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Nature's Palette: Dyeing Your Own Yarn

Aug 9, 2013

A couple of years ago, my knitting group got together for a kitchen sink yarn dyeing party. We put the dyes in squeeze bottles and had a blast painting sock yarn. I haven't knit socks from my yarn yet, but I love how it turned out. I used dark brown, deep purple, and emerald green.

We mainly used commercial dyes, but we want to have another "dyeing day," and use all natural dyes. We just haven't carved out the time yet.

All of the yarn above was dyed with natural products (except the cream skein at the top, which is in it's natural form. Red: Brazilwood; Purple: Logwood with ammonia added; Both browns: Cutch with diluted copper added, Beige: Henna; Pink: Weak cochineal; Olive green: Old Fustic with iron added.
I found this article awhile ago in an old issue of Interweave Knits, and I love the ideas presented. I thought you might be interested, too!

The Basics of Natural Dyeing

Some people say, Why go to all the trouble of dyeing yarns with natural materials when so many beautiful commercially-dyed yarns are available? I say, Using natural dyes in today's world of "techno-feats" is particularly gratifying for a variety of reasons.

First, the process itself is pleasing; delightful scents, evolving colors, and a sense of awe accompany each dyepot. Much like cooking, you can start with a recipe and then "doctor it up" as you like—add a pinch of this, a dab of that.

When dyeing, I feel connected to the past. I think of dyers and artisans of medieval times, of aboriginal women bringing color to their world, and of Appalachian settlers making use of the beauty of nature around them.

Working with natural materials also enhances my awareness of the environment as a whole. I make a mental note of a patch of goldenrod I glimpsed along the roadside, and I wonder what color joe-pye weed (or any other plant that happens to catch my eye) will make.

Natural dyes yield beautiful and complex colors that look great with one another. Each color is unique according to the minerals in the soil where the plant grows, the parts of the plant used, the mordant (color-fast additive) selected, the mineral content in the water, and even the container and utensils employed in the process.

Most organic materials will yield some type of color when boiled and strained and applied to yarn—yellow is the most common color. Experimentation can be fun, but there are books to help you choose a palette to suit your every whim.

My favorite dyestuffs are brazilwood and cochineal for reds, osage orange and fustic for yellows, cutch for browns, logwood for purple, and indigo for blue. They are all excellent in light-fastness and wash-fastness and are sold in a variety of forms.

It's lots of fun to experiment with new dyestuffs, to over-dye colors on top of each other, and to add ingredients that make changes within the same dye-pot!

With natural dyeing I usually just enjoy the process and take a "what if" attitude rather than try to achieve a certain color. This approach is a lot of fun and yields some very interesting results!

—Nancy MacDonald, from Interweave Knits, Summer 1997

Reading this again has me excited to organize that dye party. But before I do, I'm going to watch the video Dyeing In the Kitchen on Craft Daily. In it, Deb Menz demonstrates the entire dyeing process, and she shares tons of tips and techniques for dyeing yarn.

Subscribe to Craft Daily today and learn all about making your own hand-dyed yarn!


P.S. Have your dyed your own yarn? Share a tip with us in the comments!

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MeganH wrote
on Aug 11, 2013 6:54 PM

Please be aware that Natural does not equal Sustainable. Logwood might give a nice purple, but you have to kill the whole tree to get it. Mosses and lichens are very slow growing. If we all harvested them in sufficient quantities for our dying desires, would there be anything left? Think about the colours you want and then check out the different alternatives to achieve those colours and make sustainability your top priority. I suppose what I am basically saying is that we should make sure we are Responsible Natural Dyers

Paul W wrote
on Aug 10, 2013 4:03 PM

I've enjoyed natural dyes immensely and never cease to be amazed by the possibilities.  Had only used material from my own gathering (try gathering cochineal in central Texas in this heat!) until doing a urine vat of indigo over the past couple weeks.  First skein of handspun (dipped twice) is gorgeous mid-level indigo blue that reminds one where the Indigo Bunting gets its name!  Nature does a wonderful things with color.  Ever notice how all natural colors fit together?

chancel47 wrote
on Aug 10, 2013 12:11 AM

I haven't yet dyed any of my own yarns but I was thinking of how beautiful a color poke berries and grass, yes grass from the yard would give. What do you think? Marci

Ronne wrote
on Aug 9, 2013 11:15 AM

Have you ever dyed yarn with kool aid?   There seem be some some fun colors and you don't need to add vinegar .

on Aug 9, 2013 11:08 AM

I haven't dyed yarn, but I did dye wool yardage last summer. Take it outside! With canning supplies readily available this time of year, get a hot plate (one or two burner), find something suitable to place it on with an appropriate extension cord, and some shade and set up everything outside. The heat and the mess will be much less stress, and while the process is happening, you can have something cool to drink and relax in the great outdoors. Enjoy.