Dyeing Yarn: My First Time

I have been dragging my feet on this blog post, all because I was disappointed with my photos. But considering I took a full day yarn dying workshop and tried my hand at dyeing yarn for the very first time, it seemed a shamed to not share the experience because of less-than-great photos. So here we go, my first time dyeing yarn!

I’m on the newsletter list for pretty much every yarn store in Toronto, and I’ve been waiting for one of them to offer a yarn dyeing workshop. It’s tough, not many shops have the set up to do this, as you need regular access to running water, and a high-powered hotplate or oven to set the dye. And space for the yarn to drip dry, too! But The Knit Cafe recently had a yarn dyeing workshop, and I was fast enough to snag a spot.

This was the set up:

It was a small workshop for only 4 students, and there really wouldn’t have been room for anyone else. We dyed on natural skeins of Cascade Eco, a bulky weight yarn that I love knitting with, but I suspect is actually pretty hard to dye. It’s a two-ply wool that has quite a lot of halo (meaning, it’s pretty fuzzy) so some dye techniques seems less defined than I would like, such as when we tried speckling. but we will get to that!

We tried our hand at mixing dyes, talked about the proportions of dye and water and the effects, and how to space colours. This was my first attempt, and I was trying for a rainbow effect:

The image on the left is before the dye was set. The method we used was to wrap the yarn in plastic wrap, and then put into heavy, freezer-style ziploc bags, and then put the bags in the pot of boiling water (on the hot plate) to set. The dye tends to move around a lot through this process, so my bright bands of yellow on the left became more of a bright yellowy green after the setting process. I learned to leave more space between colours the next time:

Here is an attempt at speckling, before being cooked:

I applied the barest specs of dye, or so I thought. The yarn was likely a bit too wet for the dye to stay put, so you can see how it is already getting a little more of a watercolour look, than crisp speckles.  It’s easier to talk about it when you can see them all at once.

The yarn is in sequence from left to right, the far left skein begin the skein I tried first and the far right the final skein. Doing a technique of pouring over dye is definitely a satisfying way to dye that feels like it turns out almost every time. The second from the left skein was my attempt at making something with a variegation of purples and blues, and while the blues don’t have much range, the purple does. Then I tried to do a speckled skein with black speckles, but it’s pretty much mostly dark grey with some rainbow bits in it. So then I tried to do some speckles with no black dye, and I think it looks rather pretty (3rd from the right).

These photos, blegh. It was too sunny when I took them, so they are bleached out in places. But if I try to edit the contrast down, they look grey and dark. Oh well. Can’t win ’em all. 

 Those were our ‘mini skein’ tests, which were about 30 grams each, and then we dyed our final two skeins, which were 60 grams each (the two skeins on the far right). I decided to do a lighter, unicorn colourway, thinking it would be something Lila would like – maybe I’ll make her a hat and some mittens in the winter? I’m really happy with how it turned out. Then I took my final run at trying for a speckled skein, and managed to use only the tiniest amount of black dye with the other colours. While I think it looks pretty good, I can safely say that trying for a speckled effect on a really sheepy bulky weight yarn is probably not going to yield those crisp results you see when the same techniques are done on superwash merino yarn.

I really enjoyed the workshop – I have dyes at at home and a box of undyed yarn, and have been meaning to try dyeing yarn for probably a couple of years now. But it all seemed so daunting, especially with the huge range of advice and the general insistence that you need separate pots for dyeing yarn than for cooking. I have a small kitchen and no storage, so that never seemed like an option for me. What I loved about the workshop was seeing the ziploc bag technique, which meant that there was never any dye in the pot, so the pot was otherwise perfectly fine.

Due to my finger injury, I haven’t had a chance to swatch up some of these little skeins and see how they look, but I’m pleased to report that my fracture has healed, and I’m back to knitting! Now to finish those sweaters….

21 comments

  1. Denise   •  

    Thank you for sharing your experience in such detail. I loved the pictures. You have inspired me to search for a dyeing workshop here in Seattle.

  2. Lisa   •  

    Thank you for sharing Julie, it’s always fun to read about other people’s experiences with the dye world. I think you skeins are pretty interesting, even with bad photos! Better than my first try years ago. Sometimes it just takes the right teacher or motivation to try something new, but when you decide to dye more I am sure they will be beautiful!

  3. Jeannie Gray   •  

    I’m so glad your finger has healed! I would love to take a dying class from a professional. I’ve watched just about every Youtube video and tested my skills (more like non-skills) a 1,000 times but… apparently, dying yarn is Not in my skill set! My hands on the other hand…… I constantly forget to put on gloves & have gone to work with gray hands more times than I can count.

  4. Alina   •  

    Oh, Julie, what a wonderful experience! I love how it turned out! Hope you will continue experimenting – you have a great eye for color!

