Rainbow Dyeing Experiment: The Long-Awaited Tutorial

Before I begin with my tutorial, I’ve been meaning to post this since last year, but back when I first spent a few hours putting the post together, the dog ate my homework Squarespace ate my blog post. Disheartened as I was, I never got around to re-writing it. Thankfully, I’ve now switched back to WordPress, which is far smarter than I am and saves my drafts as I work on them!

This is a fun rainbow dyeing tutorial for those who like experimenting with colours and creating their own colours with yarn or fibre to be spun, knitted, crocheted, woven to your heart’s content afterwards. It was a brilliant fun afternoon, heavily documented with poorly-taken photos and I highly recommend trying it.

The objective is to create a wheel of rainbow-dyed fibre by using just the three primary colours (or your choice of three colours). It’s particularly effective with raw fibre; sheep fleece that is still coated in lanolin, the natural greasy coating produced by the sheep. Of course, you can use commercially purchased fleece or undyed yarn if you don’t have a sheep handy.

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Gathering your materials

Most of the materials used for this experiment are readily available, but it’s important that you keep these utensils and pots separate from the ones you cook food in. The acid dyes I use are not food-safe and should be kept away from curious kids, pets and used according to safety instructions.

  • A large cooking pot with a lid (glass lid is ideal)
  • Undyed yarn or fibre of your choice (more on choosing your fibre below)
  • A bottle of dish soap (Fairy, Dawn, etc)
  • A plastic spoon or two
  • A pair of plastic-tipped tongs (optional, but very useful)
  • A plastic tray or container for your wet fibre
  • Somewhere to lay or hang the fibre
  • An old towel
  • Fibre dyes (I use Landscape Dyes, but you can use Ashford, Kemtex, Eurolana dyes and more)
  • Vinegar if you’re using dyes that aren’t all-in-one (see your dye instructions for any extras you might need)

Choosing your fibre or yarn

Different fibres react differently to dye. For example, fibres like wool and silk (protein-based fibres) can take on a deep, rich shade when dyed with acid dyes. Meanwhile, acid dyes won’t take on bamboo and other plant-based fibres.

If this is the first time you experiment with rainbow dyeing, I would suggest getting a good resilient fibre that doesn’t felt too easily. I used long, curly locks of Gotland fibre. Sheep like Southdown, Ryeland and plenty more will cope with relatively rough handling without felting.

As I said above, if you fancy using superwash yarn (which is yarn that has been chemically processed so that it doesn’t felt as easily), go for it!

Preparing the fibre

If you’re using raw sheep fibre as I did (it had been lightly washed but still had lanolin in it), you’ll need to split the locks into manageable chunks.

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If you’re using yarn, you’ll need to tie loops around your skeins at regular intervals to avoid creating a spaghetti mess once you drop it in the water.

Getting the pot ready

Pop your non-food cooking pot on the hob and fill it with enough cold water so that it’ll cover your fibre later. Mine was about 10cm full. Add a couple of squirts of dish soap and swirl it around.

Lay out the fleece or yarn in a circle. For the fleece, I put all the tips together in the middle and the cut ends towards the outside (like a sun or the hands of a clock). For yarn, I’d suggest making two overlapped circles with it. Very gently push the fibre down under water so that it’s wet through. If need be, top up with a bit more water.

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Turn the heat on to medium-ish so that it bubbles very gently – and get ready to start making a rainbow!

Creating your rainbow

I picked three primary colours of Kraftkolour Landscapes Dyes, which you can get in the UK from Wingham Wool Work. The colours I used are Chamomile (yellow), Marine (blue) and Plum (magenta).

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Before we start putting dye on, here’s a tiny primer on how acid dyes work: The quantity of dye used is relative to the amount of fibre you want to dye, not to the amount of water you use. When the fibre and the dye meet, the dye will set onto the fibre. If you’ve used the right quantity of dye, you’ll see your water eventually becoming clear again.

Lay a towel on the countertops to avoid getting any dye on your kitchen. Use a spoon to pick up a small amount of dye from the first colour. Don’t sprinkle directly from your pot of dye, as you’ll get steam inside the pot which isn’t good. You’ll also have much more control over the quantity of sprinkles with a spoon!

Imagine you have six pizza slices, you want to sprinkle three of the slices, leaving almost a full blank slice in between each one. At first, it looks like some areas will remain white, but given a bit of time, the colours will spread and mix, creating your three secondary colours; orange, green and purple.

before-after-rainbow

At this point, you want the water to be bubbling very gently. Furiously strong bubbling will mess up the fibre and might felt it, or you might burn the bottom fibres on the bottom of the pot. Pop the lid on and leave it about 20 minutes. Resist the urge to stir – Stirring can felt fibres and will muddle up your rainbow.

After 20 minutes, use a plastic spoon to gently move some of the fibre to the side. How clear is your water? If it’s clear and you’re satisfied that your fibres have taken up enough colour, you’ve gauged your dye quantity very well! If there’s too much undyed fibre, you might want to verrrry gently move fibres and sprinkle more dye on.

If there’s a bit of colour left in the pot but it’s getting there, you can squirt a little white vinegar into the pot. This will help the final bits if dye exhaust onto the fibre.

When you’re happy with the depth of colour and the white pizza slices are now nice and colourful, turn off the heat. Set a timer for an hour or two to let the water cool down.

Draining, rinsing and drying the fibre

Once the water’s cooled down enough, use your tongs to pick up the fibre and lay it out on a tray to cool further. While the fibre cools down, fill the sink or your pot with water and gently swish handfuls of the fibre to get the superfluous dye off. Again, gentleness is key – you don’t want your fibre felting now after all the hard work’s done!

Lay the fibre out on a rack or mesh to dry. I use a drying rack with old cotton fabric pinned to it into “hammocks”.

When dry, split off the dyes and arrange into a rainbow. Admire your magical work :D

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What’s next?

If, like me, you’ve got fibre, it’s time to spin it. You can either spin it into a neat gradient yarn or use the locks in really wild tailspun art yarn! Even though my rainbow is imperfect, the locks that had blue and yellow on them appeared greener once spun as the colours mix together some more.

If you’ve dyed yarn, start knitting or crocheting with it!

The next tutorial (which hopefully won’t take me a year to publish!) will cover a few ways of spinning yarn I really enjoy, from lace to art yarns.

If you experiment with rainbow dyeing, I would LOVE to see your results so please do share your own photos! :D

[Credits: Thank you to Sally aka Castlemilk on Ravelry for the original stove-top rainbow dyeing experiment.]

One response to “Rainbow Dyeing Experiment: The Long-Awaited Tutorial

  1. Oh you have made such a good job of writing it up so clearly! And you are so much more organised about it than I am! I will tell Marjorie that the word is spreading – she doesn’t do internet and was amazed when I told her how many people were giving it a go once I’d posted my notes on Ravelry.

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I'm Véro - a crafty, knitty, spinny gal who enjoys making (and drinking) a cocktail or three. If you've stumbled here, you might enjoy browsing some of my older posts with the tags over to the right or finding out more about me.

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