Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece: Custom-Color Your Favorite Fibers with Dip-Dyeing, Hand-Painting, Tie-Dyeing, and Other Creative Techniques

Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece: Custom-Color Your Favorite Fibers with Dip-Dyeing, Hand-Painting, Tie-Dyeing, and Other Creative Techniques

by Gail Callahan


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Discover the colorful joys of hand dyeing your own yarn and fleece. It’s easy, fun, and can be done right in your own kitchen! Self-taught dyer Gail Callahan shows you a variety of simple techniques to turn plain, outdated, or leftover yarn into vibrant “new” fibers using ovens, crockpots, frying pans, and other standard kitchen equipment. Detailed advice on color theory, self-striping, “grocery store” dyes, and handmade multicolor skeins make successful dyeing a cinch, even for complete beginners. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603424684
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 02/27/2010
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 452,827
Product dimensions: 7.60(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Gail Callahan discovered weaving in the 1990’s, leading her to a small business called The Kangaroo Weaver. A few years later, she began dyeing for personal use. The following year, Valley Yarns asked her to dye yarns exclusive to WEBS, America’s Yarn Store, in Northampton, Massachusetts. She now teaches dyeing at WEBS, and continues to dye for them as well as for her own business, The Kangaroo Dyer. She is the author of Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece

Read an Excerpt



What kept me away from dyeing for a long time were the intimidating setups I found in many books. They showed metric scales and measuring vessels and face masks with elephant trunks. Just as intimidating were terms like "DOS" ("depth of shade," meaning how dark the color is) and WOG ("weight of goods" you are dyeing), as well as a whole foreign language of mathematical calculations.

If you're planning to become a professional dyer, or need to have predictable results week after week, these details are necessary, but most knitters and other fiber enthusiasts can have satisfying results from their dyeing experiences with very little special equipment or technical expertise. You don't need a lot of space either. A portion of a kitchen countertop (protected by plastic bags or plastic wrap and newspaper), your kitchen sink, and some kind of heat source are quite adequate.

Setting Up Your Studio

You'll probably be working in your kitchen, so unless you want a polka-dotted decor, you'll need to organize it for dyeing.

• Cover the surfaces around your work area with plastic sheeting or other impervious material. Spread newspapers over the plastic and replace them when necessary. You don't need a large space: the size of two sheets of newspaper should be fine.

• Do not multitask by dyeing and cooking at the same time. It's a temptation, but it should never be done.

• Because you need water at various stages in the dye process, it's convenient to set up near a sink.

• To reduce the possibilities of burns or spills, try to have your working surface as close as possible to your heat source.

• If you get into extensive dyeing, purchase heating burners that automatically turn off once the pans are removed.

• Too much direct light can be a deterrent to your successful use of color. In my dye studio, there's a large window directly in front of my table. When the sun is high and pouring in on the table, I find that I can barely see the colors I'm applying. If you face this problem, a bamboo shade or other light-filtering device may help.

Safety First

When you set up your dyeing area, safety issues are an important consideration, but these are straightforward and based on common-sense attention to ordinary kitchen safety procedures. We use wash-fast acid dyes for dyeing the fibers in this book. Because the dyes I used for my first experiments were from the Cushing Dye Company, I still have a special fondness for them and used them to demonstrate some of the projects in this book. Cushing dyes are packaged in small quantities of about 2 teaspoons and come in a lovely range of colors, which — for the first-time dyer — is a real confidence builder. For many of the projects, however, I used PRO-Chem dyes. The dyes from both companies come in a powder form, are dissolved in water, and used as a liquid. They're safe to use with children once in the liquid form, but they are chemicals and should be handled with the same care with which you handle all your household chemicals.

Understanding and respecting your materials is just as important whether you're dyeing or simply cleaning or cooking. Common sense tells you that powdery ingredients can be accidentally inhaled, whether it's confectioners' sugar or dye powder, and neither should land in your lungs. Likewise, you need to take care when handling hot, steamy items, whether you're cooking or dyeing.

