(With apologies to the Misfits.)
After 12+ years in fibre arts–dabbling (and serious study) in spinning, knitting, weaving, crocheting, and more–I’ve never really gotten into dyeing. Always one to ruin a good time with an alarming medical anecdote, I’ve stuck to pursuits that don’t involve potentially inhaling toxic particulates and turning my kitchen into the equivalent of an EPA Superfund site. That’s a bit of an unfair exaggeration, of course, as dyeing fiber can be done pretty safely at home with a few precautions, but nevertheless I’ve done more reading and writing about dyeing than actually doing it for myself (childhood/adolescent experiments with tie-dye notwithstanding, of course).
Then my friends suggested putting their stash of Kool-Aid, Rit, and vegetable dyes to good use, and somehow we all ended up in Shireen’s kitchen, wearing dust masks and gloves, ruining her cooking implements for good and having a great time in the process.
(Nitrile gloves? Check. Labelled dye mixtures? Check. Old pyjamas? Check.)
Dyeing is basically the act of taking dye molecules and convincing them to form bonds with willing molecules on the fiber itself, usually with the help of water and heat. There are dyes designed to work on wool and other protein fibers, dyes that work best on cotton and other cellulose fibers, and dyes that will accomplish the difficult task of adding colour to synthetic materials (note: don’t try this last category at home, unless you live in a well-appointed organic chemistry lab).
We started off using Kool-Aid, which contains acid dyes in the form of food colouring. These will dye wool, with somewhat unpredictable results due to the mixture of colours in each flavour. It’s a fairly easy and reasonably safe way to try out dyeing, and we each dyed a skein in Kool-Aid before trying out Rit.
Rit is an “all-purpose” dye, meaning it’s a mix of chemicals that will dye either wool, or cellulose. (Exactly what those chemicals are is not disclosed by the manufacturer, which is a little troubling.) It’s a bit wasteful if you’re dyeing a single fiber–in our case, we were only working with wool, so the cellulose-dyeing component happily washed away in the final rinse(s). We got some nice results, but I think we’ll go for regular acid dyes next time (and there will be a next time).
My absolute favourite dye turned out to be the vegetable dyes. We used a kit from Blue Castle Fiber Arts, which contains several dye blends, an herbal mordant (a substance needed to facilitate the bonding of dye molecules to fiber, usually a metal salt but here a plant extract), and instructions to walk you through the somewhat tricky process. I wrote about indigo and other vegetable dyes for Interweave a few years ago and have since been fascinated by the process, but I was surprised with how much I loved the results. It’s more difficult, more time-consuming, and less predictable than using synthetic dyes, but the finished results show a depth of colour that you just can’t get with other dye methods.
(From left to right: Rit, indigo, and madder/soapnut.)
I’m eager to try this again, especially with more of the vegetable dyes. I may try a low-toxicity metal mordant (alum) next time to see how it compares to the plant-based mordant. I’ll want to give acid dyes a go as well. And I’m curious to see how the colours hold up to light and repeated washings–I have high-ish hopes for the vegetable dyes, not so much for the Rit. That chocolate-coloured skein on the right is mine, and it’s destined to be a shawl/wrap–more posts to come as that takes shape.