I’ve been meaning to do several things with the information I’ve learned about dyeing fiber in the last year. I’ve wanted to make awesome videos to post on YouTube, write blog posts, create hot DVDs for sale, you know… but I gotta start somewhere (has “gotta” made it into the dictionary quite yet? It works so well here.).
In this blog post I’ll take you through the major steps in my personal process of dyeing animal fiber. I’ve learned so much from different people in my life, on YouTube and in books about this topic that I can’t name them all here. I did not invent this process but I’ve come up with some strategies that fit my needs and desires for how I dye fiber. I’m sure you will too, along the way. In this case, we’re dyeing some sheeps wool, Merino wool, one of the top contenders on the soft scale in my opinion. So here goes.
Where to find fiber?
As you may already know or assume, there are TONS of places online and in the physical world where one can purchase fiber for spinning, felting, general crafts, or hoarding purposes. For example, if you search for “sheeps wool fleece” or “merino combed top” on eBay, you will find a plethora of farms from around the globe selling the fleece that their animals produce each year (sometimes twice per year). You can search by specific breed of sheep. You can search for alpaca and llama fiber, etc.
I do most of my shopping on Alpaca Direct since I can search easily by color and animal type and I know what the price will generally be. Now, I must disclose that my eco-friendly brain radar shoots off a warning signal because there are several bits of information that are missing from Alpaca Direct. For instance, which country does the fiber come from? Are the farms using humane practices when not only shearing but in raising the animals? eBay gives a buyer more information regarding the location of the farm. Usually you can start a conversation with the actual farmer and ask questions. Through Alpaca Direct, this may not be as easy.
If you’re interested in learning how to process a raw fleece (shorn off the animal, “skirted” to get rid of all the big nasty stuff around the bottom parts of the animal, and put into a bag to send off to you), then you can find people/farmers willing to work with you. There are also fiber farmers on eBay who reflect this opportunity in the price. If you do more of the processing work (i.e. picking vegetable matter out, combing/carding, and washing the fleece) then the price drops considerably. You can also find a nice medium where the fleece is washed and picked but not carded/combed or turned into roving or top. You do this yourself at home and see what a project it truly is before you dye it and/or turn it into yarn. (I don’t mean to make that sound negative. Its a huge undertaking. However, in the “process” you become more aware of your work and understand the origins of yarn and cloth making, in my opinion. Plus it gives you like, 4 more points on the awesome scale.)
You will need to protect your eyes and skin as well as the surface in which you are dyeing. Rubber or vinyl gloves will help with your hands. An old apron will protect your clothes. Goggles or glasses will protect your eyes. I personally use freezer paper to protect my surface. This is because it is heavy duty, I don’t need to replace it if it gets wet. And, there is a layer of plastic on one side. I put that facing down so that the dye, if it spills, won’t roll around and just end up on the floor. However, this plastic layer ensures that no dye will reach my counter, unlike newspaper that will just saturate and leave dye stains anyway. I can use freezer paper to protect my counter top over and over and over. Newspaper needs to be replaced the moment its wet. So, go with the freezer paper.
If you’re working with professional acid dye powder you MUST wear a dust mask that covers your nose and mouth. The fine particles of powder get into the air and into your lungs. Please take the extra step to prevent this. I’ve gotten so lazy in the past several months about using my dust mask but I won’t let it slip away. There are heavy metals in these acid dyes and you don’t want to mess around with it.
Ok, enough about that. If you have more questions about the above topic, please ask!
Pre-Soak the Fiber
You want to take your clean fiber and soak it in a vinegar bath for at least 30 minutes, sometimes more if time gets away from you or if there is silk in the roving. Hell, there was a time that I had to put off finishing my dye project and the fiber sat in the vinegar bath for and entire week before I could get to it. It won’t hurt the fiber. If there was a measurement of how much vinegar, I’d say a “glug” or two for every 4-8 oz of fiber you’re soaking along with enough water to barely cover.
After this step, you’re ready to take the roving out of the bowl and lay it out on your surface. I use an old cookie sheet covered in the aforementioned freezer paper, plastic side UP. When the plastic side is up its easier to wipe up the left over liquid with an old towel. I carefully squeeze the extra liquid out of the roving, over the bowl, with one hand and lead the roving to my cookie sheet with the other hand. You don’t want your roving to be soaking wet when it hits the cookie sheet because you’ll be adding more liquid when dyeing.
I zig-zag the roving onto the cookie sheet. You can make a spiral shape, square shape, whatever floats your fancy. I use the zig-zag because it fits better on my working surface.
As you can see in the picture above, I have many glass jars of dye stock, ready to use. These can sit in the cupboard, tightly sealed, for months and they won’t go “bad.” I use old glass jars because I don’t trust plastic containers for storage. Plus, I don’t just have a bunch of plastic containers with screw-on lids just laying around. But, trust me on this one, I eat my fair share of pickles in my house. ; )
Mixing Dye Stock with Acid and Food-Safe Dyes
Food safe dyes are the easiest to use because you don’t have to use a dust mask and they are cheaper and more widely available at the grocery store than acid dyes. The process is simple. You take one of your clean spaghetti or pickle jars, fill about an inch of it with water from the tap, microwave it for about 30 seconds to a minute (get it hot enough to steam but not boiling), add your Kool-Aid packet or about 30-40 drops of food coloring OR an easter egg dye tablet (we won’t go into using fruits or vegetable material in dyeing because I myself haven’t learned that technique yet). Mix with a plastic spoon (that can be wiped off and reused over and over again as well) so that the powder or coloring is completely incorporated with the water. Then add your white distilled vinegar to fill the rest of the container.
With professional acid dyes like Rit or Jacquard, you will do the same process as mentioned above. For a standard sized pickle jar (14-16 oz, I think) you will use approximately one teaspoon of dye powder. I don’t measure with a teaspoon, I just eyeball it. You will learn after working with the dye how much to use. If you use too much, you will get rich color and may have some left over in the water you dye with. If not enough dye powder is used the dye stock with “exhaust” (run out of color) quickly and you may need to add more. You can actually use the exhausted stock again for some pretty cool results.
Carefully pour your finished dye stock into a plastic applicator bottle. I have 8 oz bottles that I picked up from my craft store for about $2. These can be washed and re-used over and over again. I don’t typically store the dye stock in these, however.
Now we’re ready to DYE!
Applying the Dye
I’m not an expert on color combos, I just do what works for my customers and for me. I like to do things differently as you can see in my online Etsy Shop, Dye2Spin. Everyone has their own dye techniques just waiting to come out! So, be brave and learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Some books I have are Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece and Color in Spinning. Both are excellent references.
With gloved hands, make some circles with one of your colors, about 6 inches in diameter. You will have to use your other gloved hand to press the dye into the roving, do NOT rub, press. You will quickly find out whether or not you’ve used enough dye. The dye will attach itself to the fiber and then all you’ll see, as you press and massage, is the clear liquid left behind. If you lift up the roving that you just dyed, you may see that the bottom side of it has no color. This is OK. Its all a part of the learning. Use your applicator bottle (refilled if needed) to carefully squirt some color on the under side of the roving if you want.
After your circles, get another color and fill in the circles. Get another color and paint the outside of the circles you made. Or, you can pay attention to the edges of the roving. Either way, you’ll start seeing your roving turn into what may appear to be a mess of color.
Your roving will be what it is. This is the best part of the entire process in my opinion, other than seeing it when dry and complete.
I choose to let the roving sit for about 20 minutes. The dye is not setting in any way, I just want the fibers to grab up all the dye stock it can. I press and massage with a gloved hand all around so I can help the dye along. I check the underside of the roving to make sure I don’t need to add any more dye to certain spots that have an absence of color.
Don’t be afraid of white spots. I was devastated early on when I would take my roving out of the crock pot just to see a bunch of undyed areas staring back at me. Embrace these. They are not mistakes! The white, in my opinion, adds to the yarn when spun up. As you learn more and more about dyeing, you can learn to eliminate white or blank parts of the roving if that is your goal. However, don’t beat yourself up just because you have a white spot or two, or twenty. In this method I’m teaching today, there will be more than one white spot, most likely.
Into the crock pot or stove top pot it goes! Now, the microwave is a heat setting tool that is ONLY to be used with food-safe dyes like Kool-Aid, easter egg tablets, or food coloring. NEVER use a microwave to set your roving after using a dye stock made with acid dye powder. NO NO NO! (with index finger shaking and teacher-face staring back at you) I personally don’t like putting my yarn or roving into the microwave because I don’t like thinking of what the micro-waves do to the fibers, but this is a widely used technique for heat setting. Many professional dyers use a separate microwave that food NEVER goes into for heat setting. Its certainly faster than the stove top or crock pot. But, I like being able to pull out my fiber from the pot to check in on it as it sets.
In this demo, we’ll use a crock pot. As you can see in the photos, it is CLEARLY labeled as a NON-FOOD crock pot. The stove top pot I use is also labeled. That way my husband or anyone else doesn’t use these for cooking, not that he’d get the hankering to use a crock pot, I’m just sayin’, safety first.
Ok, so the above picture is of a Sock Blank that I had about half in and half out of the crock pot. This is because I wanted to get a different color on different parts of the blank. More on that at another time.
Prepping the Crock Pot or Stove Top Pot
You will need to fill the pot you are using with about 2 inches of water and another glug of vinegar. Remember, the roving is most likely saturated with liquid so it will fill up the pot enough to cover the roving. The water in the pot needs to be at room temperature. This is essential because if the water in the pot is already steaming hot, the fiber will have an easier time of felting up with the stark contrast in temperatures.
So, you will pick up your roving all at once and quickly get it all into the crock pot. Using a clean plastic spoon, press down any parts of the roving that are sticking up. The roving only needs to be covered in water, the roving doesn’t need to be drowning in it.