When you're first learning to dye, most precautions are simple; if you get into more extensive dyeing, you may want to purchase some additional safety supplies and equipment, which I've noted below. If you get into producing large quantities of dye, perhaps even as a business, greater precautions are needed, because prolonged exposure to the dye particles can create sensitivities to the dyes.

Protect Your Skin

Because dyes must be set with some form of heat, you'll be handling hot, steamy fibers and/or boiling water, so it's important to take the following precautions.

• Use potholders when handling pans and pots.

• Use tongs for picking up fiber, if you question whether or not it's cool enough to handle.

• If you get into extensive dyeing, use a rubber apron to protect your body.

Protect Your Lungs and Eyes

When you're working with dye powders, the fine dye particles can be released into the air and inhaled, so treat them with care.

• Wear vinyl gloves.

• Use a dust mask purchased from a hardware store.

• Handle dye powders in a draft-free room.

• Mix as much dye as you need for your project all at once. This minimizes your exposure to dye particles. If stored in a cool, dark place, dyestock keeps for months, so don't worry about mixing too much.

• Wipe up spills as soon as they occur. Once the dyestock dries, the particles can become airborne.

• Place newspapers on your working surface and spritz them with water to attract dye particles that may escape when you transfer the dye to the mixing container. Once you've made your dyestock, roll up the damp newspaper and discard it in your recycling bin.

• If you get into extensive dyeing, use a respirator mask, and protect your eyes from dust with goggles or safety glasses when mixing the dyestock.

Be Environmentally Responsible

Although the dyes recommended in this book are safe when used with the precautions described above, being a conscientious craftsperson means being aware of how the materials you use may impact the world around you.

• Reuse and recycle! Reusable containers are just as effective, are better for the environment, and cost less in the long run, and I like to use them, rather than wrapping yarns in plastic wrap, whenever possible. When you do use plastic, look for recycled containers in recycling bins, thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales. You'll find an excellent variety of glass recyclables there as well!

• Consider using solar energy for your heat sources. Living in New England does not always allow me to use a solar source, but whenever I can, I do. (See page 24 for information about solar dyeing.)

• Make sure that the water is clear before you finish dyeing and dispose of it. (This is known as "exhausting" the dye bath.) You can reuse water from a exhausted dyebath when you're dyeing colors close to each other on the color wheel. Or if the water is not clear and you like the color, carefully remove the fiber with tongs and save the unexhausted dyebath. You can get some great results by reusing the dyebath and mixing in a new dye color or colors.

The Acid Test

The quantity of dyes used by occasional home dyers rarely exceeds limits set for disposal into municipal or home septic systems, but you might want to take some measures to lower the acidity of the water that you dispose after the dye process. Since the most successful acid dyeing occurs at a pH of about 4, you add vinegar to your presoak and dyebath to achieve that level of acidity. The normal pH (acidity level) of water ranges from 6 to 8.5; neutral is 7. When the pH falls below 6 it indicates increased acidity, which may be corrosive to metal pipes. It's a good habit to return the water to the system at the same pH you received it. Check the pH of the exhausted bath before discarding the water, and use baking soda to neutralize it, if necessary. (Notice in the photo at the left that adding baking soda or salt to a dyebath can also make a difference in the color you achieve.)

These two yarns were dyed with the same dyestock, but I added baking soda to the dyebath for the skein on the right, and additional vinegar to the dyebath for the skein on the left.


For more predictable dye results, you may wish to test the pH of the water you use for both presoaks and dyebaths. Using pH strips saves time and expense, because you'll use less water, less vinegar, and less dye if you provide the proper level of acidity. Depending on the reading, add enough white vinegar to the water to achieve a pH of 4, the point at which most dyes are fully absorbed by the fiber. You can purchase easy-to-use test kits from dye and swimming-pool suppliers.

Using a pH test kit, dip a strip of the test paper in your water, then match the color to one of the blocks of color on the chart.

