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.

Thinking Pink: Pillows with Hand-Printed Fabric

The pink started here:

My dear husband, for reasons yet unknown, picked out these shades for the lights in our apartment living room. In most apartments here, the lighting fixtures are not included, and since we’re here for a limited time, we didn’t want to spend a lot on them. We have no pink in our house otherwise, so I can only guess he was asking for a dose of color in our lovely but very white white white apartment. Reactions from guests have ranged from: “Fresh! Modern! I love them!” to “Hmmmph. Why? Why?”

I felt the need to echo the pink somewhere else, so recovering our pillows was my first thought. Finding fabrics here has been tough, so I hit up the thrift store, bought old white cotton tablecloths and turned them into something that works.

First I doused the tablecloths in a good strong brew of coffee (no, I did not use the good stuff, honey). Then I broke out a favorite childhood toy.

I love these stamps. I used Deka fabric ink that I found at the local art store. I’ve used Deka ink before, a long time ago, which was more like a gouache consistency. This was different, more gel-like.

You may recognize this shape from another project using dishwasher gel.

Now the pink feels at home.

For more information about printing on fabrics and other surfaces, check out Lena Corwin’s excellent book: Printing by Hand.

Hand-Dyed Patchwork in Progress

I hadn’t planned to share from this work-in-progress until it was done, but then I was inspired by this post, which challenges bloggers (quilting bloggers in particular) to share more of their process, not just finished projects.

So, here I am, showing you a strip from a large patchwork I’m working on. When I do patchwork, I’m not usually interested in following a traditional pattern or in measuring. Some people call this “liberated quilting.” For me it’s about being able to enjoy the process (I hate measuring) and also something we used to talk about it in art class called “showing the artist’s hand.” In painting this often means that the artist has let the brushstrokes show. I enjoy having my patchwork look handmade at first glance. If you’re familiar with the Gee’s Bend quilts, it’s that kind of aesthetic I’m going for.

I also prefer to work with mostly used or scrap fabrics in my patchwork (I keep saying patchwork rather than quilting because this piece is not actually going to be quilted). I think it’s because historically that’s what quilts were made from, and that thriftiness and ingenuity is part of what attracts me to patchwork in the first place. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a beautiful quilt made from new fabrics—-this is just a rule I give myself (and sometimes break, of course). The history of the fabric creates a story behind the project, and it also provides an extra challenge, kind of like painting a still life using only four tubes of paint.

This patchwork is for my son’s duvet cover, and it’s made from his crib sheets, most of which I hand-dyed, and also from the fabric I used in a failed attempt at making a shopping cart cover. You can see one of his crib sheets in this blog post. There’s also a bit of fabric left from making the curtains in his room.

When I was pregnant with my son, I went snorkeling for the first time and was inspired to create a nursery mural of a very simple school of white fish on a grayish-teal backdrop—blogged here. Now that he’s in a big-boy bed, I wanted to make him a new bedcover with a similar theme. I didn’t want to make literal fish but  wanted to keep the feeling of simple white shapes moving over the space. Here’s my sketch for the piece—although I didn’t color it all in so you really can’t tell at this point which parts are going to be white. That part’s in my head. I may or may not follow the sketch entirely.

In addition to the Gee’s Bend quilters, another influence is the work of Malka Dubrawksy, a fiber artist, quilting blogger, and author I admire. Check out her gorgeous work made with fabrics she batiks and dyes herself.

Can’t wait to get some more done so I can show you my progress. Hopefully I’ll finish this before the little man goes to college. And if he doesn’t like it, I’ll hang it on the wall!

Hand-Made Cloth Book from Laos


My friend Megan sent this beauty from Laos. She bought it directly from the maker on her long vacay in East Asia. It’s for the kids, but I’m kind of commandeering it.

I’m just dumbfounded at how much work was put into this little book. I think it would take me a year or more to do something like it. Megan said the woman had a big stack of them beside her and was working on more. Note how the mom and dad in the story are working together 🙂

If you’re interested in textile art, check out this blog I found the other day. It reminds me of a book I used to check out over and over again from my hometown library when I was a teenager: Textile Arts; Multicultural Tradition/ Singer and Spyrou. I finally bought myself a copy of it a few years ago.

Good news! Our container arrived on Monday. Bad news: the apartment is now a complete wreck. Did I really need to pack enough towels, sheets, and washcloths to host a busload of tourists? And burp cloths? What do I need burp cloths for?

I’m back to weeding, even though I thought I’d done so much on the other side. It’s slow-going but I did clear a couple of paths today.

Blogger Meets Blogger

On a recent trip to Austin (more on that later) I had the honor of meeting up with one of my favorite bloggers, Malka Dubrawsky (above). Malka dyes her own fabrics (totally gorgeous) and uses them to make incredible quilts and other items with bright colors and a fun, modern feel. Check out her blogetsy shop, and book, Color Your Cloth.

It was fun to talk about crafts and blogging and interesting to compare the worlds of craft publishing and children’s publishing. I would say there are more similarities than differences 🙂

And I’m proud to say I was able to tell Malka about an Austin landmark that even she didn’t know.Stay tuned for details on that.

More Easy Cheat Batik: Gel Glue


This is a project I did quite awhile ago for my son’s nursery. With both of my children, I had really specific visions in mind for their nurseries, and the colors never matched up with what was being sold in stores. My son’s room is a soft aqua-greenish color with white and pale orange accents.

I got a little carried away with dyeing things for my son, but when you have an orange and aqua nursery, your options are a little limited.

I bought white (secondhand) cotton sheets and spread them out one at a time on top of a large piece of cardboard covered with a plastic garbage bag. I drew the waves on with Elmer’s gel glue. It’s a little tricky to draw with the glue this way, so it was probably best that I stuck with something simple. Recently I’ve read that using a metal tip with the glue bottle can help give you more control over the lines. I’ll have to try that next time.

After letting the glue dry, I used procion dyes purchased from Dharma Trading. They’re the real thing—-no playing around with this stuff, but they don’t fade and come off like grocery store dye.

So, the steps are easy:

1) Draw on fabric with gel glue. Let dry.

2) Dye according to directions.

3) Wash fabric.

The little man’s room has an aquatic theme. Here’s a shot of some of the fish on his wall:

He’s just moved to a big boy bed, so now I’m in the process of making the old crib sheets into a patchwork bedcover.

Easy Breezy Faux Batik Using Dishwasher Gel with Bleach







I got this idea from Kristi Porter’s domesticsphere. She’s my favorite knitting designer and does lots of other crafty things, too. I love the way her mind works.

So I’ve been looking for some brown patterned fabric for a sewing project. But I had some nice solid brown fabric lying around from another project, so I thought, why not pattern it myself?

So here’s the basic premise: paint or stamp dishwasher detergent with bleach onto the solid fabric. Wait a minute or two for the bleach to work, bringing out a lighter color, then rinse the detergent out. Make sure, of course, to wear something you don’t mind getting bleach on.

I used these Creative Playthings stamps of mine from the 70s. I was expecting the bleach to create white images, but instead, they are this lovely apricot color. I love the developing-photograph-type effect especially on the squares. I’m not sure if this is exactly what I want for my project, but I love the result, and I’m sure I’ll use the fabric for something.