Getting Started with Dyes, Part I: Animal Fibers

Want to try dyeing things but don’t know where to start?

A reader wrote me recently asking for help.

Where to start, what to read?

The easiest kind of dyeing to start with is food dye on animal fibers. I love this because you can do it in the kitchen with grocery-store items, the results are super-satisfying, and the kids can join in.

What are animal fibers? Wool, silk, cashmere, you get the idea.

Wool and Cashmere:

You can do some beautiful things with Kool-Aid and wool, and IT WILL NEVER WASH OUT.

Kool-Aid (or Easter egg dye) and wool yarn is a perfect starter project, especially if you knit. You can dye it with a rainbow of colors, using your microwave. The yarn above was dyed with this method. Check out this article on for details and instructions. Lion Brand makes an undyed 100% wool yarn called Fisherman’s Yarn that is very reasonably priced. I used to buy it at Hobby Lobby, but it may also be available at Michael’s and other craft stores. Knitpicks also sells undyed yarn, in a wider variety of weights and variations. Their prices are very reasonable also, but you do have to order it. Also try dharmatrading for yarns.

You can dye pieces of old wool or cashmere sweaters in a similar way, but it’s a little tricky—-you should be prepared for uneven results.  Here’s a project of mine with Easter egg dye on cashmere. I would recommend starting with a light-colored sweater and dyeing smaller pieces (an arm or less) at a time, as a sweater acts like a sponge to the dye, absorbing the color before it gets the chance to circulate around the fabric.

The process is similar to the yarn-dyeing project, but use a larger amount of dye and a larger container, on the stove instead of the microwave. I used my big soup pot. The same process should work for wool and cashmere wovens, though I’ve never tried it.


Kool-Aid, Easter egg dye, or food coloring also works well on silk. I’ve used it to make playsilks, with the directions here. I’ve also dip-dyed silk scarves, which you can see here. After heat-setting, these dyes are not quite as colorfast as in wool and cashmere, so I would recommend hand-washing. Even so, the colors  bleed very little. Dry out of direct sunlight, or the colors will change.

With any dyeing project, there’s a certain amount of risk involved. You never know exactly what your finished project is going to look like, and for me, that’s part of the thrill. Be prepared for that uncertainty, because even if your project turns out beautifully, chances are it won’t be exactly as you  envisioned.

For part two of this article, about dyeing plant fibers, click here.

Another Recycled Cashmere Scarf

It may be summer here, but in southern Africa, Lesotho to be exact, it’s rather chilly right now. My friend Megan is a physician there, and to warm her up, I sent her this scarf. It started out life as a thrifted Banana Republic sweater in a dingy blue-grey color. I felted it (didn’t shrink much), dyed it greenish-blueish aqua with kool-aid, cut it into strips, and sewed it into a gathered scarf. I embroidered over the little bitty holes in it, too. See my other cashmere scarf post for more detail.

For information on dyeing cashmere, see this post. For information about overdyeing, click here.

Recycled Cashmere Scarf

 This was a simple yet satisfying project inspired by an article on shibori felting in Interweave Press magazine and by projects in a book called Second Hand Cool. Lately I don’t have the patience for knitting, so sewing up felted pieces of old sweaters is very appealing as a quick and fun knitting “substitute.” Also, it allows me to use high quality fibers at low cost. This scarf was made from a cashmere-silk blend sweater that I picked up second hand. I did not change the color, although any animal fibers can easily be dyed with food coloring, kool-aid, or Easter egg dye.

First I cut a small sample of the sweater to see how it would felt up in the dryer. It shrank lengthwise but not width-wise, so when cutting the pieces for the scarf, I took that into account. Felting is always a bit of an experiment: you never know exactly what the end product will look like, but that’s one of the things I like about it. You can felt just about any 100% animal-fiber sweaters, though for a scarf I suggest something really soft (like cashmere) with a fine gauge. Once you wash the sweater and dry it on high heat in the dryer, it will shrink up and felt in such a way that the resulting fabric is (usually) ravel-free.

In this case I wanted the stitching to be a part of the pattern created by the felting process, so I cut up the sweater before felting it. I then sewed the rectangles together with embroidery thread. I made the seaming a decorative element of the scarf, so that they look like zig zaggy gathers at random increments. Then I threw it in the washer and dryer. The results are pictured above.

For more specific instructions on how to make an old-sweater-shibori-felted scarf, check out this link: