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 knitty.com 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.

Silk:

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.

Silk + Easter Egg Dye

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I did these pieces right before we left for Germany. It’s really easy to dye animal fibers with food coloring, kool-aid, or easter egg dye. These dyes don’t work on cottons or linens but are very colorfast in wool and also work for silk, though in silk they’re a smidge less colorfast. Cashmere also works.

I figure a good frau can never have too many scarves. And now I know why (or at least I think I do) they’re such a big thing here in Europe. Part of it has to be the fact that during most of the year it may be the only item of clothing people see, other than your coat and hat. Now that it’s late May I’m finally emerging from my heavy wool coat and into my trench coat. And I’m proud to announce I’ve even ventured out a few times with no coat at all! Amazing!

Anyway, these are a few scarves I dyed using Easter egg dye. They were blanks from dharmatrading.com, which is a great resource for clothing blanks of all kinds. I started with the instructions here for dyeing playsilks (which I did last fall with kool-aid) and improvised a little. I wanted to create patterns on the scarves but wasn’t sure how to go about it. The good thing about dharma trading is the scarves are so inexpensive I didn’t have much to lose. I want to keep experimenting, but thought I’d share what I’ve come up with so far.

With the orange scarf, I tried a dip-dyeing technique where you fold fabric and, yes, dip it into the dye. First I folded, then wet with clear water, squeezed gently, then dip-dyed the edges of the triangle. I would make the dye a little stronger next time. It doesn’t look finished to me, so I think I’ll do something else to it but don’t know what yet.

With this bluish-greenish scarf, I think I just dyed it straight but of course it always has folds and all so the color never is perfectly even. Part of the charm of hand-dyeing. I forgot to heat-set the blue and over-dyed it with green later, ending up with a tie-dye-type effect. Then I heat-set so the design would stay.

I can’t decide if it’s cool or if it looks like something Ruth Fisher (from Six Feet Under) would wear. The kids definitely like it. They are always stealing this one, and it’s only fair since sometimes I steal a playsilk and wear it 🙂

In case you’re wondering, the scarves can be hand washed. The color washes out a tiny tiny bit but not enough to matter.