Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dyeing stuff

First, I absolutely must stress that I am not any kind of dyeing expert. I enjoy it and all, but I am frequently rather surprised by what comes out of my dye pot (or washing machine, back when I had a top-load one…I haven’t had the guts to try it in my front-load yet).

So, you know. Get second opinions, too.

When I’m trying to get even color (and I’m not using plain old RIT dye, which I’ve had excellent success with for things like overly faded jeans or t-shirts), I do something more like this:

Set the fabric (or yarn) into warm water to soak. You want it to be thoroughly soaked before it goes into the old vat – for bonus points, you can use about half a teaspoon of Synthrapol in the soak, which will help it be ‘wetter’ and take the dye more evenly.

Then I’ll put my dry dye powder (I’m currently in love with Jacquard, but there are lots of others out there) (each with its own directions, so your mileage may vary if you’re using something else and you should definitely seek out specific instructions for your specific dye-source) into a measuring cup (anywhere from 1/4 teaspoon to 2 teaspoons, depending on what I’m going after…and often a quarter of this and half of that and let’s see what happens if I put two of this one in there as well) and thoroughly mix it with a little warm water to make a paste…followed by about a cup of boiling water, which I stir some more and then leave alone for a while to ‘rest.’ (I really don’t know why it has to rest, because I am not an expert…that’s just what I was taught originally, so that’s how I do it.)

Now, the crock pot method is kind of sloppy, so if I want my color to be reasonably even I do this part on the stovetop. (You can imagine how happy this makes my husband. “What is that smell? Is this soup? Why does it smell so…sheepy…?”)

The pot cauldron (magic needs a cauldron, methinks) must be stainless steel or enamel – aluminum will change the color. It must also be big enough for your fabric / yarn to swim freely. Add water that is warm-but-not-hot, then the better-rested-than-you-that’s-for-sure dye, one to two tablespoons of salt, and another teaspoon of Synthrapol if you have it.

The salt helps the dye stick to the fabric, which is why it helps to ‘even’ the color. The more you use, the deeper the final color will be. The Synthrapol is basically a detergent…did anybody else learn in school that ‘soap makes water wetter’? That’s all it really does, help the solvent powers of water be…more so.

Stir up your cauldron (cackling wildly is optional, but rather fun). You want it to be thoroughly mixed before you move on.

Then, drain your yarn/fabric from the soaking bowl, gently squeeze out any excess water, and lower it into your cauldron. Carefully and gently stir the yarn, turning it over for a good five minutes (yes, really) (well, sure you can cheat and only do it a couple times, but if you want more even color you’ll just have to deal with the fact that five minutes of stirring a cauldron is a helluva lot longer than five minutes on Facebook).

Remember what we know about wool yarn: It doesn’t like sudden temperature changes, and it doesn’t like to be manhandled. SO! At this point, you’re going to start adding the other two ‘ingredients’ that determines how dark your color is going to be: Heat, and Time.

Slowly and gently start raising the temperature of your dye bath. You want it thoroughly steamy but not boiling, or about 185 degrees (if you’ve got a candy thermometer you don’t mind not using for candy anymore handy). When you get it there, stop, reduce your heat to ‘maintain’, and add about 1/2 cup of vinegar. DO NOT pour it straight on in. Either take the yarn all the way out, add the vinegar, stir, and then lower the yarn back in (messy!), or carefully move the yarn to one side well out of the way, pour the vinegar in where the yarn ain’t, stir carefully and then let the yarn get back into the pool (fraught with some peril, but a lot less drippy).

This vinegar, by the way, is what makes this an ‘acid’ dye. Isn’t that a kick? Somebody says “acid dye” and I’m immediately envisioning something like hydrochloric acid or sulfuric acid or some other really gnarly chemical thing…and then Teacher is all, “So, we’ll take our plain white distilled vinegar acid, and…”

Whaaaaaat? Vinegar? That’s the Big Scary Chemical?


Now, maintain your temperature and stir occasionally for, eh, thirty minutes. Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble…but not actually bubble because then you’re boiling your wool and you’ll end up with, well, boiled wool. Remember to be gentle with the stirring, lest you end up with a frizzy felt-batt rather than yarn. (Ask me how I know about that, ahem.) (Please see “not an expert” disclaimer, above.)

What’s going to happen is kind of amazing. You will start to notice that your dye bath water is turning clear again. Magic! If your cauldron is dark and you can’t tell, dip a little of the dye bath up with a white measuring spoon or cup to check.

When it is exhausted (e.g., clear), well, you’re done.

Turn off the heat, and go to bed. You’ll want to let it cool down slowly, at its own pace, probably overnight. More patience will lead to better results, so try to contain yourself and let this happen the way the laws of thermodynamics require.

When it’s cooled back down to room temperature, go ahead and remove the yarn from the cauldron. Rinse it in water as close to the same temperature as the dye pot as possible – remember how wool responds to temperature shock! {Hint: FRRRRIIIIIZZZZZZZ!}

Wash gently with your choice of detergent (there’s that Synthrapol again!) to remove any dye that is planning world domination through leaching onto your skin later, then rinse thoroughly.

Allow the skeins to air dry.

Now, Teacher taught me back in the day (that day being around 1989) that I’m supposed to dry them under tension – by, for example, using a fairly heavy fishing lead at the bottom. Then someone else told me heavens no!, you let them dry first and then stretch them under tension for a few hours.

And someone else said, “What nonsense! Just dry them, re-skein or wind them into balls and knit something!”

I take a kind of middle-of-road approach. I dry them most of the way au naturale, then add a fishing lead (big heavy ball o’lead on a string) to stretch them back into shape a bit in the final couple hours of drying.

As to what to do with the dye bath – pour it down the drain. If it has fully exhausted, it’s not going to harm anything. If it hasn’t exhausted (there’s still color in there, in other words), add some plain old baking soda to neutralize it, and then pour it down the drain.

That’s something I love about this method. There isn’t anything in there that would poison a curious child (sicken, maybe…but not kill) (unless you count parental rampages upon discovering that a little one has poured the resting dye all over the kitchen counter and then gotten up there and danced through it, or painted their sister’s hair with it, or…), and the end result doesn’t have to be kept in a big drum with a warning sticker on it for all eternity.

By the way, I can recommend the Dharma Trading Company for supplies. They ship quickly, do their best to balance environmental concerns with practical ones (recyclable and water soluble packing peanuts rather than trying to ship things without cushioning, etc.), and their prices are pretty decent. They have things like alum and soda ash (seen in many dyeing recipes), pH testing strips (for fancier people than me) and all kinds of color enhancers, dampeners, etc. etc. etc. Simple descriptions, no coy ‘you shouldn’t have to ask’ descriptions, and what seems like a pretty fun attitude toward the whole thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You know, you really are a bad influence. I narrowed my range of "craft-type activities" down to just knitting and beads, but here you are tempting me to try dyeing, and spinning, and oh dang I'd LOVE to learn to play the harp....sigh. So many temptations for one weak-willed woman to resist!