Organizing Your Supplies

You may already have much of what you need to begin dyeing. Supplies include containers for mixing and storing dyes, measuring tools, and applicators. Always remember that once you use any of the following for dyeing, it should never be used in the kitchen for food.

Containers. The first place to look for plastic or glass containers is in your recycling bin. Yogurt cups and other dairy containers, salsa containers, and mayonnaise jars are all useful for mixing dyes. For soaking fiber before dyeing, you need a good-sized container, such as a pail, dish-pan, or sheetrock bucket. A gallon jug with the top portion cut off is just perfect.

Measuring devices. For measuring the volume of liquids, you can use ordinary measuring cups and spoons. Again, be sure not to use them for cooking once you've used them for dyeing. If you're using yarns or fibers already labeled with weight and yardage information, you don't need a scale, but you may want to purchase one if you get into dyeing fleece or other unlabelled fibers.

A plastic spoon can serve well for measuring dye powder and liquid. (Any size will do, as long as you always use the same size.) When I make up my dye mixtures, I always use 1 teaspoon of dye powder to 1 cup of water, regardless of the dye color or company brand, because I like being consistent. Production dyers, who require repeatable dyelots and colors, often use scales to weigh their dye powders. To keep the process as simple as possible in this introduction to dyeing, however, I measure volume, rather than weight.

You can purchase spoons that measure minute amounts of dye powder in volumes of ¼, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, and 1/128 teaspoon. These spoons are called Grey spoons. I own a set but use them only for demonstration in dye workshops. I find them cumbersome, because it's fussy to remove the powder and clean them when changing colors. You can also get a set of spoons from rug-hooking supply companies that read a "dash," a "dip," and a "smidgen." I love the playfulness of these names! As a new dyer, you don't need a scientific laboratory for your experiments. In short, find a way of safely measuring your dye powder and be consistent in its use.


You can customize a recycled quart-sized container, such as a juice or spaghetti-sauce jar, to indicate 1-cup increments. I find this container a good size for storing dyestock, and by marking off the measurements, it's very easy to keep my results consistent.

Measure 1 cup (8 ounces) of water, then pour it into the quart jar. Using a permanent waterproof marker, draw a line at the water level of 1 cup. Add another cup and mark the 2-cup measure. Finally, add another cup and mark the 3-cup measure.

Mixing and stirring tools. Plastic spoons, wooden dowels, and a sturdy stick all work fine.

Dye applicators. All sorts of applicators are useful. Start with sponge "brushes," water bottles with squirt tops, and small cups with spouts. I'm always looking in hardware stores and thrift shops for additional possibilities, such as turkey basters, spray bottles, and syringes.

Other tools. You'll need permanent markers for identifying and dating containers of stored dye. As you dye more frequently, you may also find a candy thermometer and a scale for measuring dyes and fiber useful.


When you get into dyeing, you'll learn that there's no "right" way to combine colors. Developing what you like is completely subjective. One important piece of advice, however: Make certain you keep records of what you like. Believe me, you absolutely will not remember! It's been my sad experience that the colors I do not document are the very ones someone wants me to repeat, and I am stuck working very hard to reproduce them.

• Keep a pad of paper near where you dye, and jot down what worked and what didn't.

• Make tags out of strips of Tyvex (the tough, paperlike material often used for mailing envelopes). Punch a hole in one end, so you can attach it with string to samples of fleece or yarn you want to dye. Use a waterproof marking pen to record information such as fiber content, dye colors and proportions, and so on. This tag will endure the dyeing process without losing whatever you write on it. Keep notes on this same information in your notebook.

• You can also add a variety of other yarn samples to any dyebath to see what happens to the different fibers. Don't limit yourself only to light-colored fibers. These samples can be great learning tools and will help build your confidence to try other fibers in the future.

• Create a system of knots to document your dyes: tie a piece of string or scrap yarn onto your skein, assign each of your dyestocks a number, and then use this number code to make the correct number of knots in your string (for instance, 1 knot indicates your red/yellow dyestock, 2 knots indicates a red/blue dyestock, and so on); be sure to record your code in a notebook for future reference. The advantage of this system is that you don't have to worry about tags falling off and getting lost or just getting in the way; the disadvantage is that you have to be diligent about keeping good notes.