Set on Medium heat. If you’re using the stove top, be careful to watch that the water does not start a rolling boil. A rolling boil will felt the fiber. You don’t need boiling water to set the dye. I usually say that it just needs to be “at a steam.” No particular temp in mind. You will leave the fiber in for at least 30 minutes, sometimes longer. This depends on your use of dye. In some cases, so much dyes is used that the dye stock never fully “exhausts” (where there is no dye left and the water is clear). Rit dye will never fully exhast and leave clear water behind because it is made for both cellulose (plant-based) and protein (animal-based) fibers. My rule of thumb is that if fiber has been heat setting for more than an hour and there is still color in the water, its finished and you keep that exhaust for another project. If there’s lots of color left in the water, keep it in a jar. You can use it later. Oh, if you haven’t figured it out yet, start collecting glass jars NOW!
If I have to be somewhere or if I’m starting a dye project in the wee hours of the morning before I become a fifth grade teacher for the day, I’ll turn on my crock pot, go get ready and what-not, let it get hot and then turn it off RIGHT before I leave the house. I leave the fiber sitting in there all day. When I get home, its at room temp already and I can rinse right away. Just a tip for the busy peeps out there. Because who isn’t?
Rinsing and Drying
When you can lift the roving out of the water (with metal tongs you don’t use with food) and the water runs clear, or if its been a long time since the heat setting process started, the fiber is ready to go into the sink. Take it to the sink (with your goggles on to protect your eyes from hot splashes of vinegar-water) and carefully place it down to drain off. At this point the fiber is hot, really hot. Avoid touching it with your hands, you don’t want a burn. And avoid moving it around much at all. Sometimes, if I really don’t have much liquid in the pot, I just dump it all into the sink at once.
In an ideal situation, the fiber will cool off on its own to return to room temp before you move it around and rinse it out. This will help the fiber from becoming a felted mess. So, let’s assume that the fiber is back to room temp and is no longer steaming. Fill a Non-Food bowl with room temp water and lay the roving inside it. Press the roving so that the water can flush through the fibers. NEVER let a stream of water pour directly on the fiber. Felt Warning! Empty out the water and do this once more until all the water is clear.
Squeeze the fiber in your hands to get remaining liquid out. Do NOT wring the fiber like a washcloth. Felt Warning! Get as much moisture out of the fiber as possible. I hesitate using a towel with fiber roving because the fibers in a towel grab on to the fibers in roving or combed top. You just have what looks like an icky mess after pressing out with a towel. I would rather wait an extra day for it to dry as it hangs rather than use a towel. I’m ok with that.
Take it to the laundry room if its cold outside or outside on a grill, table, fence, or laundry hanging rack to dry. Note: the area underneath your drying station may get some color on it so be careful where this is placed. I would avoid drying fiber over wood flooring at all costs unless you don’t give two s#its about it, that is.
At the moment, its winter and I’m hanging my roving on the wire racks in my small laundry room, closed door, vent ON, to aid in the drying process.
After several days (in the winter), you will see that the roving dries and puffs out.
The roving in the above picture was only halfway dry at that point. If there are any parts of your roving that feel cool to the touch, it is not dry yet. Wait until all parts of it feel fluffy and free of moisture.
When the roving is completely dry, you are READY TO USE IT or send off to a friend or customer who can USE IT! To store my roving, I braid it up so it will look like the picture below.
I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed this lesson on dyeing from beginning to end. I tried to include as many details with supportive photographs as possible. If you would like more information on a certain facet of dyeing or have any questions, please comment below. That way, the next person with the SAME question as you can also have the answer, even if they’re too shy to ask. If you have any constructive comments that will help me improve my tutorial posts, please email me at email@example.com
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Please allow me to express my gratitude to creation. In particularly tough times in the family or workplace, I know I can count on the productivity and silence of my type of creative process. These processes include knitting, dyeing yarn and spinning yarn. I love each of these with passion I cannot describe.
I think about doing each of these things while I’m at my day job. I talk to people everywhere about these crafts. I listen to people tell me, “That’s a lost art” as I’m spinning up some animal fiber. You know what I tell them? I tell them how fiber arts is making a come-back! And I’m so happy to say that with confidence. Arts and crafting in general is making a come-back, at least in my life it is.
So, when I have a tough day in the classroom and I’ve worked out at the gym but I still don’t feel at ease, I just pick up the knitting needles, pull out the wheel, or pre-soak some wool roving so I can put myself in that zone where I don’t have to talk to anyone but myself. And, nine times out of ten, when I talk to myself, I’m right!
Here’s a little preview of what I’m doing, and dyeing today. I’m experimenting with my first sock blank dye project. I’m dyeing some Merino/Tussah Silk roving for the first time. And after that is all finished, I hope to have some time to dye some half-ounce bundles for a basic felting kit. Fun times with fiber.