25 July 2009

How To: Dye Yarn with Food Colouring

So, with the Tour de Fleece coming to a close, and me having gotten completely side-tracked, I decided first to try and dye my own roving colours with my paint palette of hair dyes, to spin something unique to me. This I half-accomplished: my roving, though beautifully colours, was slighted felted when it came time to spin it, and it spun up far rougher then the blue-faced leicester I had used deserved.

So, I have taken a step back, found some sheep-coloured aran-weight yarn, and decided to have a bit of food-colouring fun!

I present, below, a guide to dyeing animal-based fibres, with food-colouring in your home.

Materials Needed:
liquid food colouring
white vinegar
wooden spoon/potato masher/eye dropper
plastic tubs
animal-fibre yarn (I used pure wool)

All your materials should be for dye-use only. Don't use any of them to prepare food. True, you're dying with edible food dyes, but it's better to be safe.

First thing to get your paws on is food colouring. Supermarkets have small bottles in the baking sections for fairly cheap and I'd recommend these if you just want to dabble and see if you like the process. They come in the three primary colours... and cochineal. (For the record, read the ingredients if you choose to try the cochineal colour to be sure it doesn't contain the bug by the same name. Yup, the dye originated with the bug)

So! In dying, the first thing you have to do is prepare the yarn to accept colur. If you skip this step you'll either get no result, or a very faint one. Either way, this step is a good idea. Take you yarn and tie it into loose skeins. These should be left to steep overnight in a solution of 25% vinegar 70% water. A lot of people suggest bringing this mixture to the boil slowly, but in my experience the only difference boiling makes is to leave you with a skinky home, and angry co-habitants. Boiling also makes it more likely that you'll felt your yarn, making it rougher.

Once your yarn has had a good few hour in your mordant mixture, remove and rinse gently in cold water. The trick in every step of this process is to be gentle with the yarn. Felting is accomplished with movement + heat + soap, but any two of those elements can just as easily mess with your wool.

Place the still very wet yarn in a plastic container and add colours as you wish. I used an eyedropper to get the colour all through the yarn, but equally good would be a potato masher pressed onto the yarn gently. This will help squeeze the colour thought to the bottom of the skein. Try stripes, splashes, solid colours. Basically, experiment to see what you come out with.

Into the mircowave, on a medium heat for two minutes.

Remove and ensure the yarn is still nice and wet. Turn the tub gently to the side, if the water appear clear, you're done. If it's still got colour in it, let the yarn rest of a few minutes and give it another go in the microwave for two minutes on medium. Repeat this process until the water appears clear. This means all the food colouring has soaked into the yarn and it's a wonderful sight!

Remember, it's important not to touch the yarn or move it in the tub at all until it's cooled completely. Just leave it aside to cool down in its own time.

Once it has, give the skein a rinse in cold water again, squeeze gently in a towel, and leave to dry out of direct sunlight!

Aaaand, Result!


  1. this is cool! but can you wash it after making your project and it not bleed out?

  2. Absolutely! That's the great thing about it. You're using food dye, which is designed to wash off worktop, hands, clothes, but treating the yarn with a mordant first will ensure the dye stays colourfast on the yarn.

    It might take a small amount of experimentation to get the mix just right, and hand-wash cool, but it'll stay!

    Thanks for your comment.



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