water for a while. Some plants – like indigo, for instance – require another step in the process. Sometimes it’s fermenting the plant, sometimes it’s introducing another substance. Indigo, for instance, does not dissolve in water. Extracting indigo from any source requires the fermented plant to be mixed with a strong base – lye, baking soda, ammonia or urine.

Yes, that’s right. I said urine. If you go back through accounts of indigo’s history in the world, you’ll find plenty of mentions of urine vats used to extract the dye from natural sources. (Interesting non-urine sidenote: indigo does not require a mordant. Unlike some other dyes, it sticks to both protein (wool and silk) and cellulose (cotton) fibers – probably why you should wear gloves when dyeing with indigo, unless you want blue hands)

I could do a whole blog entry on indigo alone – going into the different plants that can be used, talking about the process of extraction and dye, talking about economics and the socio-political importance of it throughout history…and perhaps I will at a later time. There’s a lot of information out there on it, and it really is fascinating to see how something that is basically just fabric dyed blue has had an impact in and on multiple cultures the world over. We’ll just have to bookmark that topic and come back to it later.

Back to the dye workshop!

With the broken down Queen Anne’s Lace bubbling away on the burner (and smelling deliciously like carrot stew), and the fibers heating in the

Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and dye pot bubble!

Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and dye pot bubble!

mordant for at least 45 minutes, it was time to move on to the next step. We removed the carrot-scented concoction from the burner and poured the liquid into a metal basin, using a regular mesh strainer to keep the source materials from moving from the dye pot into the dye bath. A second straining to sift out the remaining small bits of source material, and we were ready for our first skeins of yarn! Into the pot it went (adding a not-so-lovely wet sheep smell to the carrot stew aroma), and we moved on to another type of dyes.

14774945217_774ffbc76a_kIn addition to the natural dye sources that Sylvia had brought – onion skins, cochineal, walnut shells, etc – she also brought a number of commercially available liquid and powder dyes. The first of these we tried is referred to as an acid dye. These dyes come in very fine powder form and are usually dissolved first in vinegar, before adding it to the water of a dye bath. They are available in a truly astounding variety of colors, though Sylvia has a recommendation when it comes to picking an acid dye color. She suggests going with the dyes that have very “unsexy” chemical names, like Red Dye #37 or Blue No. 476, rather than something more poetic sounding, like Vermillion or Chartreuse. The obvious reason for this is the unsexy name generally refers to a specific chemical makeup, and knowing what that makeup is increases the likelihood of getting the same color time and again, when you go to purchase your dyes. If, however, you go with Vermillion or Chartreuse or Baby-Poop Green (that last is, to my knowledge, not an actual dye name but you know the color if you’ve ever dealt with babies), there is no guarantee that the color will be the same from provider to provider, or even from dye lot to dye lot.

Cochineal - a natural dye that creates purple.

Cochineal – a natural dye that creates purple.

Hell, even a color name like chartreuse can be deceptive. While it’s generally described as being halfway between yellow and green, I have seen people advertise something as chartreuse when it is clearly neon green. There’s even a difference between chartreuse in “real life” dyes and chartreuse in web colors.

So, what’s in a name? Certainly not its exact chemical makeup (unless we’re talking about one of the unsexy color names). There are a million different variations on colors out there, and just as many different names for each of them, and the names aren’t even always that descriptive. Anyone who has ever spent an hour in front of the paint counter at Home Depot, trying to determine the difference between “Misty Surf” and “Cumberland Fog” can tell you that (something I spent way too long trying to do just last week…I never managed to figure out what the difference between the two was).

The lesson here is, of course, know what exactly you’re putting in to your dye bath, so you know what to expect.

The first acid dye we used was of the “flowery name” variety. The way we picked it was simple: Sylvia read out the names of a variety of colors,

Adding the aquamarine acid dye to the dye bath.

Adding the aquamarine acid dye to the dye bath.

and we all went “Ooooo!” when she said “aquamarine.” There was no indication, though, as to what the makers of that particular color meant by aquamarine. Perhaps they meant on a scale closer to teal. Perhaps closer to turquoise – though, I’ll pause right here and mention that “turquoise” is an inexact color definition as well. Some turquoise is more blue, others are more on the green end of the spectrum, and there’s even a variety of white turquoise. Just goes to show you, names aren’t all that reliable for color choice.

14722103088_ecee56877e_kAnyway, we all donned our face masks, rubber gloves, and protective eye gear and set about mixing the dye bath. First, we started with a little vinegar, to which we carefully added the extremely fine powder of the aquamarine acid dye. A quick stir with a chopstick, a little more vinegar, and then we submerged the jar in the larger bowl for the dye bath, swishing it to add the dye to the water. In went the wool, which cooked in the dye bath for a short time, while we moved on with the workshop.

Now, I’ve mentioned that you need to add a mordant to the fabric or material you’re dyeing first, in order to make sure the color adheres to the material, and that you get as true a color as possible. That being said…Sylvia showed us a way to dye wool that is faster, produces a rainbow of colors, is fairly cheap, and doesn’t require cooking your materials for ages.


Kool-Aid packets.

Yes, my friends, everything you need to dye wool is contained in a small paper packet of fruit-scented powder. Whereas, with other dyes, you need to add a mordant, the citric acid in the Kool-Aid mix provides the same thing, without having to heat it (although you can certainly do that, as well, if you like).

