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Food Grade Dyes for Wool

I found myself answering a post on the Socknitters email list, about using easter egg dyes for dyeing yarn. Someone in the UK couldn’t find the easter egg dyes, so I piped in about other ways to dye with food-grade colors.

For the record, this does not work on cotton or plant fiber. It does work with protein fibers such as wool, mohair, alpaca and other animal fur; silk, and nylon which is a synthetic that acts like wool for dyeing purposes (although it does not take dye as well as animal fiber, in my experience). Other synthetics such as polyester and acrylic are very hard to dye in a home setting, they are typically colored in solution before the fibers are created in the factory.

If you are dyeing yarn it needs to be able to absorb dye on all surfaces. This means dyeing in a commercially-wound ball or skein will result in the center yarn not taking color. Wrap around your forearm or a chair, to make a large loop. Secure ends loosely (a tight knot makes a tie-dye where it’s white under the knot). Use a few pieces of yarn to tie the loop/hank loosely (most dyers/spinners tie it in a figure-8 shape through the strands).

Then soak the yarn for at least a half hour in warm-not-hot water with a little detergent or soap in it (this helps break the surface tension and allow water into the fiber). When ready to dye, press the fiber gently between clean towels and proceed.

This is what I wrote to the UK member of Socknitters:

Cake frosting dyes are no doubt something you *can* find? You can use those with vinegar and they come in more colors than egg dyes, as well. It’s all “food-grade dye” and you can use any of them with some vinegar (mild food-grade acid).

In the US and Canada we also have “Kool Aid” and other powdered drink mixes which contain dye, flavor and citric acid, so they do not need vinegar as do other food colorings. Of course, it can be hard in some areas to find the drink mix packaged without sugar (in tiny powder packets), and it again comes in very limited colors (the US purple is very disappointing/grayish, Canadian purple is like reddish-plum).

Here you can get only a few colors of liquid food coloring dyes, but the cake decorating dyes come in small gel packages in lots of colors. I’m in love with the turquoise Wilton’s dye, along with a spring green. Beautiful. I know there are other companies making frosting dyes, but Wiltons is the brand I find most often.

The goal is to put dye, acid and heat upon your animal-fiber yarn, and allow enough time for the dye to bond with the yarn. Assuming you did not use more dye than can be bonded with that amount of fiber, usually in 45 minutes or so you will have dyed wool and **totally clear** water. This is called exhausting the dye.

Many folks dabbling in food dyes do not know this part and stop too soon because they are eager to get on with it. (They also may be more familiar with cotton dyes which never exhaust and must be rinsed after dyeing.) When I dye yarn professionally (with commercial acid dyes), I leave the steaming hot wool covered in towels to keep heat in, overnight or at least until it comes to room temperature. This really makes a difference to the washfastness of the product. Color, Acid, Heat, Time. These are the four elements to a good dye experience.

Note: after I posted this I’ve had more questions and correspondence with many folks. It turns out that frosting dyes are not a gel but an oil-base, at least some of them. I never experienced any trouble with the oiliness and I expect that is because I soak my yarn in water with Dawn hand-Dishwashing liquid (a very strong grease-cutting product). If you have any problems with getting this particular coloring agent to work into the wool, try a little more soap or detergent.

Someone asked if the yarn has to go into a large pot with dye dissolved evenly, or if the dyes can be squirted/painted/poured onto the skein. Either works but do be careful to not put too much dye on it if you want color to stay in particular areas. After soaking you can use a salad spinner or the spin cycle of your washer to remove most of the water from the yarn. Then put it on a safe surface (Saran Wrap works, or a glass cooking pan) and apply dye as you like. Press the yarn to distribute the color better, and steam or microwave.

Someone asked about how long to time the microwave. This is a dangerous question, if I were to answer in minutes. I have two microwaves and one is gentle, one mean. You can burn fiber if you do it too much, so do take care and watch, especially when you are inexperienced. I always put a vessel of water in the back corner of my microwave to sort of be a “heat sink” and take the extra heat if the fiber dries out. This I do after one spectacular disaster with silk (silk burns quickly, maybe because it does not hold as much water as wool).

The ideal is to hold it at just under boiling, for about 45 minutes. In my dyeing microwave, this means heating it for anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes depending on how much yarn I am working with (I often dye several pounds at once), then letting it sit for a while, turn the pan the yarn is in (if there is no carousel in the microwave), then zap it again, then rest, then zap. Rest longer than you zap, maybe 10 minutes of resting between 3 minute heat cycles. Be sure it’s hot but not burning. Too hot and your yarn will degrade, especially if it has nylon in it.

May you find something fun to play with…

4 Responses to “Food Grade Dyes for Wool”

  1. Diana Troldahl Says:

    And for those with adventurous self-decorating tendencies, remember your hair, too, is an animal fiber :-}

    Diana, looking forward to the silver-haired stage of life… It shows off colors SO much better than brunette.

  2. Priscilla Says:

    Thanks for this, Lynn. I’ve heard that KoolAid-dyed wool is not fade-proof. Is that true?

  3. LynnH Says:

    No dye is not fade proof… or that is, almost no dye is. That’s why textiles in museums are kept in almost-dark display areas.

    Kool-Aid, especially the warm tones like orange and red, will fade in the sun. Leaving it in the car is not a good idea, but for someone like me who isn’t outdoors in wool much, it won’t be a real factor.

    When people dye sockyarn with Kool-Aid, it seems no problem to me. The socks are not meant to last forever, and how much sun will a wool sock realistically see?

    I have found that food-grade dye sticks well to the wool, and it does not wash out if properly exhausted and kept hot for a while after exhausting. However, some clothing detergents have “brighteners” which are mild bleach-type chemicals, and they could realistically be expected to fade some colors in the wash. Probably washing with a woolwash such as Eucalan, or hair shampoo (made to wash hair, which is what wool is) would avoid that issue.

    So if I were making something I hoped to be a family heirloom, I would not only use commercial dyes but I would do very specific research. Even many commercial dyes will fade in light/sun and some are not washfast. For yarn intended to be made into a garment (which by the nature of the item will wear out at some point from use), I don’t personally worry.

    However, if you were knitting a coat to be worn outdoors at sporting events, perhaps commercial dyes would be more appropriate. And we will hope/assume that commercially-dyed yarns will be resistant to sun fading, but honestly, I don’t think that can be guaranteed, either.

    How is that for straddling the fence?

  4. Heidi Says:

    Howdy LynnH, I am wondering if it is possible to dye wool with a hair dye and if so should I dye it before I spin it.