Spinning Down Under

Using Food Grade Dyes on Wool and Other Protein Fibres

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All dyed with food dyes

with ingredients from your kitchen or supermarket.

From tops painted with food dyes to spindle spun,
beads added, then plyed on a wheel

Ever wanted to change the colour of your yarn/roving, and been put off by the cost of most dyes and the chemical content? There is an easy and cheap way to try your hand at dyeing using supermarket ingredients.

Queen makes a small pack of 4 tiny bottles of food dye for under 4 dollars. With that and some white vinegar (cheap seems to work just as well as expensive), hot water, dishwashing liquid and a bucket, you are all set to go.

Pre-soak your fibres or yarn in soapy water (dishwashing liquid works well) for at least 20 minutes, so that the dye takes up evenly. Prepare your bucket with hot water and a dollop of vinegar, probably half a litre to a bucket, and then add your dyes. If you add too much vinegar, your yarn or fibres will soak the colour up very quickly, and you won't get an even result. Too little, and you could be waiting for a long while. However there is plenty of margin for error, and much will depend on your dyes, the heat of the water, the size of the container etc.

A wooden spoon for stirring is handy. The dye packs have 4 colours: red, blue and yellow, and green. You can mix the dye well for an all over colour, or just let the dye float in the water for a rainbow effect.

This is where you will have to experiment a bit! I started using about 40 drops to about 250 grams of thickly spun homespun, and it definitely was not enough. I used half as much again, and was still left with soft pastel colours. However when dyeing another batch of 200 grams of much thinner homespun, in a mix with about 80 drops of colour I had lovely bright colours: the exact result I wanted! If you don’t like the colours, you can overdye, but beware! Too much over dyeing and you can end up with almost black, which can look great as a contrast, or a real muddy colour - yuck! The colours can also split. Mine still had flecks of the lighter colours in it which looked great, but may not be what you are looking for.

Add your fibre/yarn to the dye mixture and watch it soak up the colour, literally, as the water in the bucket becomes clear. Be careful not to agitate your fibres, or they will felt. 

Some dyers say that you need to simmer your fibres - while I have found that heat is the key, a hot sunny South Australian day is generally enough to set the dye. I must confess I now use an old microwave dedicated for that purpose, set up in a spare room. A 10 minute zap on medium/high seems to be all it needs. Your fibre/wool should have absorbed all the dye and the water in the bucket should be clear. You will get a colour residue if you have used too much dye and this can be used for another dye bath which will yield softer colours. You then rinse out the dyed item until the water runs clear - if it doesn't the dye hasn't set and will eventually rinse out completely. Hang skeins to dry out of the sun; the shower cubicle is really handy for this, and I use a sweater rack for fleece, which keeps my assistant happy (see photo below). The colours appear to last as long as other dyes and handle being washed.


This works well on protein fibres like pure lamb, alpaca, mohair, wool etc. and silk, and probably nylon ( though I haven't tried that yet), and produces lovely bright clear colours as well as subtle shades. I have heard it can also be used to dye Soy silk, which is also a protein fibre. It won't work on cotton, rayon or artificial fibres. It also overdyes other brands of dyes. You can space dye, rainbow dye, and do pretty much anything that can be done with other liquid chemical dyes; there is a wealth of info out there on the web. There is also a small recipe chart on the side of the dye pack to help get you started mixing colours.  A large half litre catering size bottle of food dye will set you back under $10.00, and lasts for ages and educational suppliers generally have large bottles too, in about 8 colourways, which makes mixing easier. The larger supermarkets often have a range of 50ml bottles in different colours, allowing you to experiment without breaking the bank.

There are also plenty of colour charts available on-line, though personal experience will count the most, particularly when estimating the depth of the colour.

As to whether there is less harm in using food dyes?  I'm not a scientist, but I would handle them with the same caution that I would handle commercial dyes (they are pretty much the same thing), and wouldn't use food containers as dye baths, nor would I use my kitchen oven or microwave, because we are talking about using pretty large quantities here. They may be non-toxic in small quantities, but consider the behavioural problems laid at their door; use your common sense here. And with that proviso, have fun and enjoy experimenting!




Are you sure this colour really suits?

Paula Burch's excellent site about dyeing:

Using Easter Egg dyes and Koolaid:

Search Knitty.com for dyeing and spinning articles:

(c) C Barlow 2006/2007

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