Hi fellow makers! I’m Robyn, and you may have guessed by the post, I dye yarn...a lot! It’s one of my favorite creative outlets and I am so lucky I get to enjoy it everyday! My hand dyed yarns can be found at Work Play Knit, the central place for all my creations, patterns, tips, and tricks.
My passion for yarn dyeing stemmed from a deeper admiration of all things crafty. As a kid, I was forever labeled the maker, crafter, and ruiner of dining tables. (*Ahem* In my defense, mom, if you put a nice big dining table next to the craft cabinet then you’re just asking for it.) I loved drawing, scrapbooking, pottery, etc., but didn’t try any fiber arts until well into high school. Once it stuck though, it stuck! For me, fiber arts represent the intersection between function and art - two things that are very opposite, but come together in a beautiful way. I never wore a painting until I knit my very first sweater, and I’ve never spent hours touching and molding someone else’s painting until I knit with my first hand-dyed yarn. It’s sustainability at its finest - combining these things that have so much sentiment into a wardrobe that I’m going to wear over and over again. That’s why I want to take you one step further into the fiber arts world and teach you my favorite way to dye yarn!
Over-dyeing is a technique that simply refers to repeating the dye process with yarn that already has color. It’s something I do quite often when yarn has been sitting too long in my shop or I don’t like how a dye job turned out. In some ways, its more satisfying than starting with a blank skein, because your taking something you may not otherwise use and re-purposing it! There are some great "stash-buster" patterns out there, but the ultimate stash buster is over-dyeing your stash to fit perfectly into your next project.
You can use these instructions to learn the dying process and start with blank yarn, but much of this post will focus on specific techniques that help with over-dying. As an example, I’ll taking a mauve skein that was leftover from a past colorwork project and dying it to use in some stranded colorwork mittens. By the end of the process, it will be a variegated gray that compliments the white and blue yarn I’ll be using it with.
For more examples of over-dyed yarn to gain inspiration, head to my Instagram page @WorkPlayKnit and look through my “Yarn Transformations” story highlight.
Yarn that is at least 50% animal fibers (wool/alpaca/silk/angora/cashmere)
Dharma Acid Dyes in 1-5 colors
Wool wash or a gentle laundry detergent
N95 dust mask
Stainless steel pot/pan 4qt or larger
*This can be any shape, as long as it is at least 4" deep so the yarn may completely submerge
Stove top or equivalent heat source
The amount of dye power and citric acid needed will depend on how much yarn you are dyeing. That said, you really don’t need much to get started and figure out what colors you like. Just 0.5 oz of dye powder and 1 cup of citric acid could dye about 10 full skeins of yarn. I would suggest getting a few dyes in the smallest size available to try out different colors.
If you are purchasing dye for the first time, a good starter kit includes red, yellow, blue, brown, and black. From Dharma, I’d suggest Oxblood Red, Brilliant Yellow, Sapphire Blue, Teddy Bear Brown, and True Black.
Use a dust mask with an N95 rating, and have it on anytime you are dealing with loose dye powders. All of your equipment that touches dye powder or dye stock should not be later used for food. This means you need separate pans and spoons for dyeing. After dyeing, wash your hands and fingernails well before touching any food.
Choosing Yarn from Your Stash
It's important to choose yarn that is at least 50% animal fibers. Plant-based fibers like cotton and linen won't absorb the acid dye, and neither will artificial yarns like acrylic. If you're using yarn that is a blend, only the animal fibers will take color. This could produce some really unique styles!
Stick with something in a lighter color at first. You can only add color to yarn - not remove it - so dark colors leave you with fewer options.
Once you've got it picked out, you'll need a good idea of how many grams of yarn you have. If it's leftover from a past project, you can either weigh it or estimate. An estimate is just fine, but If you're all about precision and don't have a food scale, you could sneak it into a grocery store. (Just wrap it in some saran wrap first so you don't get germs or fuzzies on the community food scale! You can blame me if you get scolded.)
Picking Colors to Work With
Before you decide what kind of color you want to mix, consider the existing color of your yarn. When you're painting, you can paint over anything on the canvas and come away with a solid wash of new color. But when dyeing, anything laid down mixes directly with the old color.
Because the new dye will mix with whatever’s already on the yarn, you need to consider color theory a bit. The yarn I’m over dyeing is mauve.
Let’s see what this breaks down into:
This mauve is not a very cool color, it’s more neutral. If I want to get a nice gray, I first need to combat the warm colors already present. I’ll be using Blued Steel, which is essentially a mix between black and blue. Blue will offset brown and red in this yarn, and black will darken it. It’s not a perfect science, and it may take some trial and error to understand how these dyes mix.
There’s one other important difference between painting and dyeing. When you dye yarn a solid color, it will never absorb the color evenly throughout, creating a “tonal” effect. That happened when this mauve was first dyed, and you can see that variety of saturation in the before photos. When it’s over-dyed with Blued Steel, the same thing will happen, but in different sections. The result will be a skein that represents gray, but is actually a multitude of colors - ranging from mauve to blue to cool, true gray. It’s one of my favorite characteristics of over-dyed yarn, but it’s also the most unpredictable.
Think about the colors that make up your yarn, and go through the color wheel to figure out what each color would look like mixed with what you’ve already got.
If the yarn has been caked or balled already, you'll have to wind it back into a loop. Niddy-noddys are helpful for this, but the back of a chair will work just as well!
1. Fill a bowl with warm water and add 1/2 Tbsp citric acid for every 100g of yarn you plan to dye
If you estimated how much yarn you have, round up. Citric acid raises the acidity of the yarn, allowing the dye to adhere. Not using enough will cause problems setting the dye.
