April 22, 2008

White spots dye tutorial

See, I haven't forgotten. I just put it off for a few days due to gorgeous weather. I did yardwork, built a compost bin, barbecued twice, and did a spot of very important video-watching and some crucial slacking. But now I'm back, and I'm going to show you how to dye wool so that it has both deeply saturated color areas and white areas.

Now, this isn't the only way to do it. The more usual way is to spread your dampened wool out on cling wrap and squirt or paint the dye onto it. You definitely have a lot more control over where your color goes, doing it that way. But it often ends up streaky or pale, and it tends to run or bleed into your pale areas a fair bit, so you get wide transitional margins. The method I'm about to show you is one I came up with to avoid that. It doesn't give you as intense and sharp a color divide as surface-dyeing (which I'll show you another time) but the effect is still pretty neat.

So! We begin! Here are the things you'll need:

You need fiber, of course; here I'm using 100g (about 3.5 oz) of a really sweet merino top I got from Paradise Fibers. (Go there. Love them. They are wonderful.) This technique will work with pretty much anything as long as it's longer than it is wide and you have the appropriate dye. Dish detergent acts as a wetting agent, helping the dye penetrate the fiber. Some people buy stuff called 'synthropol' for the purpose; I've never used it, so I can't venture an opinion. Vinegar is the acid you need for acid dyes; citric acid works as well, and probably smells nicer, but it doesn't come in gallon jugs. The dye you see there is Wilton's icing dye; it comes in a little tub, in gel form, and I dilute it in mason jars to make a dye stock that's easy to measure. The spouty thing there has measure marks on it, but that's not important. A teapot would work too, or you could use a turkey baster, or just pour out of a pan or something and take your chances. Finally, you need a baking pan just a bit too small for your amount of fiber. If it's big enough for your fiber to spread out in, this method won't work!

You will also need some way to warm up the pan. I'm using an electric griddle set to 'warm'. You could use a radiator, a hot plate, really anything that will hot up your fiber without boiling or frying it. You could just set it in a window, or outside on a warm day, if you didn't mind this process being a matter of days rather than hours.

Now, allow me to show you why your pan needs to be a little on the small side:

You begin by laying out your fiber so that it has sticky-uppy bits. Little loops or nubbins that poke up above the rest. You want to have to cram it a bit; that will keep the loops sticking up. You don't want them to have room to flop. Nor make them too tall, for that way also lies flopping.

As you'll find out at the end of the tutorial, I didn't cram it quite close enough together to withstand the fancy thing I tried. Too many loops gave it too much slack. This will work just fine for leaving white areas, though. I just tried to get cute, like I always do.

Put a drop of dish detergent in your spouty thing. I overdid it here because I was taking the picture. Really, one single drop is enough. Also a splash of vinegar.

Again, it doesn't take much. Just a dollop. Fill your spouty with water

and add your dye.

Now, I'm going to pause here to explain something which, if you're new to dyeing, might bite you on the ass. Some dyes are made up of multiple pigments, and these pigments bind at different rates, which means they travel different distances within whatever you're dyeing. When that process becomes visible, the dye is said to 'break'. Wilton's 'violet' is especially prone to doing this. If you allow it to travel at different rates through a fiber, you'll get purple, sure -- but you'll also get fuschia, cobalt, and turquoise.

I happen to think that looks awesome, so I'm inducing it to break on purpose. If you use this process with this kind of dye, it will break like whoa. Be warned.

Back to the doing-stuff. You will pour about half your dye in amongst your fiber.

I like to dribble a little on top of some of the low-lying roving, because it makes cool pink streaks with this particular dye. You could hold the fiber aside and pour right on the baking pan, though, if you don't want that happening.

Behold, I am No Wrist Guy, the Guy What Has No Wrists. But seriously, I'm just showing you how the dye is down in the bottom of the pan. The fiber likes to float on top, so you don't want to fill it too full at this stage. The fiber that is on the bottom will get dyed nice and dark. Remember, you're only pouring in half.

Cover the pan with cling wrap and put it on your warmer.

Let it warm up a bit. How long this takes is so variable, I couldn't begin to tell you what to set your timer for. In this pan, with this dye, on this warmer, I give this stage fifteen minutes. Less heat, more water, it'll take longer. Anyway, what you're doing here is giving the heavier dye molecules a chance to bond to that fiber, while water begins to carry the lighter ones up the wool by capillary action.

When you've let the dye bond a bit, take the half measure of dye that remains in your spouty and top it up with water. Lift up a corner of the cling wrap and pour half of this more dilute dye in there.

... Or the whole thing, if you want to be done. Or you could add another color, or... this is a place where your creativity's the only limit. For instance, I did one where I started with a deep purply red, then did a dose of pure red, and then a dose of orange, and got a really neat fiery gradient.

The important thing here is that you gradually keep raising the water level, and that each color you add is lighter than the last. Whether that's because you keep diluting it -- which is what I did here, because I wanted the purple to break -- or you mix up fresh colors, or just add water to carry the remainder of the dye higher, it'll work fine as long as you go lighter with each step. (Just one note -- reds bond fast, blues bond slow. So if you started with a red, there might not be enough dye left to make a noticeable color in the later stages if all you do is add water.)

