I have been a professional fiber artist for over 20 years and of all the many processes involved in fiber, dyeing is the most magical. I used to have a large studio with a dedicated dye kitchen, because I designed, sewed and dyed clothing, and then when I went into felted garments, I started dyeing wool too.
I’ve lost my studio, in the end due to climate change and flooding, so I am in a rented space sharing a tiny bathroom with my dye kitchen . But dyeing must continue! If only in a limited form.
This is the smallest, simplest setup to professionally dye animal fibers that I’ve found. Plant fibers require different dyes and processes that are not as easy in a small residential bathroom.
Wool is also magical in all its forms, and it’s an ideal fiber to dye because it takes color up beautifully, it’s light and quick drying and the dye bath “exhausts” or transfers all the dye to the fiber. This means much less waste dye that can stain your fixtures when washing up afterwrds
If you are a spinner, I recommend dyeing your own fiber. “Dyed in the wool” means consistency all the way through, and you will get unique yarn that is all your own. Wool commercial yarns are equally wonderful and unique and I’ve got instructions on how to prep both below.
Dyeing Process prep
This system requires very little room or time and with a little care, will not stain your counter, sink or bathtub and will give you great results - beautiful even saturated color. It is also safe, though keeping kids and pets away is recommended during a dyeing day, so a lockable door is handy.
My process uses acid dyes, available from Dharma Trading, Pro Chem or Earth Guild. You can get Jacquard acid dyes at JoAnn’s or similar chain store, but you will get less concentrated colors. However, they are fine to practice with and see if they work for you. I’d advise you to avoid Rit, which is not “fast” in light or wash.
Acid dyes usually come as a powder that has to be mixed with water to use. This is the only part of the process that has safety precautions, so please tune in to the next installment on what you need to do to mix liquid dyes. Mixed dyes will keep in a refrigerator for several months if necessary, with safety precautions taken to keep the containers separate from food.
- A slow cooker/crockpot with a thermometer probe
The slow cooker is the most important part of the setup. A cooker with a timer and probe setting will mean you can walk away from it and do other things without having to monitor the temperature.
I have a 10 year old Hamilton Beach model I bought for $60 and it seems they hold a patent on the probe. An Amazon link is below for a model they have in stock. It is more now, about $80, but if you don’t want to spring for it, you’ll need the optional cooking thermometer.
Another model slow cooker will work if it can hit and hold a temperature of 180-200ºF for about an hour. You can repurpose a used crockpot, but you should not ever use that porcelain insert or lid ( or the thermometer) for food again.
To dye 4 ounces of fiber, the cooker will need to hold about 4000 ml comfortably, or about 1 gallon. A 6 quart cooker works fine.
Hamilton Beach 6QT Set & Forget Programmable Slow Cooker (33969A)
(I don’t get anything for recommending this)
- Submersible cooking thermometer ( optional. See slow cooker info above) Digital thermometers are perfect here, but if you are stuck with an old fashioned one, be sure the range of 100-200º can be clearly read, preferably in 20º increments.
- Crockpot bags are similar to oven bags, and either can be used for dyeing. Be sure they are big enough to fit in the cooker.
- 2-4 Plastic containers with screw-on lids and 2-3 measuring cups in different sizes able to hold 100-500ml, or about 1/4 cup - 2 cups. Measurements on the side are essential.
- A pitcher with measurements on the side, holding 1000ml or about a quart
- 4-6 Plastic spoons for mixing and stirring dyes
- A set of measuring spoons (optional if using dye additives below)
- A spoon with a long handle for stirring and lifting fiber in the pot
- A plastic storage bin lid, preferably with a flat top, to use upside down, giving you a ledge to keep drips corralled. Be sure it fits on your counter with your cooker and a little newspaper covered workspace inside the lid.
- A plastic colander and a plastic washtub to wash and drain the dyed fiber.
- A deep plastic container that fits in your sink to hold utensils and containers that are covered in dye or additives for later washing, AND a large plastic funnel to keep waste dye water out of your sink or tub. I just use an empty gallon jug (white vinegar is usually in such a sturdy container) to cut in half and the top makes a perfect funnel while the bottom is my waste jug.
None of the above utensils or equipment should be used with food after it has been used for dyeing.
Materials and additives
- Up to 4 ounces of fiber roving, or yarn made of wool, silk or other animal fibers. Fabric will be too bulky for this scale of setup.
- About 250ml of liquid dye, per 4 ounces of fiber, about a cup, for a medium dark color result
- 1 tsp Sodium acetate (optional additive to hold acidity)
- 1 Tbs Glaubers salt (optional additive to ensure take-up)
- 50-75ml white vinegar, about 1/4 cup
- 4000 ml water
Mixing colors is it’s own long subject, but if you break the 250ml of dye into 100 of one color and 150 of another, you can get complex color mixes. Use primary colors to avoid browns. Use less dye to get lighter colors. Surprisingly beautiful results can happen.
Here is a quick tour of my tiny bathroom dye kitchen.
Preparing your yarn for dyeing
For best results, you should be dyeing white yarn or fiber. Yarn should be set up as a skein, with 4 figure-eight ties to keep it organized while dyeing. Be sure it's loose, as shown in the closeup, so the strands aren't packed together.
Here is a video about preparing fleece for dyeing
The next Dyeing in a Tiny Bathroom post will cover mixing powder into liquid dyes. I've added a new post for those not yet ready to dive into serious dyeing - Koolaid dyeing! Click here for the easiest dyeing you can do at home.
(h/t @Midnightjaz )
I have a wholesale account for PFD (prepared for dyeing) yarn, with Henry's Attic, and they have an amazing array of choices in all the fibers.
But most of you will never need to buy in bulk, so I have GREAT news for you - Dharma Trading is carrying Henry's Attic yarns now on their website, no need to get a wholesale account. DT is also the best source for dyes and additives. If my dye process doesn't work for you, they have a good knowledgebase of instructions for many fiber techniques.
My favorite HA wool yarns to dye are their Superwash Merino yarns- machine washable, like Smartwool - like Kona or Zohar. Great color take-up and wonderful yarns!
And, if a rabbit hole into tie dyeing appeals, Dharma Trading is the tie-dye guru.