2. Set the yarn in the bowl and push it down with your basting spoon until all the yarn is submerged
3. Allow it to soak for at least 10 minutes while you mix your dyes.
Typically, you can use the amount of dye power equivalent to 1% the weight of the yarn to get a true color. That means for 100g, use 1g of dye power (about 1/3 tsp).
However, you *don’t* want to use that much dye on a skein that already has some color, unless you’re going for something very dark. Using this much dye powder usually results in darker colors anyway. For example, the full saturation (or “true color”) of Blued Steel is a dark blue jean color - but that same dye can yield a whole range of shades, from baby blue to almost black.
This shows you what different saturation levels of Blued Steel looks like dyed on blank skeins. Since we are over-dyeing, there’s not much use calculating ratios and measuring out dye powder, unless you are over-dyeing multiple skeins of the same original colorway. This also won’t give us the flexibility to adjust based on how the yarn is taking the new color. Instead, we are just going to add dye, little by little!
4. Put on your mask and gloves
Always wear a mask when dealing with powered dyes. The mask must be N95 grade (also known as a “dust mask”). The particular one I’ve suggested in the tools section is especially nice because there is an adjustable metal piece that conforms to your nose. Also, the rubber straps go around your ears instead of your head, which keeps it from pulling your hair! The gloves will protect you from staining your hands and we will use them to grab dye.
5. Fill a cup with steaming hot water from the tap
6. Use a spoon to grab a tiny bit of dye powder - about enough to cover the end of a matchstick
7. Stir until it is dissolved.
This is now called a “dye stock”, since it is dye + water rather than just the powered dye. Dye stocks can be saved in closed containers for a couple weeks, but consult the dye power company for specifics.
8. Test the color by dipping a clean paper towel halfway into the cup of dye stock
Since you’ve only grabbed a little bit of dye, it should still be a bit transparent. Every color is different, though. Some dyes are meant to be lightly colored, even at their true color (~1%). We are just going to start with this small amount of color, and you will get a sense of how it mixes and about how much more you will need.
9. Fill your pot with enough hot water to submerge the yarn and set it on your burner on med-high.
10. Pour your pre-mixed dye stock into the pot.
11. Add a round of citric acid to the pot - the same amount you put into the acid bath.
12. Take your yarn out of the acid bath and squeeze out excess water.
Dye will adhere more evenly to drier skeins than fully soaked skeins. Sometimes this is the desired effect, and sometimes you want an uneven application of color so other colors can show through and you get a more variegated look. For now, don’t worry too much about this.
13. Carefully lay the yarn in the pot. The water may be quite hot, so don’t let it splash onto you!
14. Let the water come to just under a simmer (not full rolling boil, just a few bubbles) and lower the heat to maintain this temperature.
By now, most of the dye should have adhered to the yarn, and the water in the pot should be almost clear. Any extra dye left in the water will soak into the yarn as it cools.
If you want to add more dye, now is the time to do it! Slowly lift your yarn partially out of the pot with the basting spoon to check the color. Mix up some more dye stock if necessary and pour it in the pot with the yarn lifted out of the pot. If you pour the new dye directly on the hot yarn, it will immediately absorb the color in only the areas dye was poured on. If you want to create a more variegated yarn, this could be a strategy rather than a mistake!
15. Repeat this process of adding dye, waiting for it to absorb, and checking the color until your skein is the color you want.
Keep in mind, the skein will always look darker wet! It’s also a good idea to check the color in bright lights or daylight.
16. When almost all of the dye is absorbed, turn off the heat.
If you find that there is still a lot of dye left in your water, it may be because you’ve over saturated the yarn. This just means there is too much dye and the yarn cannot take anymore. At that point you can proceed with the next steps for rinsing and drying. If the yarn does not look fully saturated and the dye still didn’t take, it could be that it didn’t spend enough time at the hotter temperature and you need to heat the yarn longer, keeping it just below a simmer for 30 min to an hour. Adding citric acid can also aide in setting dye that doesn’t want to set.
17. Let the yarn cool completely in the pot.
Depending on how much water is in the pot, this could take several hours. I typically leave my yarn in the pot overnight.
18. Optional - Speckling! Speckling is outside the scope of this post, but you can watch this video I made to learn how to speckle using various methods.
Rinsing & Drying
19. Fill a bowl with enough room temperature water to submerge the yarn
20. Add about a quarter-sized dollop of wool wash
21. Submerge the yarn and gently press it to release any un-absorbed dye and coat with the wash
22. Lift the yarn out of the bowl, empty and refill with room temperature
23. Submerge the yarn again and gently press
24. Repeat steps x and x until the water runs clear
25. Take the yarn out and squeeze out the excess water
26. Hang it to dry around a coat hanger with a bucket underneath for the drip
Once the yarn is fully dry, you can either wind it right into a cake or ball of yarn to begin knitting from, or you can make a twisted hank for storage!
When I’m knitting something with yarn I dyed myself, it feels extra special because I know that it’s completely unique to me. Not only is it one of a kind, it represents my style. I know that if someone else was given the exact same materials, they would make other choices, producing something equally as beautiful yet drastically different.
It also brings me back to the heart of slow fashion - favoring ethically made garments, having a personal connection to your pieces, reusing and recycling at every opportunity. I glad I’ve been able to share that with you! I hope that you have a similar feeling and reap the benefits of “waste not, want not”. When you over-dye yarn that would otherwise go unused or thrown away, it means one less future purchase and one less wasted thing.
If you’re trying out this post, share photos of your over-dyed yarn on Instagram with the hashtag #YarnTransformation. Tag me @WorkPlayKnit so I can see and repost!