How to Dye Yarn–Part 1

I promised a blog on how to dye yarns both in solids and variegated and here it is! This is going to be a picture light, technical article. I’ve had to split it into part posts so you don’t TLDR and miss the good stuff (that’s “too long didn’t read” for the less acronym savvy).

Before we begin, lets get you prepped for dyeing your yarn. No matter which fiber you have or which dye you choose, you will need the following:


  • White or cream colored yarn (preferably animal or plant fiber, but acrylic or polyester work too–more on that in a minute)
  • Mild soap (think dish soap or baby soap) or dye remover detergent (available at most craft stores with the fabric dyes)
  • A tub or large pot for soaking yarn (something not used for cooking)
  • Water for soaking and washing
  • A shower basket or colander

The first step is to wash your yarn. If it’s balled up or in a skein, very gently  pull it out of the ball and make several loops.

I like to use my forearm and wrap the yarn around my thumb and elbow to get nice even loops, but you can use a chair back, or just eyeball it if you’d like.


Loosely tie the loops together with a dark colored yarn. I like dark brown, dark green, or grey depending on the color I’m dying my yarn. They don’t take color well and they’re easy to find later. DO NOT THROW OUT THE LABEL YOU WILL NEED IT.


Fill your tub with warm (not hot) water and gently hand wash the yarn with the soap or dye remover detergent. I am doing several varieties of yarn in this wash, so to be safe, I’ll be washing EACH VARIETY SEPARATELY.


Pour the soapy yarn into a colander or shower basket to drain and rinse the yarn with clean water. The colander pictured here is a craft colander for doing things like this, and not for food.


I HIGHLY recommend that anything that will be touching dye in this process NOT be used with food. It is best to use a shower basket or something that won’t touch food here, but if you are using dish soap, it should be safe to do this step with a colander that is also used for food, just wash it when you’re done (I make NO guarantees, I don’t know what was on that yarn or where it came from).


Now that you’re washed, and ready to go, check out the label that came with your skein (go fish it out of the rubbish bin if you need to, I threw mine out too) and see what fiber you are working with. Put the label in a zip top bag or other storage container where you’ll be able to find it later (when you’re done dyeing your yarn, you’ll want to remember what it is).


Cartoon Citation Link


Natural Fibers

Natural Fibers fall into two major categories–Animal Fibers and Plant Fibers.

Animal Fibers usually have different oils and are protein fibers. These fibers should NEVER be boiled, just like boiling meat (sorry vegans) makes the meat tough and difficult to deal with, boiling protein fibers will make them tough and difficult to work with. Largely because they fluff up (like felt).

protein-fiberDon’t get me wrong, Boiled Wool is a thing, but it’s not good for yarn to start that way. If you’re going to be felting your project, save the boiling for after the garment is together.

Animal Fibers include: Wool, Cashmere, Alpaca, Silk, Angora, Mohair, Muskox, Merino,  and basically anything else named for an animal.

Plant Fibers usually do not have as many oils (except those received from human processing and handling of the yarn) and are cellulose fibers. These yarns are safer to boil, but be cautious. Just like over boiling broccoli (sorry everyone this time), over boiling cotton or other plant fibers can break down the fiber and ruin the yarn.

cellulose-fiberWhy is all this about boiling so important? Some of the dyes you will encounter will call for heating in order to set the dye. It is VERY important to keep an eye on your pot or kettle as you heat these fibers because they can do from beautiful to disaster in the blink of an eye.

Plant Fibers include: Cotton, Flax, Linen, Bamboo, Hemp, Ramie, and anything else named for a plant.


Manufactured Fibers

ball-acrylicManufactured Fibers are anything that were made by people, usually in some sort of processing plant for the mass market. There is one exception to that that I am listing here and that is Dryer Lint (yeah, weird right?). Most manufactured fibers can stand up to just about anything and will not loose shape or workability. The downside is that most manufactured fibers ALSO won’t take dye very well. Make sure to read the recommended fabrics section of the instructions for your dye to see if your yarn lines up with one of the fabrics that work.

Unfortunately food coloring and powdered drink mix will not work for most manufactured fibers. The ones is does work on tend to fade almost immediately and don’t hold their color through washing.

Manufactured Fibers include: Acrylic, Polyester, Rayon, Nylon, Spandex, Dryer Lint and usually anything with a hard to pronounce name.

What’s the deal with Dryer Lint? Yeah, it may sound weird, but I know at LEAST one person who has spun dryer lint into yarn in the name of not wasting. Because lint is a mix of whatever fabrics you threw in the wash, along with whatever is already in your dryer, I can’t really call it anything but manufactured. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend dyeing it at all because it can be very delicate and unpredictable due to the mixed nature of the fiber.

If you are unsure what your yarn is, drop me an  email or just google it. I’ve covered the most common fibers here, but that doesn’t cover everything.

Next entry, we’ll take a look at the different dyes and the benefits and pitfalls of each one.


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