Kool-Aid dyes

Kool-Aid dyes

We each grabbed a clean mason jar, some wool, a bit of water, and the Kool-Aid flavor – er, color – of our choice, and got cracking. You can use vinegar to start mixing the powder for this dye bath, as well, but water alone works just fine. Plus, then you don’t have that vinegar smell afterwards. Put the water in the jar first, filling about halfway, and then add the powder. The water-to-powder ratio doesn’t actually matter when doing this. What is important is the dye-to-materials ratio. If you’re just dyeing a little bit of wool, you’re probably fine using one packet of Kool-Aid. If you’re dyeing more, than you’ll want to up your dye source amount. Also, if you want a more saturated, bold color, you’ll probably want to use more Kool-Aid.

Once you’ve mixed up your Kool-Aid, you’ll add your wool little by little, poking it down into the jar until its all submerged in the Kool-Aid. Let the jar sit for a while. You’ll know it’s ready when you can tilt the jar and see that the water is clear again – this means the wool has absorbed all of the color.

Kool-Aid DyeWhen you pull the wool out of the jar, you might notice the color is not as deep or saturated as it seemed when it was still sitting in the water – remember that the water also sort of acts as a magnifying glass, so the darker spots will seem bigger. If your wool seems too light, simply mix up some more Kool-Aid and re-dye until you are happy with the finished product. As soon as you are happy with the finished color, squeeze the wool (gently) to remove excess water, and spread it out on a clean drying cloth, bench or what-have-you to let them dry. You’ll want to make sure they can get some airflow, to help them dry, and so they’re not just sitting in whatever water might still drip off of them. I recommend making use of the sun if you can.

Some folks recommend going ahead and rinsing the dyed wool with some water and a mild detergent after you’re finished dyeing them, but we didn’t take that extra step. If you’ve used wool or any other protein-based fibers, you shouldn’t have to worry about any color transfer or fading – Kool-Aid dyes are remarkably colorfast…something that has caused a bit of concern among club members, when they’ve stopped to ponder what our insides might look like after drinking the stuff.

The prepared Queen Anne's Lace dye bath

The prepared Queen Anne’s Lace dye bath

The aquamarine dye set while we all made up our Kool-Aid wool jars, and the water was clear enough to pour out. When we spread the wool out on the ground, we were all a little dismayed to find that the finished color was less “aquamarine” and more a soft, muted robin’s egg blue. Still really pretty (and we all wanted something made out of it), but not what we were expecting. Further proof, if we needed any, that the flowery names don’t always describe the exact color you’ll end up with.

14722159027_9de6443fcc_kIn between acid dyes, we checked in on the Queen Anne’s Lace dye bath. The yellow was setting in quite nicely…though the smell of wet sheep was now even stronger.

14722069399_2a233e4d61_kI got to pick the next color of acid dye, and I went with a lovely, deep shade of purple. We mixed the powder carefully, added it to the water, and set the yarn to cooking. When we checked on it later, we were happy to see that the first batch came out the color we were expecting. The water, curiously, wasn’t completely clear, though. Sylvia informed us that this was normal with some of the acid dyes – what we were looking at was the exhaust, and it could be used to dye a little more yarn. Understandably, it would come out a lot lighter, as there wasn’t as much of the dye in the bath, but we would still get a lovely color. In the end, we finished with some lovely deep purple yarn and wool, and some lighter more coral-colored yarn and wool.

Spreading the HOT wool out to dry

Spreading the HOT wool out to dry

Sylvia also set up a dye bath inside, consisting of the easily obtainable commercial RIT dye. This is the kind of dye I grew up using from time to time. You can purchase it at the craft store – and even, sometimes, in the grocery store. It comes in a variety of colors, and can be found in both powder and liquid format. The powder form has a much longer shelf life so, if you decide you’re going to use it, go for that form.

This is where I learned an astounding (to me) thing. Now, remember how all our dye baths – the blue, the purple,

All these came from the same batch of acid dye - you can tell which was dyed in the exhaust

All these came from the same batch of acid dye – you can tell which was dyed in the exhaust

and the Kool-Aid – would eventually all come out clear when we had dyed enough materials? Every time I’ve ever used Rit dyes, I’ve pulled out the material to find it’s a bit lighter than I anticipated, and there was a WHOLE LOT of dye being dumped down the drain afterwards. It seems there’s a reason for this. Most chemical dyes are formulated for specific types of fibers. In the case of Kool-Aid dyes, you can dye protein-based fibers, but not cellulose-based fibers. There are some dyes now that are specially formulated to color synthetics. I’m sure there are a few out there which only work on things like cotton and linen.

Rit dyes are formulated to allow you to dye both wool and cotton…but each of those materials requires a different kind of chemical makeup to make sure the dye adheres to the fiber. The Rit dye contains dye source for two different types of fibers so, when you finish dyeing your wool, the dye bath still contains all of the stuff to dye cotton. Unless you’re planning to do another run-through with the opposite type of material, you are quite literally pouring your money down the drain. That’s just…I don’t even know what to say. Also, after you’re done with the dye bath, you still need to rinse your materials a bit with some soap, wringing out excess dye. Which means you could very well end up with a lighter color than you expected.

I don’t think I’ll be using that type of dye again, if I can help it.

At the end of the day, we wound up with a whole crap-ton of different colors for our wool. The yellow from the Queen Anne’s lace came out beautifully, and contrasted very nicely with the other colors we chose to use. Casey and I have since used the Kool-Aid dyeing technique at the farm’s big Food for Thought festival, so we should have enough of those colors to spin and make something neat to sell. I’m dreaming of a pair of fingerless gloves in purple, orange and green…and I don’t even like orange!


One thought on “News from the Three Fates: Dyeing Workshop

  1. The search of “robotic head toy dragons with fluffy feathers you put it on your shoulders” sounds like they are trying to describe those dragon puppet looking pets people have at Ren Faires

    I think it’s not only funny that you do this, but smart and am gonna try it once I take a leap lol

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