Fiber dyeing process photo collageIntroduction
I often buy fiber by the pound, and am in search of a method that will allow me to dye a pound or more consistently in a single day (e.g., a single day off work). Frustrated with the amount of waiting involved in crock pot or conventional oven dyeing, I wondered if the microwave method described here could speed up the process. After microwaving one batch and managing to burn the hell out of myself, I was convinced I just wasn’t coordinated enough to pull it off. Of course that’s not to say that the microwave method might not be the best for YOU–your mileage may vary, it just wasn’t best for me. Thus midstream I stepped back and punted to my original crock pot method.

Caveats: I am not, nor do I claim to be, an engineer, scientist, or mathematician. I am instead one of those dastardly creative types who embraces beauty in ugliness and considers mistakes to be successes. I also accept the fact that there ARE engineers, scientists, and mathematicians out there who crave precise, exacting results that come from maintaining tight control over the process. My cavalier attitude toward numbers may frustrate these folks. I encourage you to view letting go of careful production control as an opportunity to create something that you like even better than what you set out to make. It’s all in how you frame it. The worst that could happen is that you might end up with fiber you don’t like, and overdyeing is always an option.

Research and Select Your Method
Type of Dye
I can’t afford to invest in a second set of kitchen tools and implements solely for dyeing, so I use non-toxic, inexpensive food coloring to apply color to wool. That said, food dyes often produce colors that are rather obnoxious for my taste, and I want to dye fiber that I actually would like to knit with after it’s spun.

This article from Knitty describes a helpful exercise in mixing more subdued colors with food dyes, and explains a little bit of color theory (remember the color wheel from kindergarten?) Although the extra work involved in dyeing small samples for color correction takes time, if you’re worried about controlling your results, the time is well worth it (akin to knitting a gauge swatch). Dyeing the fiber before spinning means that loud colors will muddy slightly as spinning and plying occur. Deb Menz’s book Color in Spinning provides detailed explanations of how colors, fibers, air and space play off each other when colored fibers spin up into finished yarn. It has a lot of color illustrations and is fairly expensive, but my public library has a copy (I’ve checked it out numerous times.)

Covering Up
You’ll probably not want to wear your favorite shirt or apron while you’re working with food dyes, but you already knew that. Whether or not you want to wear gloves is your prerogative. I find that gloves affect my tiny-jar-scraping dexterity. Gel food dyes can be fiddly to get out of the container, and may plop all over you or your countertop. I personally don’t rock a manicure and don’t mind dye stains on my fingers or fingernails, but if you do, you’ll want to wear gloves, either the thicker housework kind or the thinner, medical latex kind. And by all means, if you’re the type to put down newspaper in your workspace, put down newspaper. This stuff will stain, and sneakily get underneath things where you will not notice it until it’s too late.

For this project, I used one pound of Sweet Grass Targhee combed wool top from Paradise Fibers, but this procedure will work with any kind of animal protein fiber. Note that if you use silk or a silk blend, don’t heat it to a temperature above 172º F, or you will risk losing the silk’s sheen.

Photograph of one-ounce lengths of woolI separated the wool into sixteen one-ounce portions, mostly because this leaves square numbers that make the math easier. The one-ounce lengths are also easiest (for me) to handle when they’re wet and fit easiest in the crock pot. The wool came already divided into two eight-ounce lengths. I put the two ends of each length together and divided in half, then divided each of those halves in half, and so forth, until there were sixteen approximately equal lengths.

A mordant is a chemical that helps the dye adhere to the fiber. My husband is sensitive to the smell of vinegar. To keep the peace in our house I use citric acid crystals, which have no smell, as a mordant. Photograph of bulb syringes, gel food color jars, and veterinary syringeOriginally I purchased citric acid in quantity from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company as a part of an unrelated cheesemaking adventure. A friend also told me recently that you can find it in the grocery section of Neomonde in Raleigh as well (hooray for not having to pay shipping).

Squeezy Things
Lots of tutorials recommend a turkey baster for the hand-painting part of the dyeing process. Perhaps it’s because I had a cheap one, but I found it to be a bit too drippy. The bulb syringes one uses to assist babies who have colds seem to me to have the most appropriate volume and force of liquid stream when squeezed, so I use them to apply the dye to the fiber. The smaller one in the photo at left is my favorite squeezy thing of the lot. The other two are great dribbly ones.