Heat Sources

No matter what dyeing technique you use, you'll need heat to set the dye. The heat can come from a number of sources. From here to the end of the chapter, you'll find options for heat-setting dye, along with the specifics on how to proceed with them. Many of these methods work with a variety of dye applications and techniques, and the step-by-step dye projects in chapter 5 refer back to these procedures. You will probably develop a preference for a particular heat-setting method (or methods) as you experiment with a variety of dye processes.

The most readily available heat source is your kitchen stovetop, which, if you follow the proper procedures, is safe to use for both dyeing and cooking — just not at the same time. Many of the other heat sources discussed below must be dedicated to dyeing only. These include microwave ovens and electric appliances such as frying pans, turkey cookers, and slow cookers.

Electric appliances are convenient heat sources for dyeing because you can set their temperature regulators at 200°F (95°C) to maintain an appropriate, even heat. I especially like using a slow cooker for unspun fibers, because it's important to handle these very gently so they don't felt.

If you haven't yet tried dyeing at all, I strongly suggest that you use food-coloring-based dyes for your first experiments (see page 48). Because they are food-safe, you can safely use any of your kitchen appliances as a heat source, and you can reuse the same pots and pans, measurers, and stirrers that you use for cooking.

Heat can be applied either by immersing fiber right into a dyebath that you keep just below simmer or by positioning the fiber so that it receives enough hot steam to set the dye. Some of the dye techniques illustrated in chapter 5 can be heat-set using either immersion or steam, and the heat source itself can vary as desired. For example, immersion works whether your dyebath is in a kettle on top of the stove, in a bowl that you place in a microwave oven, or in a slow cooker or electric frying pan. You can use steam by placing your wet fibers in a covered bowl in a microwave or on a rack in a covered pan on the stove or in the oven. These are only a few of the possibilities you may wish to explore.


Once you have put dyes, dyebath, or fibers that are in the process of being dyed into a container, you may not use the container afterward for food preparation. This includes electric appliances, pots, pans, bowls, lids, and so on. Used pans are therefore a good choice when you're a beginning dyer. Check out auctions, thrift shops, and tag sales for inexpensive, used home and professional kitchen equipment that you can dedicate to your dye projects.


Before heating your water, you need to be sure that the container is large enough for the fiber you're planning to dye to be completely covered with water and move freely in the pot. To check, place the dry fiber in the empty pot. There should be enough space to add water twice as deep as the fiber, with several inches to spare at the top of the pot. Remove the fiber and follow the steps below.


1. Set up the pot. Fill your pot two-thirds full of water and bring the water to a slow boil (just beyond "shivering"), then pour the prepared dyestock and 1 cup of white vinegar into the pot; stir well. (See also The Acid Test, page 14, for information about water and acidity levels.)


Excerpted from "Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Gail Callahan.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece: Custom-Color Your Favorite Fibers with Dip-Dyeing, Hand-Painting, Tie-Dyeing, and Other Creative Techniques 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Knitting_in_Alaska More than 1 year ago
When I moved to Alaska and could only take 12 Rubbermaid totes with me, this book was a must have for my now very limited knitting library. Gail has covered many aspects of dyeing in this very colorful guide with easy to understand terms without repeating herself to the point of redundancy like most other books I have picked up. There is a technique for everyone from children to anyone seasoned in this art. The pictures are beautiful, inspirational, and relay the idea behind the directions. This is a must have for anyone looking to expand their knowledge in fiber arts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in learning to dye yarn and fiber. The explanations and photographs are clear and easy to understand. I've tried several of Gail's methods and they all work. Her explanation of color theory is really helpful. I find this book very inspiring.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book may well contain all I will ever need to know to dye almost any fiber. The directions are concise and easy to understand.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Why dont you warn first If you dont sell out of US :( ( and I gave 1 star for you, not for book!