Thursday, 28 March 2013

How to Dye Yarn with Natural Dyes

When I first looked into natural dyeing it seemed so complicated and I didn't think I'd ever be able to do it. Once I'd figured it all out, I realised it's actually quite simple, so I decided to write a tutorial for anyone else who thinks the whole thing looks very exciting but a bit too complicated. I've never written a tutorial before so please comment or send me a message on my tumblr if something doesn't make sense.

There are 4 main steps:
a) Scour wool
b) Mordant wool
c) Make dye
d) Dye wool

And there are a few more than 4 ingredients:
Yarn - must be 100% or a high percentage NATURAL fibres. This includes wool, bamboo, merino etc.
A few old saucepans - most tutorials suggest a big pot like an old pressure cooker, but it depends how much wool you want to dye at a time. If the wool fits comfortably then it's fine. I say old saucepans because it's best not to eat out of them once they've been used for dyeing (I assume because of unknown chemical reactions, or if using garden plants that might be poisonous...but I don't really know!)
Washing-up liquid
Dye material - anything that you think might have colour in it. I will post a list of things I've used after this tutorial.
A mordant - alum (aluminium potassium sulphate if you want to find it on ebay!), vinegar or salt.
A sieve - should probably also be one you won't use for cooking.
Cream of tartar if using alum

a) Scouring

Essentially this just means to wash wool. It's easy to do, simply soak the skeins of wool in warm soapy water for 2 hours or longer. I use washing-up liquid because it's quite tough so should get rid of the natural oils or any treatments on the wool. Rinse in cold water afterwards. It's best not to go from cold to hot temperatures too quickly because the wool will start to felt.

b) Mordanting

There are a few different options here, but alum is the safest (no fumes) and most consistently satisfying that I've used. Other options are salt (for berries or fruit-based dyes), vinegar (for vegetable and other plant dyes), or iron sulphate (I've never used it but apparently it 'saddens' colours).

To mordant with alum, use 8g of alum and 7g of cream of tartar per 100g of wool (weighed dry). My scales are awful so my amounts are probably horribly off and it still works, so don't stress about making the weights super exact. Dissolve these in boiling water, then add more water to fill the pot. The website I used suggested a 10 litre pot for 100g of yarn but I forgot about that so ended up dyeing at least 400-500g in my 10 litre pot. It doesn't seem to have made any difference as long as the wool is saturated with water. Add the wool then bring the water to boil and simmer for an hour. If you simmer for longer than this it will start to smell like wet dog, so not a good idea. Either leave to cool and rinse in cold water, or rinse in hot water straight away. Once again, you don't want sudden temperature changes or the wool will start to felt.

To mordant with vinegar use 1 part white vinegar to 4 parts water, put the wool in and simmer for an hour, then rinse. This really smells so make sure you ventilate the room!

To mordant with salt use 1 part salt to 16 parts water, put the wool in and simmer for an hour, then rinse.

The main difference between using salt/vinegar and using alum, is that alum will give deeper and more contrasting colours, whereas salt and vinegar both give pastel colours. I use alum for all of my dyes and if I want a pastel colour I just use a more diluted dye.

c) Making dye

The general rule is 100g of dyestuff to 100g of wool. When you're experimenting that's probably a good place to start, and then once you've got an idea of how it works you can just make it up. NOTE, do not use 100g of onion peel! The peel from just 1 or 2 onions can dye a whole 100g of wool, you don't need very much at all.
Chop up your dyestuff, or mush it up a bit if it's berries and cover with water (about twice the amount of water to dyestuff). Bring to the boil and simmer for up to an hour.

Once it's reached an hour it's unlikely more colour will come out. With stuff like onion peel you only need to simmer for about 10 minutes. Strain the bits out using a sieve.
For beans or other dried things that you need to soak (black beans, for example), soak for 12 hours, drain (and save!), then soak for another 12 hours and use both lots of drained water for your dye.

d) Dyeing

Put the wool into the dye. If you want to be sure that it will dye evenly, wet the wool before putting it into the dye, or wear rubber gloves and squeeze it until it is saturated with dye.