Veterinary Syringe
I saved a 1 mL syringe I got at the vet (this one was an extra, and was not used for any pets). They appear to have these in the baby area of the drugstore too. I use it to measure even amounts of gel food coloring when mixing dye solution. It is helpful (for consistency’s sake) to know exactly how much of a color you’ve added to a particular solution. Be careful trying to draw up obscenely old gel with the syringe. Otherwise it can get caught in the very tip. Use a toothpick and water to get the gunk out, but remember you’ll also probably get the stuff all over your hands while squidging it out. I speak from experience.

I have had this box of old canning jars forever (forgive how dusty they are, but I store them out in the shed). Make sure you have tight-fitting lids for each. I use a jar to mix and store the dye stock for each color, and then another to dilute the same color into for squeezy, paint-y purposes.Photograph of a box of twelve canning jars

For this project, I’m using food dye gels that came bundled in a set of four for a cake decorating class. The four colors are royal, buttercup, moss, and copper. In retrospect, I wish I had stuck to two or three colors, especially because royal tends to separate into purple and shocking pink. I accept this unexpected surprise, but it may make you gnash your teeth and tear your hair. If you find this unacceptable, you may want to dye one primary color and then overdye with another, i.e., blue, then yellow, to make green. This will take agonizingly long, but you’ll get exactly what you want.

Photograph of wool in a pre-soak bath Soak the Fiber
Before you begin applying color, you’ll need to soak your fiber so it’s good and wet. To a gallon of water I add about a teaspoon of human hair conditioner and 1/4 tsp of citric acid. If you’ve got a clotty hair conditioner, you can use a wire whisk to break it up. This is not only to wet the fiber, but to open it up and get it ready to accept the dye. I roll each one-ounce length of combed top into a tight snail shape, carefully tucking all the ends in.

Once the fiber gets wet, be extremely careful not to handle it too roughly or too much, or the fibers will abrade and begin to felt. However, it is ok to push the bundles assertively into the soaking water, provided that you don’t agitate them. Squeeze the air bubbles out gently. Remember, you want the soak to get the fibers good and wet. Soak for at least 30 minutes. I’ve soaked overnight before, but I would caution you not to go too much longer than that, especially in warm muggy weather in the Southern United States. I’ve had fiber start to mildew before, and it happened within hours. That was a sad, sad day, so I don’t prolong the soak.

Mix Color
While the fiber is soaking, you can use the syringe, gel, and canning jars to begin mixing your colors. Apply what you’ve learned from your research about colors to choose proportions of each color gel. E.g., you may want mostly yellow with a hint of green in it. Photograph of food color gel in a canning jarPut the appropriate amount of gel into a two-cup canning jar, and add half a cup of hot water. Put the lid on tight and shake it up good.Photograph of shaking gel and water in a canning jar Hold the jar up to the light to make sure you can’t see any gel left in the bottom. Refer to the chart below for measurements. Follow the row across based on how many ounces of fiber you want to dye in total. For example, if you want to dye four ounces of fiber evenly with each of four colors, you only need enough of each color to dye one ounce, or 25% of the total amount of fiber. Don’t be afraid to round up or down for practicality’s sake. The measurements for “drops of dye” refers to the grocery-store type liquid food colors.

Fiber Oz. Fiber Grams mL or gm Dye Drops Dye Tsp Citric Acid






























1 1/4





1 1/4





1 1/2





1 3/4















2 1/4





2 1/2





2 3/4





2 3/4






In this case, I measured and mixed enough of each of four colors to dye four ounces, or 1/4 pound of fiber. This solution is known as the dye stock solution. However, I’m only able to heat set four ounces at once (two ounces in each of two crock pots.) I mixed a separate jar for each color that contained 1/8 cup of the color solution, a scant 1/4 tsp citric acid crystals, and 1 cup of water. This portion of the original solution was the one that actually got painted on the fiber.

