Helpful tips on working with plant and animal fibres and dye baths

Dyeing animal fibres, plant fibres and yarn is a great way to add colour to your crafts and creations. By following these simple steps, you'll be able to properly dye your materials in a nice, even manner while making sure the colour takes properly.

Helpful tips on working with plant and animal fibres and dye baths

Dyeing animal fibres

  • Fibres derived from animals, particularly wool from sheep, tend to take dye more easily than either plant fibres or synthetics.
  • The colours you get with wool and other so-called protein fibres will be darker and brighter than any of the colours you can obtain with plant fibres.
  • Animal fibre must be treated carefully during the dyeing process.
  • "Cooking" time is shorter than for vegetable fibres.
  • Yarns should be simmered in the dye solution, not boiled, and handled as little as possible when wet.
  • Turn them over gently in the water to keep them from settling to the bottom of the pot and avoid wringing or twisting them.
  • Wool will shrink if it is subjected to abrupt temperature changes.
  • Always immerse wool in room-temperature water, then raise the temperature slowly, allowing at least half an hour to reach a simmer.
  • Be sure that dye and mordant (a substance to set the dye) baths are the same temperature if you move yarn from one to another.

Dyeing plant fibres

  • Plant fibres such as cotton and linen will not absorb colour easily, and they must be scoured and mordanted at higher temperatures for longer periods than animal fibres.
  • The fibres must then be boiled for as long as one to two hours in the dyebath.
  • Grasses can also be dyed but must be treated gently.
  • To minimize handling grasses, mordant and dye them in the same bath.

Dyeing yarn

  • Yarn is the easiest textile to dye since any slight unevenness of colour is unnoticeable.
  • To keep yarns from tangling during dyeing, loop them into skeins and then tie the skeins with string at various points.
  • Make the ties very loose so that dyes and mordants can reach the yarn.
  • To store yarn between steps, you may either wrap it wet in a towel and keep it for a day or two (or for as much as a week if refrigerated) or dry it and keep it indefinitely.
  • To dry it, gently squeeze out excess moisture, then hang the skeins.
  • Turn the yarn several times during the drying so that it will dry evenly.
  • Before immersing dry fibres in a mordant or dye, wet them in some clear water to promote deep, even penetration.
  • No two dyebaths made from natural dyes are ever quite the same.
  • Colours made from identical plants will vary according to when and where they were collected, the chemistry of the water in which they have been cooked, and even the weather conditions during the particular growing season of the plants.
  • While recipes may serve as good guidelines for beginners, the colours you create will be your own and, as you gradually gain experience, you will enjoy experimenting with many recipes for dyeing.
  • Cheap and readily available raw materials, such as beets, add a subtlety and character to the colour of natural fabrics that are often missing in factory-dyed wools or cottons.
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