Simmer for an hour. Don't let the dye boil because the agitation will almost certainly felt the wool.
You can also cold dye the wool. I do this using jars, and leave the wool to soak for 24 hours before rinsing it out. Some colours seem to work better with cold dyeing, and others better with hot, it's all about experimentation.
Rinse out the wool and hang it to dry. Wool holds a LOT of water so give it a gentle squeeze before hanging it out to dry or it will take days.

I have a few specific posts on tumblr showing how I used each dye material, so click here for those.




  1. Thank you for this awesome tutorial!

  2. Just what I've been looking for

  3. Hi there,
    What did you use to get those lovely blues?

    1. Hello! Thanks for reading, if you look at this post I describe how to make blue with black turtle beans. It's quite easy to do but takes a little longer than other dyes as it is a cold dye.

    2. I just attempted the black turtle bean dye process....and failed miserably! The yarn came out a platinum color. And smelly, to boot.

    3. This question is years old but anyone wondering it depends on the ph of your water for what color you get with black beans. A neutral ph of #7 will get you blue. Also don't cook your beans, do a cold soak and cold soak yarn. Heat will grey your blue out.

  4. Can you use this technique for superwash wool?

  5. Thanks for the great post Kate, looking forward to trying it out!

  6. Such a handy tutorial - I've dyed with food colouring before but am really looking forward to trying some natural dyes.

  7. Thanks Kate. Am writing a bit of a story and the heroine is from a family of dyers. Your down to earth and straight forward instructions were just what I needed to flesh out the character.
    You just never know what someone will do with information'

  8. Oh thank you for a simple, yet detailed, step by step process on how to dye with natural colours. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on your blog as I stumble my way through my newbie wool dyeing attempts! :)

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Awesome! Thank you!

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Hello!
    Thanks so much for sharing your findings. This is a great post. You said to message you to find out more about making variegated yarn. Looking for some info. Thanks so much!!

  13. Oh dear god, invest in a proper dye handbook like Jenny Dean's Wild Colour. Vinegar and salt are not mordants, and unless you want to poison your family, don't use the same pots for cooking. No wonder natural dyes get such a bad rap for fading and yuck colours when people don't get the proper science and time proven research done in the first place............................

    1. Thanks arlee, that was incredibly rude, and you've also shown that you didn't actually read the full post. Please don't comment again unless you would like to offer constructive criticism.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Fantastic article! Are you still dyeing and posting results? What PH level do you use?

  16. Hi Kate!
    I'm going to use this tutorial to dye some yarns for a uni project. I was wondering if it was more effective to use ripe fruit as the dyestuff

    Thanks :)

  17. Great info and pics Kate. I have black beans all ready to go and can't wait to try your process out.
    I was just wondering, how colorfast is the dye with the different mordants?

  18. Great info and pics Kate. I have black beans all ready to go and can't wait to try your process out.
    I was just wondering, how colorfast is the dye with the different mordants?

  19. I just want to say that all the information you have given here is awesome. Thank you
    vegetable washer

  20. Just what I hoped to find. I'm going to dye cotton yarn and really want to do it with natural dye. What is best for shades of purple kate?

  21. Get the knowledge about your personality by giving simple answer about yourself. Find latest funny videos, naturally dye, entertainment videos and more about latest information from the world.

  22. Shoot - is there a way to save my dyed yarn if I forgot to use mordant?

  23. Hi, such a lovely photo of all your hand dyed yarns - what did you dye with to get that lovely gold colour?(fifth row, third from the right) Thank you

  24. I just couldn't leave your website before telling you that I truly enjoyed the top quality info you present to your visitors? Will be back again frequently to check up on new posts. coconut oil pulling

  25. Hola, me gusto mucho tu blog, estoy leyendo mucho sobre tintes naturales y tu lo explicas muy bien, además eres muy simpática.



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