About Dyeing

More of a visual learner than a reader?


Why not pick up a dye kit & some undyed yarn & give it a bash!

What is a dye?

A dye is a colored substance that has an affinity to the substrate to which it is being applied. The dye is generally applied in an aqueous solution, and may require a mordant to improve the fastness of the dye on the fiber. (Wikipedia)

There are 2 types of Dyes for a home dyer will usually consider for dyeing Fabrics and threads; “Acid” dyes and “Fibre Reactive (Procion MX)” dyes – Both these types of dyes are easy to use in a home environment.

Acid Dyes act on the keratin and fibroin protein fibres (animal derived i.e. wool, alpaca, mohair, silk) and also the artificial fibre Nylon®.
They do not work at all on cellulose or other artificial fibres.
An Acid dye requires an acidic dyebath made with Acetic or Citric acid and a short period of heat (typically 30 minutes to 1 hour) to strike to the fibre.
Table Salt (Sodium Chloride – NaCl) or Glauber’s Salt (Sodium Sulfate – Na2SO4) can also be added to the dyebath to act as a dye-uptake rate limiter to ensure an even colour.

Fibre Reactive Dyes act on cellulose fibres (plant derived ie cotton, flax, linen, bamboo, seacell, banana, viscose (Rayon®), lyocell (Tencel®) ) and they have a limited adherence to protein fibres and Nylon®. The do not work on other artificial fibres.
A Fibre Reactive dye requires a cold alkaline dyebath  made with Washing Soda, Urea and Table Salt.
The dyes take a large amount of time to strike to the fibre (Typically 24-48 hours).

As I dye protein fibres, the below is all about Acid Dyes. I’ve not yet got personal experience of Fibre Reactive dyes. That may well change in the coming months…

Using Acid Dyes

As mentioned above, and the name suggests, Acid Dyes need an acid environment to work. The Acid of choice for home dyers is either Acetic Acid or Citric Acid. Both are “weak” organic acids and although are irritant, are safely used at home.

After all, Acetic acid is well known, it’s the active ingredient in Vinegar & Non-Brewed Condiment! Sold as a liquid, vinegar & NBC is usually a 5% dilution of Acetic acid in water, although some pickling vinegars are as much as 22%, and if you want to do a lot of dyeing, you can get “Non-Brewed Condiment Concentrate” which can have 40-80% Acetic acid in the container (These are best handled with great care, gloves & safety goggles are a must.)

Citric acid is in all citris fruits (it’s what makes them tangy & sour), used widely in homebrew wine & beer making, as well as in making fizzy bath bombs, fizzy sweets and being an alround food preservative. Sold as a powder, Usually the crystals are 56% Citric acid.

White Vinegar is easily obtainable and easy to add to the soak & dyebath. Brown/malt vinegar & brown non-brewed condiment work a treat as well, the added Caramel will put your eye off in the dyebath, but doesn’t effect the finished product at all.

Citric Acid can be much easier to store, it also has no smell and can work out as much cheaper to use than white vinegar.
It’s harder to find though, as it’s not readily sold in supermarkets in the UK, more usually in the Pharmacy & over the internet.

Acid Dye General Instructions:

Preparing the fibres

Weigh the fabric/yarn/threads (article) to be dyed & record this weight.

If you are dyeing yarn, ensure that the skeins are tied appropriately, in at least 3 places, with figure eight ties. This helps prevent tangling.

If you are planning to space dye/hand paint yarn, make extra long skeins by using 2 chairs at a distance apart from each other to wind the skein. Tie it off appropriately! (Have a sit down and a drink once you’ve done this! 🙂 )

If you are dyeing threads in a dyebath, wind into a loop and then pop a long handled spoon through the loop to hold it  open, allowing ease of removal from the dyebath and to prevent tangling.

If you are dyeing raw fibre tops, choose a method that does not agitate the fibre, such as the clingfilm method, or using a slow cooker – any agitation will lead to an unspinable fibre top. Also note that Silk fibres must be degummed (ie the Sericin has been removed). If you try to dye Undegummed fibre, you will end up with a hot sticky mess!

Wash the article with a mild soap.
If you can get hold of it, I highly recommend using Synthrapol to wash the yarn. Synthrapol is a low-foam detergent that will effectively remove grease & sizing as well as dye residue, as well as aiding “wetting” – Synthrapol breaks down the surface tension allowing the dye to penetrate better.

Rinse in clean water and then soak the article in cold water (with Synthrapol in it if possible) for at least 30 minutes.

If you are Space-dyeing add some acid into the soaking water.

If you are Space-dyeing and have used Synthrapol, after 30 change the soak water, then  add some acid into fresh soaking water and soak for another 30 minutes.

Preparing the acid:

Use either 250ml of 5% acetic acid or 1 tbsp of citric acid crystals per 0.6Kg of dry fibre for immersion dyeing.
Use either 333ml 5% acetic acid or 4 tsp citric in the pre-soak water when doing Space dyeing/Direct Application dyeing.

Prepare the dyestuff

The amount dye needed is a percentage of the weight of the article.
Check the manufacturer’s packaging for how much dye to filler is supplied.

