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Dyeing with natural dyes is not difficult, but it does require a bit of know-how as is the case any time you’re learning something for the first time.
Today I’m going to walk you through the steps of preparing your yarn (or fabric) for natural dyeing. Next week, we’ll learn how to make dye and how to use it.
Before we can begin the dyeing process, let’s discuss what we can and can’t dye. When using natural dyes, you need to select natural fibers. There are two types of natural fibers: protein (animal) and cellulose (plant). So fibers you can use include the wool of any animal: sheep, alpaca, rabbit, goat, etc. Silk is another great protein fiber that can be used. The most commonly dyed plant fibers include cotton, bamboo, and hemp. Synthetic yarns because they are made from plastic cannot (to my knowledge) be dyed with natural dyes. So this would include any yarn made of acrylic or other synthetic fibers.
Here at Henlia Handmade, I use 100% natural wool. There has been NO superwash treatment added. I wrote a blog post about it a while back, so if you’re interested in reading why I’m such a fan of natural farm yarn, you can read that here.
Currently, I exclusively source my yarn from Mountain Meadow Wool.
Besides spinning a wonderfully soft, springy yarn, what I love most about Mountain Meadow Wool is their commitment to paying ranchers fair prices to keep the U.S. sheep and wool industry producing. All of their wool is sourced in Wyoming from multi-generationally owned ranches. Their ranchers love their sheep and care for them as if their livelihoods depend on it–because they do!
In fact, Mountain Meadow Wool’s owner, Karen Hostetler, started the mill from scratch in an effort to help save her local ranches. She has since grown it into the largest full-service fiber mill in the western U.S. If you’re concerned about your creative pursuits’ impact on the environment, you’ll be happy to hear that they keep their wool processing as eco-friendly as possible. Two examples of this are only using biodegradable soap and only using vegetable-based spinning oil. It really feels great to support a company like this one!
Spoiler alert: I AM looking into expanding my yarn sourcing later this year, but you’ll need to stick around because I’m not ready yet to spill the beans about it! Better yet, sign up to receive all the latest Henlia Handmade news by clicking here and you’ll be the first to hear all about it when it comes to fruition.
Henlia Handmade’s yarn arrives to me from the mill as 2 to 2-1/2 pound cones.
If you want to dye recreationally, you can find individual hanks of yarn ready to dye. This means you can skip this next step and can move into the scour process below.
By running the yarn on these cones through my skeiner, it works out to be roughly ten skeins or hanks of yarn per cone. You might find yourself mesmerized as the yarn goes spinning around and around. It’s a lot of spinning! Early in 2022, my husband added some automation to the skeiner he built me so now it rotates and counts its rotations on its own. It’s fantastic! I just have to keep my eye on it to be sure no snags or tangles happen. I also still need to manually stop the rotating at the right time.
After the yarn winds into 100g skeins, I loosely tie the strands together in a couple of places to make sure you receive tangle-free yarn. If you have a pre-skeined hank to dye, be sure to replace the ties it came with. You want to be sure those knots are secure and won’t come apart when your yarn is bathing. For the curious, one 100 gram hank requires about 260 rotations on my skeiner when skeining fingering weight yarn. Worsted weight is a lot quicker to skein. It requires roughly 120 rotations.
Mountain Meadow sends me this beautifully spun yarn, but it takes oil for them to turn all those wool fibers into yarn. The oils and debris leftover from the sheep need to be cleaned before the mordant (hang on, we’ll get to that soon) and dye can properly adhere to the yarn.
You will need to scour your yarn too. Even if you bought it commercially and not from a farm, you likely won’t know what has or has not been done to prepare it. So, be safe and save yourself from potential heartache and just clean your yarn so you know you’ll have the best possible outcome.
So now we begin some of the less exciting parts of the natural dye process: the soaking, scouring (cleaning), and mordanting.
It takes about a 20 minute soak to fully saturate the yarn to prepare the fiber cuticles for scouring, i.e., its bubble bath!
Then, dump that water and with fresh water add a small amount of Synthrapol as a cleansing agent. The super important part of heating wool, particularly non-treated wool, is to make sure it’s done very slowly so it doesn’t end up a felted, ruined mess. So slowly raise the water temperature to around 160° F. Heating the wool to temperature takes about an hour or two depending on the temperature of the water you begin with as well as your ambient temperature. Leave your yarn to soak in its bubble bath for at least 30 minutes. That should be enough time to loosen the extra dirt and oils from the yarn.
Cooling the yarn slowly is just as important as heating it slowly. So, very gently lift the wool out of the pan and let it cool until you can safely rinse it in tap water at the same temperature as the yarn. Once rinsed, it needs to go back into a bath with a mordant.
The mordant is what helps the dye adhere to the wool fibers.
If a mordant is not applied first, the wool will either not take up the dye or the dye will quickly wash out. This is not the most glamorous step, but it is arguably the most important.
Now, there are a few natural dyes that don’t need a mordant such as pomegranate, walnut, and oak galls. However, using a mordant with these natural dyes will often (but not always) shift the color to a slightly different or deeper shade.
The mordant I recommend using is aluminum sulfate. It’s a metallic salt that’s been used since ancient times. Commonly used today for water treatment, it’s pretty benign, although I do recommend using a face mask to avoid inhaling particles just to be safe.
The scoured skeins then need their second bath in another batch of clean water with the “alum” added. Use 1 scant tablespoon of alum for every 100 grams of fiber. Again, slowly raise the water temperature over the course of about an hour. Once to temperature, leave it to soak for 1 hour to assure the mordant has sufficiently penetrated the fibers. Then allow it to slowly cool again. Finally, rinse the excess mordant at a similar temperature as the yarn. And now the wool is ready for dye. Yay!
Natural dyeing, you may have noticed, takes some time. Preparing the yarn, scouring, and mordanting takes about a day. But just like our knitting habit, much of the beauty comes from the slow process.
If you’ve found this interesting, or if you’re interested in trying your own natural dyeing but would like some extra help, I have something exciting coming very soon! I’m opening a private community, my own spin on a more education-focused Patreon. But it’s not Patreon because it will be community-driven. Stay tuned for more details!
And if you’re just here for the how-to-dye series, next week we’ll dive into making that color!
As always, I’m happy to answer your questions. Just drop them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them promptly.