close-up of marigold flower with field of marigolds blurred in background
[ Natural Dyeing ]

Making A Dye Bath & Dyeing Yarn: How To Dye With Natural Dyes (Part 2)

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Today we will learn how to make an easy dye bath and how to use that bath to create a beautifully, naturally colored hank of yarn.

If you missed last week’s post, please be sure to read it. You will learn how to properly prepare your yarn for its dyebath. They are very important steps that you don’t want to skip!

When choosing nature to dye with, I love beginning with marigolds. Marigolds are easy to grow and are a great veggie garden companion. And, of course, they also make a great natural dye. The only downside of marigolds is that it isn’t as lightfast and washfast as, say, madder root. What this means is that your beautiful yellow yarn might fade a notch or two with time. In general, the stronger your dyebath, the better the staying power it will have. This does not discourage me from using marigolds in the least. I love watching how the color of plant dyes develops over time. I think they become even more beautiful!

Now that we’ve chosen a flower, how do you pull the color from it? While you can certainly pull the marigold heads straight from the plant and plop them into a pot with water to extract the dye, I’m going to share with you my favorite way to capture that color from your flowers.

Because I try to keep my marigolds available for use all year long, I dry them in order to preserve them. Then I remove the petals from any stems or parts of the flower that have molded. This can be a tedious process if I’m in a hurry, but if I’m not, it’s quite meditative. The reason I do this is that I need to be able to make a consistent dye for Henlia Handmade’s colorways. By using just the petals, I can weigh exactly how much I need to make the correct strength dye based on my developed recipes. You, however, can go ahead and use the whole head if you don’t care about recreating your finished product.

Next, we put the marigolds into a pot with some water.

You’ll need enough water to fully cover the marigolds plus extra to allow for evaporation. For a 100-gram skein, I’d recommend using a couple of handfuls of marigold heads if you’d like your finished yarn to be a moderate to deep yellow color, but you’ll need to experiment with that. Because I use only the petals and not the entire head, I’m just giving you a suggestion to start from.

The petals get a lovely hour-long bath while the kitchen fills with wonderful earthy smells.

Next, bring the water to just under boiling. Keep it right at about that boiling point for an hour to fully extract the beautiful color from the petals. Generally, you want to keep the extraction water under boiling, but I often hit boiling point and it still works fine with marigolds. There are times when it’s critical to keep a low temperature such as when extracting madder root, but boiling marigolds has worked fine in my experience. 

After an hour, it’s best practice to let the water cool in the pot, but, let’s be honest, I usually I get too excited and rush this process. Allowing the dye bath to fully cool may extract a bit more color from the flowers, but I’ve found the color works perfectly well even when I don’t let it cool slowly. There’s just so much waiting when you’re dyeing yarn!

overhead view of marigold petals floating in water in a silver pot

Next, we need to strain the flowers from our new dye bath.

DON’T skip this step. Believe me, you don’t want to have to pick out all those petals from your finished skein of yarn! 

So straining is a two-step process. First, I use an old cloth to strain out the big petals. Then I pour it through a filter to catch the clumpy, gooey bits that made it through the first pour. If you are the super patient type, you could try using several layers of coffee filters and VERY, and I mean, VERY, slowly pour the dye over them. Otherwise, use whatever finely woven cloths you have (just be prepared for some staining). You want to remove as many of the fine particles during this process as you can. The better you filter your dye, the easier it will be to rinse your finished skein clean.

And just like that, we have dye ready to be used- once it cools down.

For one skein of yarn, you’ll need enough water plus the dye solution to fully cover your skein once submerged. I use a general rule of thumb, use 4 cups of water per 100 grams of yarn. Pour the water and dye bath into your pot and then add your yarn. 

As we did with the mordant last week, slowly raise the water temperature to 180 degrees F. So here’s where it gets super interesting! Understanding that the color will drop a shade or two after it’s rinsed and dry, you get to decide when to pull your yarn out depending on the depth of color you’d like to achieve. For consistency’s sake, in my business, I almost always hold the yarn at temperature for 1 hour. Through experience, I’ve found that this amount of time works very well for the colors I create and always reassures me that the dye has had long enough to really adhere for the best-staying power for my customers.

close-up of yellow yarn floating in dye bath looking a bit like spaghetti noodles

After an hour, you can let your yarn slowly cool in its pot.

 Or, you can do what I oftentimes do and very carefully pull it out with a spatula and gently place it into a clean pot (or plastic shoebox) to cool. 

Once it’s at least cool enough the handle with your hands, rinse out the excess dye particles using water temperature that is about the same as the yarn. You really don’t want to cool your yarn too quickly. It would be a shame to get all the way to this point only to turn it into a felted mess right at the end! Keep rinsing until no more dye particles squeeze out.

At this point, I feel it’s important to mention having proper expectations from the rinse step. Because natural dyes are actual particles of flowers, bark, and/or insects, you might never have a completely clear rinse. This is very different from dyeing with acid dyes. My understanding is that acid dyes should rinse completely from yarn. Natural dyes might not do that. As long as you’re not seeing dye on your gloves while rinsing, and you’re only seeing small amounts of dye washing out, you’re probably safe to call this step complete. This might take a bit of practice, but don’t forget that you can always rinse your yarn later if you notice there are still too many leftover particles in your yarn.

And finally, we’re super close now to being able to actually use our special yarn! You’ll need to gently squeeze out the excess water and find a place for it to hang dry. Personally, I love letting my yarn dry outside whenever the weather allows for it. If you choose to do this too, just be sure it stays in a shaded place. We shouldn’t let any yarn dry in direct sun because, as we all know, the UV rays of sunshine, while might feel wonderful on our skin, also have a very damaging effect. 

two skeins of worsted weight yellow yarn in front of woven basket with two knitting needles peeking in on the right side of frame

Next week, we will talk about how to wind our yarn so that it’s ready to use!

If you are enjoying this series and would like help with your natural dyeing journey, I’d LOVE to offer you support through a more personal experience. I’m opening an affordable, exclusive membership to peek behind the scenes of Henlia Handmade. I’ll help you with all of your natural dyeing, yarn, and knitting questions. Please click here to sign up to be the first to hear when this brand-new community opens for membership. 

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Mindy Kingery

When I'm not dyeing, designing or dreaming of yarn, you can find me painting, digging in my garden, hiking with my family or working on one of my many, many WIPs.

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