21 August 2010

Naturally Dyeing, Nice and Easy

Natural dyeing is easier than you think. I swear.
The only thing you really need to be aware of is that it can smell a bit. This is not to be attempted around someone who is sensitive to strong smells, doesn't like their kitchen stinking of vinegar or who dislikes having large quentities of onion skins knocking around the place.

Today, in the kitchen, we're going to be making nice, white merino lace-weight into nice, russet merino lace-weight. We'll be using:

100g Merino Lace-weight (gently washed in cold water and left damp)
100g Onion Skins
1 part white wine vinegar, to 4 parts water (cold)
and a bit of luck.

A few points before we start.
In general with natural dyeing, the same quantity of yarn and dyestuff (in this case, onion skins) are required. There are a few exceptions, but it's a good rule to go with.

100g onion skins does seem like a lot of curries and Italian food preempted it, but taking a few extra minutes in the supermarket vegetable aisle, rooting around the onions will soon have you stocked up on skins. They weight next to nothing, but if you feel weird buying 3 cent worth of onions just ask the manager if they mind you popping in now and then to collect skins. Yea, you'll seem a bit mad, but the most interesting people in the world are mad.

Using less dyestuff will result in a lighter shade.


1. Gently wash the yarn in cold water to get off any manufacturing residue and set to one side.

2. Mix vinegar and water in a large pot and gently add yarn. Only now will you put it over heat. Bring slowly to a boil. It's essential that the yarn doesn't experience any sudden changes in temperature during its time wet. Cold to hot is as bad for felting as hot to cold, so remember that at the other end, too.

3. Allow to boil for 1 hr, topping up with hot water if necessary. Try not to disturb the yarn at all. Again, moving it will only result in its felting.

4. Once it's been well mordanted, allow to cool in the water before gently removing and rinsing in running water in a collander or sieve. Set to one side.

4b. Alternatively, transfer carefully to the sieve or collander and rinse well in a sink of boiling-hot water. DON'T BURN YOURSELF!

5. Put the dyestuff into a pot of hot water and boil.

Once colour has leeced out, remove spent dyestuff. Allow dyebath to cool.

5b. Alternatively, have dyebath prepared as you mordant, and transfer hot yarn directly into dyebath after spent dyestuff has been removed.

6. Add mordanted yarn to dyebath and bring slowly to the boil.

The dye has taken when the water runs all but clear. You'll notice the yarn starting to take colour after only a few minutes.

If this doesn't happen and you've used a dyestuff that you know should work, it's likely that the mordanting wasn't done for long enough. Again, allow to cool. Leave yarn overnight in the dyebath for a deeper shade.

7. Remove from dyebath, wring gently and allow to drip-dry.

8. Marvel at the gorgeous colour yarn you have just made for yourself, and how it doesn't smell of vinegar or onions at all!

Well done!

Other fun dyestuffs to try include Dandelion Petals which give a gorgeous sunny yellow; Blackberries with give a deep purple; and fresh beetroot, which gives a lovely warm burgundy.

Remember all naturally dyed yarns and fabric must be hand-washed cold and with great care.


Mordant: In this case, we're using vinegar. It will open the yarn and allow it to accept the colour. There are very few dyestuffs that will stick to yarn without some kind of mordant.

Dyestuff: Onion Skins in this case. Whatever you're extracting colour from to use as a dye. Not all colourful plants make good dyestuffs, but it's worth experimenting.

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