Dyeing wool and other protein fibres is easy
Have you shied away from dyeing your own wool or silk because you thought the process was difficult, complicated and required a chemist’s brain? Have courage. Dyeing protein fibers is easy if you follow a few simple principles.
Wool is a protein fiber
Wool is a protein fiber, like silk, mohair, angora. In fact all animal fibers are made up of protein, even human hair. Protein is an acid and so you need an acid dye to make the colour stick permanently. Acid dyes use acids as a dye assist. Weak acid dyes, like Ashford dyes, use weak acids like vinegar and citric acid to assist the dye to bond permanently with protein fibers.
Don’t use t-shirt dyes with protein fibers
Plant fibres like cotton and linen, dye best with base dyes, referred to as fiber reactive dyes, and usually use washing soda (soda ash), lye, or ammonia as the dye assist. These are the dyes that are used to tie-dye t-shirts. Using strong bases, these dyes will damage protein fibres, making them harsh, brittle or even dissolving them completely. Never use them on wool and rarely on silk, even though they are recommended for silk. They can destroy the lustre and hand.
Take a few safety precautions
All chemical dyes, whether acid dyes or silk dyes contain heavy metals that aid in the permanence of the dye. Always, always, always wear protective gear — dust mask, gloves, and eye protection — when handling dye powders. Chemical dye powders are carcinogenic in powder form. Fiber reactive dyes remain dangerous even after they are mixed with water, however, weak acid dyes can be safely used once they are mixed with water. Ashford weak acid dyes are certified benign to the environment once they are set on the fiber.
Mixing a dye solution:
All jars, pots, spoons, and stirring rods used in dyeing should be dedicated to dyeing alone and never used again for food. Usually a 1% solution will give you a medium shade of colour. To mix a 1% solution take 10 grams of dye powder and mix it in 1 litre of water in a glass jar. This will dye 1 kg. of wool or other protein fibers.
If you want a deeper shade, you can increase the dye powder or decrease the amount of water or fiber. So a 2% depth of shade can be had by mixing 10 grams of dye powder in 500 ml of water. Or using a 1% solution and only dyeing 500 grams of wool.
For really rich blacks you’ll want to mix a 4 to 6% solution or 60 grams of dye powder to 1 litre of water to dye 1 kg. A lesser solution on a black dye will give you shades of grey and charcoal.
If you don’t get the colour you were looking for the first time, you can over dye the fiber for a deeper, richer shade.
Getting the colour even
So far, I’ve been talking about how to achieve a single colour on wool or other protein fibers. You’ll want to put your fiber in a cold pot of water. Allow lots of room for the fiber to move around. Let the fiber become thoroughly wet. Then add the required amount of premixed dye to get the depth of shade you are looking for. Stir gently so you don’t felt the wool, and allow the dye to mix thoroughly with the water in the pot. Place on heat source. I use my wood stove for most dyeing. Don’t dye in your kitchen near food. In the summer I dye outside on a propane burner. If getting a very even colour is important to you, the addition of 1 tsp. of glauber’s salt or kosher salt will suspend the dye particles a bit in the solution and help you achieve evenness.
At this point add your acid. Mostly these kinds of dyes call for 1/4 cup of vinegar to assist the process. I generally use citric acid because its cheaper. Citric acid is sold in the grocery store where the wine making supplies are displayed. You can also find it in many health food stores and farm stores. Its used for cleaning dairy equipment and its used for coagulating mozzarella cheese.
The optimal temperature for dyeing protein fibers
You’ll want to bring your pot to 185F or about 90C. That’s the point where fine bubbles begin to form and the pot just starts to steam. Don’t allow the pot to boil if you are dyeing silk, as the high heat will damage the lustre of the silk. If you have the acid level just right at this point the dye bath will turn clear and all your dye will be on your fiber. If you get to 190C and there is still dye in the pot, add another 1/4 cup of vinegar or tsp. of citric acid. Wait 10 minutes and you should see the water clear of colour. If not continue to add more acid in this manner until the dye solution is clear.
Cool the pot and rinse
Remove from the heat. Allow the fiber to cool in the dye solution until it is easy to handle. Squeeze it gently. Rinse it in water that is the same temperature as the dye solution you just removed it from . Add a bit of liquid detergent to the washing water and wash out any excess dye. If you followed the directions correctly the washing water will remain clear. Rinse well, without agitating or squeezing too energetically.
Spin it out in your washer’s spin cycle or a salad spinner. Don’t let any water spray directly on it or it may felt the wool.
Dry it and condition the roving
Hang to dry by the fire. If you are dyeing roving, once its dry, you will need to condition the roving by snapping the roving between your hands, and working up the length of the roving to open every inch. This slides the individual fibres within the roving and makes it easier to use it for felting or spinning afterwards. It also makes the colours sing, because it lines up the fibres that may have gotten disarrayed during the dye process. When the fibres are lined up they reflect more light.
Now you know the secret of how to dye wool, silk, and other protein fibres to achieve incredibly rich depths of shade. Want to get a specific shade by colour mixing? That’s another lesson.
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