  5. Renee Anne   •  

    Go to the thrift store and pick up a cheap veggie steamer (multiple trays are a bonus); much easier than the boiling water thing, especially when it’s hot because you can do it outside. Also, a shammy cloth is helpful to soak up extra dye/water while you’re dyeing. I’m no expert but these are things I learned in my class from Stitches West (yes, we had about 15 ladies in a conference room…with carpet….dyeing yarn with acid dyes).

  6. Kelly J. R.   •  

    Isn’t dyeing fun?? I just love it! I have an old roasting pan (stainless steel) that I lay across 2 burners. I bring the water to a sizzle (bubbles but not boiling) and lay my skeins right in the water. Then I add eye droppers of dye a little at a time. You can also fish the yarn out of the water and dip-dye different ends into the bath. I leave the skein in the pan until the water turns clear. I’ve had success getting speckled yarn this way. It’s fun to play around with trying different methods.

  7. Stefanie   •  

    What a fun workshop, Julie. If you ever get into dyeing yarn, I think minis inspired by your poems would be awesome!

  8. Elisabeth   •  

    What fun!! I love what you came up with, and each of those will be great to look back on to see how you improve over the years. I have only dyed with Kool-Aid, but you make this look easy. 🙂

  9. Sierra   •  

    Isn’t dyeing yarn so much fun! It becomes really addictive quickly, I’m glad the set up is at a friends house and not in my garage yet.

  10. miss agnes   •  

    Well done ! It looks like it was fun, even if you didn’t always get the results you expected. Unicorn is the first thing that came to mind when I saw these pretty colours. I guess it would have been easier on a finer yarn, Eco is quite bulky. It will be nice to see these as they are knit and how the colours work. Like you I have undyed yarn and dyes at home, even a big pot that I brpught back from Canada – maybe this summer, to practice some sort of science with my kids. I’m sure they would love it.

  11. Tanis   •  

    Trust me, even the experts get very unexpected results from time to time! It takes a lot of trial and error. I hope that you plan a few fun accessories around these skeins, maybe the smaller skeins as stripes in a hat or mitts… and definitely a nice rainbow set for Lila. I think that once you actually knit with your own hand dyed yarn you’ll have a whole appreciation for this experience.

  12. andi   •  

    How lovely that you are trying your hand at dyeing! Despite you thinking that the pics aren’t that great…I think they look wonderful.
    I hope your fracture continues to heal quickly so that you can swatch with these beauties.

  13. Kaitlin   •  

    Your first attempts look great! I think you were setting yourself up for disappointment by trying for a very precise effect like speckling during your first class 🙂 Just like knitting or any other craft, there is a learning curve, and you have to have some working knowledge of the basics before you branch out into the advanced stuff.

    If you’re interested in doing more dyeing at home, but want to stay away from toxic dyes in the kitchen, it might be worth looking into dyeing with koolaid and food coloring. I’ve done up to a sweater’s worth of yarn (in the microwave, no less) and been able to keep it relatively consistent. With a little research and planning, it’s not hard to get the effect you want.

    Happy dyeing! I hope you’ll share more pictures with us if you try again.

  14. Michele   •  

    Thanks for sharing your experience with your first time dying! It looks hard but it looks like you learned a lot. Your skeins look great! I am obsessed with speckled yarn these days – I would probably try that technique too!

  15. Katharina   •  

    I recently tried dyeing yarn with natural colors – it’s so much fun (but it takes so much time…). Unfortunately, I must have boiled the yarn too much/long, so the yarn lost some of tis softness. I guess, yarn dyeing is not a career option for me, haha. But I’m loving my skeins anyway (and still need to blog about them, too).
    Best wishes!

  16. Tien   •  

    Loved reading about your yarn dyeing experience! The results are so pretty! It’s definitely something that I would like to try (although acid dyes kind of scare me with all of their warnings. I might start out with kool-aid or natural dyes). Happy to hear that you can knit again:)

  17. Val   •  

    Oh I’m so glad you posted about this despite your disappointment with the photos (which are good!), your skeins look so fun! I took a dyeing workshop at Shelridge Farms in 2010 just before Buffy sold the farm. Haven’t had the courage to do much dyeing since, let alone attempt speckles – I love how yours turned out. And being a bulky yarn it would make such a cute and cozy hat!

  18. Tahnee   •  

    I would really love to try a yarn dying workshop! I don’t think there are any yarn stores near me offering something like this though, unfortunately. Your yarn looks amazing, can’t believe this is only a first attempt!

  19. Melissa   •  

    These look amazing for your first time at the dyepot, Julie! I love that you are experimenting . . . it’s how it all begins, or so I’m told. My guild mates have been a huge influence on my (limited) dyeing and I love them for their encouragement. Keep going!

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