However you decide to do it, you keep adding more liquid every so often, letting each dose bond with the wool for a bit before adding the next dose, until the level's as high as you want it, keeping in mind that it will creep up the wool just a bit. Not as much as you might think, even if steam makes it wet, but a little. (If you'd started with wet wool, it'd creep a lot more, and in fact I did do that once to see how it worked. There wasn't much undyed left, but there was a little, and the gradient was neat.)

Then you leave it for long enough to fully set the dye. Hands off. Interlude with dawg:

Okay, what's our pan o' fluff look like?

Here you can see that the purple has broken. The camera turned it bluer than it really is; what I've actually got there is deep violet shading up into an almost greenish cyan, with areas of bright pink where I dribbled the dye and let it run off.

And if I'd stopped here, I might think this process was foolproof. Fortunately, this fool decided to continue to dick with it. I say fortunately, because it allows me to show you how you can fuck it up, so you can avoid it. Or do it on purpose if you like the result. I'm actually kinda happy with what happened, but it wasn't what I meant to do.

See, I wanted to add yellow dye

to the white areas. Note the pink-and-blue splotch on the paper towel; that's the purple, split into its constituent parts. The yellow doesn't split. That's a good test, actually. If you put a drop of dye on a paper towel and it spreads into multiple colors, it's likely to break.

I squirted yellow on the puffs that had remained white (doesn't it look like some bizarre egg dish?) and returned it to the warmer...

... where I forgot about it for an hour. It does not take an hour for yellow to set. It sets very quickly. That's why my 'Orchid' worked. The one I posted the other day? Yeah, this here was Orchid for probably fifteen or twenty minutes before it did this:

What. The. Fuck.

It's kinda cool, actually. I mean, it looks like some heinous refrigerator mold experiment, doesn't it? What happened here was that the sticky-uppy puffs collapsed under the weight of the yellow dye, the yellow mixed with the cyan element of the purple dye that was still unbonded in the water, and turned green. Almost everything that was blue turned green. It is no longer Orchid.

I can see a few possible reasons why it did that. First, I made more puffs this time than last, which left less fiber packed flat in the bottom to support the puffs. This made them prone to collapse when they got wet. Second, I put more yellow on them than before; that made them heavier, and so, again, prone to collapse. Third, I left the pan on the warmer too long -- it was kinda simmering when I came back to it. The heat and steam probably made the wool limper and wetter; ploosh! So I reckon I can avoid this next time around.

I'm open to serendipity, though. Green could be good. I took it off the warmer and let it cool down to room temperature, gently rinsed it in lukewarm water, and spread it out to dry:

You know, that doesn't look half bad. It's certainly worth spinning up. If it turns out to be a mistake, I'll just use it to make socks for me. I don't mind wearing my mistakes if they're soft and fuzzy merino mistakes.

I'll take more pics when it's dry, we'll see what it looks like then. Unless she gets to it...


Kat said...

Actually, this is really helpful. Do you think it might be possibly to apply it to bare yarn, and not just unspun fiber? I can see how the yarn would be more pron to collapse, but if one was careful and secured it together properly... Just a thought.

Jesse said...

Sure, it ought to work just fine on yarn. You might try looping it over chopsticks propped on the rim or something to keep the loops up.

slob said...


Man, as soon as I can finally afford a wheel, I'm so going to start dyeing my own fibers and spinning my own thread. I am incredibly jealous of you right now.

If you do end up spinning this fiber out instead of putting it up on Etsy as is, I'd love to see some photos of how the yarn looks. I'm nosy about yarns. It's a problem I have to work out in therapy. (Meanwhile, my neglected stash, oh, how it grows.)

Jesse said...

You don't have to wait for a wheel; try a drop spindle! That's how I started. It's damn cheap. Try Etsy, I know I've seen some very nice learn-to-spin kits up there with handmade spindles and hand dyed fiber, WAY nicer than the clunky Ashford spindle and safety-orange wool I started out with.

Abby Franquemont has some helpful videos you might check out if you do get a spindle.

Oh, and yeah, I've decided to spin this stuff up. It's just too weird, I can't stand not knowing how it spins. I think I'll use it to practice Navajo plying so I can preserve the color changes!

Blu Roux said...

Now I really want to try playing around with some dyeing! I wish I had more time and fibre to experiment with stuff like this.

Nice job! I can't wait to see what it looks like spun up!

Baashie said...

What a great tutorial! Great job. I have to try that technique. I'm new to dying fiber and that technique has loads of possibilities. Thanks for posting it.

witty-zuchini said...

Thats really incredibly helpful and wonderfully timed, since I was just about to go looking for ways to get this effect. Thanks :)
I do have a (probably silly) question: could this technique work with koolade, or will I have to actually get out and buy myself some real dyes?

Jesse said...

I don't see any reason kool-aid wouldn't work. You don't have to add vinegar, either, because it's already got citric acid in it.

witty-zuchini said...

Hurrah! Less work for me :)
I swear, that stuff works better as a dye than as a drink...

fictional eyes said...

Who knew you had a knitting blog?!