As a general rule to get unsaturated colour you would need about 0.5% dye, medium saturation will be 1-2% and for deep to full saturation, 3% -4 % by weight of pure dye will be required.

Figure out how much of your dye you need, weigh it out accurately & record how much you used, so that you can duplicate your efforts!

  • Put the dye in a heat-safe glass container.
  • Make it into a paste using a splash of hot water.
  • Add another good splash of very hot water to this paste whilst stirring it
  • Continue to stir until the dye is dissolved as much as possible
  • The dye is now ready to use

Immersion dyeing

As mentioned, your dyebath needs to be acidic. Try to use an Stainless Steel or enamel pan, as these will keep the colours “bright”, a iron pan will made the colours “sad” and an aluminium pan will make them “sallow” – this is far ore important with natural dyes (dyers had a range of pans to get various dye effects in times past), but iron still has an effect with artificials.

The pan must be big enough to take yarn & water & not boil over, use as big a pan as you need and will fit on your hob!

Add the required amont of Citric acid or vinegar to enough cold water to cover what you will be dyeing in your dyebath pan. Stir well

If you are doing “solid single” colour dyeing, add the dyestuff & a tbsp of Salt (NaCl).

If you want a more varigated/patchy result, add just the dyestuff, and don’t add any Salt.

If you want to create a swirly type dye effect, add nothing at this point.

Raise the temperature to 40°C.

Add the article to the dyebath

Raise the temperature to 95°C (Silk 85°C) over about 15 – 20 minutes.
Circulate the dye liquor gently if possible to distribute the dye evenly.

NB: If you are actively creating a swirly type effect, drizzle your dye in over the object being dyed after 15 minutes, whilst stiring gently.
The lack of salt will make the dye attach itself in “clumps” to the fibres and not spread out through the fibres by capillary action.

Hold at 95°C (Silk 85°C) over about 15 – 30 minutes.
Circulate the dyebath gently if possible.

Check to see if the dyebath water is clear or if it has lots of color still left in it.
If it has lots of color, slowly add 100 ml of 5% acetic acid or 2/3tsp citric acid in 100ml water to the dyebath.
Try to ensure that  you don’t pour the acid directly on your article.
Circulate the dyebath gently if possible, & simmer for another 10 minutes.

Turn off the heat & allow to cool to at least 70°C before finishing.
Circulate the dyebath gently if possible.
If you can, leave the dyed article to cool in the water until it is cold. This will make the end result brighter.

Space dyeing/hand painting/squirt dyeing

Space dyeing doesn’t use a dyebath, rather you spolt, splash, squrt, throw, dribble, drip and/or paint the acidified dye directly onto the article. You then use a steamer, a microwave, an oven, a slow-cooker/crock-pot,  a solar oven or even just a ziplock bag under a black towel in the back garden on a sunny day as the heat source to set the dye into the article.

Space dyeing is Messy. No two ways about it, you want newspaper down to protect your work surfaces & spray bleach handy for the clean up.

Create your working space. There are many good tutorials out there on the internet, so I’ll just say for now that if you are working on a long skein, you are normally going to be using a steamer or microwave and  laying heat-proof clingfilm out on a table over newspapers.

You can also use roasting trays if you are creating short stripes and oven “cooking” the article, or a microwave steamer tray in the microwave. There are many many methods here.

Before you get the dyes ready to paint with, wring excess soaking water our of your article & lay it out as required. It wants to be a little wet though, so don’t wring too much.

Unlike immersion dyeing, you control the colour saturation by how much dye you paint on, rather than the total amount of dye in the dyebath.  Also, the only way to get the acid on the article is with the painting, so make up the dyes as above; work out what dye weight you need to get the colour(s) you want then put it with ~100ml of vinegar or 1tsb of citric acid in 100ml of water for each 100g of article you are dyeing. Paper cups are good for this.

This dye solution will be irritant, so use gloves & eye protection as appropriate, especially if you are going to be flinging or flicking dye at the article!

Paint the article as required with the dye solution(s). Move with the colours as the mood takes you.

Wrap the article appropriately, this may be by laying another set of clingfilm on top & rolling it up, making sure the steamer lid is on tight, or using as air-tight as possible tinfoil “lid” and enough water (carefully applied to not disturb the dye) to cover the yarn if you are oven roasting or slow-cooking (don’t let the yarn dry out, crispy roasted yarn is not a good thing!)

Apply heat. 3-4 minutes, rest a minutes then another 3-4 minutes in a Microwave, at least 1 hour in a 120°C oven or the steamer.

Allow to cool at least 30 minutes before opening, you will burn yourself if you open it immediately!

If you can, leave the dyed article to cool in the wraping until it is cold. This will make the end result brighter.

Finishing off the dyeing process

As mentioned above, if you can, leave the dyed article to cool in the water until it is cold. This will make the end result brighter.

Rinse with clean water for 8-10 minutes. IF you can hold of it, I highly recommend using Synthrapol to wash the yarn before rinsing. As mentioned above Synthrapol is a low-foam detergent that will remove any traces of spare dye.

Slowly air-dry the article

Reskein to something far more manageable if you make extra-long skeins. Re-loop your threads. Iron your fabric

Enjoy using/wearing/petting & adoring the finished product.

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