Paint the Fiber
There are many different methods for applying color to the fiber. The resources listed below describe many of them. For example, you can lay it out flat on plastic wrap and squirt or dribble dye over it for a random, Jackson Pollock sort of effect. If you add water later, however, the blops and drips will run together. Leave space in between bands of color for when the colors run (they will!) Place it in the crock pot and pour dye randomly over it.  I have found that I can fit two one-ounce bundles of fiber in each of my crock pots so long as the fiber is bundled in a snail shape.Photograph of damp fiber coils ready for dyeing

Remove a fiber bundle from the soak and gently squeeze (don’t wring, twist or rub) the water out. I usually untuck the ends, unroll the tight bundle, and re-roll it into a flat coil. For the two coils I tried in the microwave I used an 8×8 glass baking dish. You can also nestle them side by side in a crock pot. Photograph of painted fiber coils in the crock potOnce the fiber is coiled, fill the bulb syringe with the mordanted, diluted color and begin to squirt it into the fiber coil. If the coil is tight, you might try plunging the end of the bulb syringe into the coil until you feel the bottom of the crock, sort of injecting dye solution into the fiber. If you feel strongly that you don’t want any undyed spots on your fiber*, check carefully for coverage. I use an old pair of metal tongs to lift up the coil and peek underneath it.   If you’re dyeing four coils at once, you can count the number of syringe-fuls and make sure you apply an even number to each coil. Make sure that you apply all the diluted solution to the fiber, though, to make sure that the resulting solution is acidic enough that the dye will set. The painting is the fun creative part and there’s no right way to do it. Experiment to find the technique or effect that YOU like.Photograph of handpainting fiber with bulb syringe

Photograph of painted fiber coils ready for heat setting*Some dyers make certain that dye solution penetrates all surfaces of the fiber. If you’re not careful, you may end up with some white places where the dye did not penetrate. This is a personal preference of course, but if you don’t like undyed spots, take care to ensure that dye penetrates all the fiber, but at the same time make sure you don’t agitate the fiber too much.

Heat Set the Dye
At this stage of the game, sometimes I like to add a little bit more clear water as “insurance.” It will get in between the fibers and help the colors run by means of capillary action. While I don’t fill the crock pot up to the top by any means, I do try to add enough water so that the fiber is just submerged, but not floating. Put the lid on, and turn the crock pot on low and leave it alone for probably around 3-4 hours. You’ll know you’re done cooking when you can spoon a little bit of colorless water out of the dyebath. In my personal crock pot, this process has taken about 3 1/2 hours.

Cool the Fiber
When the water is clear, turn off the crock pot. At this point, you’ll need to let the fiber cool before handling it. Handling hot fiber means you’ll soon have felt! Heat and agitation are the enemies of soft, fluffy fiber. Now, you might want felt, but most likely not if you mean to spin the wool. This is the most agonizing part of the process because it takes around two hours for the fiber to cool completely. I try to hasten the cooling by taking the crocks out of the crock pots, removing the lids, and setting them on the stovetop. I turn the exhaust fan on over them to speed airflow around them. Here are some things that you can do while you wait for the fiber to cool: poke a cat in the butt. Read a book. Work on your spinning or knitting. Go for a walk.Photograph of lengths of handpainted combed top laid out for drying

Dry the Fiber
Squeeze the water out gently, but again, don’t handle the fiber too much. Spread the dyed wool out on a bathtowel. I normally do this on top of my guest bedroom bed, because the room has a ceiling fan that I can leave on overnight to help the fiber dry out. The drying process rarely takes longer than overnight, in my experience. Excuse the crappy quality of the photo– it was taken indoors in the dark of night.

Admire Your Work
When you’re unable to contain your anticipation any longer, have a look at your completed fiber. At this point, I’m always happily surprised to remember that wet fiber often looks darker than dry fiber. Some of the colors you saw in the dyebath may be completely different than how you thought they would come out. When the dyed fiber is dry, it’s ready to be spun.

Photograph of completed fiber bundlesClose up of painted fiber coils

Resource Bibliography

I’ve referred to the following resources over and over again as I’ve learned to handpaint wool:

How to Paint Roving and Yarn, from Joanna & Keith Gleason at Gleason’s Fine Woolies

Wilton’s icing gel dyeing tutorial, by Star Athena

More dyeing with food color, by Allena Jackson

Yarn dyeing tutorial, by Alice Schnebly

Color to dye for, by Julie Theaker

Takes the cake!… erm Icing! – Dyeing with Wilton’s Icing Colours, from Jobo Designs

Dyeing in a crock pot, from Robbyn at the Yarnpath

Crockpot fiber dyeing, from Sleepy Eyes Knitting






  1. =D Very nice! I especially like the part about poking kitties in the butt and a lack of vinegar. ;D And now I understand more about what you’re doing and why!

  2. Awesome, Jessie! Since this is far beyond my skill set, I’m more interested in the result than the process.

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