How to dye fabric and yarn

Before dyeing fabric or yarn, test a piece to see if the dye will take well and produce the color you want. Animal and vegetable fibers-cotton, wool, linen, silk, and rayon-absorb dye better than chemical synthetics such as polyester and nylon. Dye takes poorly to permanent-press fabrics.

Certain dyes work better on certain fibers; check the manufacturer’s advice carefully. If you are unsure what the fiber is, pull out a few threads to test. Holding them over a sink between two coins, bring a lighted candle or match to them. If the threads bum only in contact with the flame and smell of burning hair, the fiber is wool or silk; if they burn then glow afterward like a coal, the fiber is cotton, linen, or rayon; if they do not burn but melt and drip or form a ball, the fiber is a chemical synthetic.

If possible, dye over white or a light neutral. Over dyeing colored fabric takes skill, and the results are frequently not as desired. Dark fabrics, or those that are unevenly colored or faded, should be bleached first, using a packaged color remover or chlorine bleach (for cottons and linens only).


Use an enamel, stainless steel, or glass container large enough to hold the fabric without crowding. Manipulate the material with a wooden or stainless steel spoon or a smooth stick such as a dowel. The fabric’s dry weight determines the dye quantity; look for yardage equivalents of various fabric weights on the package. Hot-water synthetic dyes Hot-water dyeing can be done on the stove or in a washing machine. First mix the dye in hot water in a glass jar, measuring cup, or pitcher. Strain it through paper toweling or cheesecloth into the dyeing container. Wet the fabric, immerse it in the dye bath, and simmer or agitate it for the recommended time, all the while stirring. Rinse it in cool water until no color appears in the rinse water.

To get maximum heat in a washing machine, let the machine stand full of hot water for 15 minutes, then empty and refill it with hot water. Add the dissolved dye, agitate for 1 minute, then put in the material.

To minimize shrinkage and prevent matting of wool in hot-water dyes, use the stove method. Put the wool first in lukewarm water, slowly heat to a simmer, then transfer the wool to the simmering dye bath. Move the wool gently in the liquid, pushing it up and down rather than stirring it. After dyeing is complete, rinse the wool first in very hot water; gradually make subsequent rinses cooler.

Natural dyes

To prepare fabric or yarn for a natural dye, scour it (cook it) to remove oils and fabric finishes. Use 3 gallons of soft water (treated tap water, rain water, or distilled water) per pound of material. Add enough detergent to form suds. Simmer silk for 30 minutes, wool for 45 minutes. Boil linen or cotton for 1 to 2 hours with 1/2 cup of washing soda added to the solution. Treating with mordant Before application of most natural dyes, the fabric or yarn must also be treated with a mineral mordantalum, chrome, tin, copper sulphate, or iron-so that the dye will be permanently fixed. These are available from drugstores, craft stores, and herbal suppliers. All are poisonous, should be handled with care, and stored out of children’s reach. Do not use a mordant in any cooking utensil. Each mordant will bring out a different color or shade in a natural dye. Alum is the most popular as it is inexpensive and less toxic than others.

To mordant 5 pounds of wool or silk, dissolve 4 ounces alum and 1 ounce cream of tartar in 4 gallons water. Add the wet material, bring the liquid to a simmer, and leave at this temperature for 1 hour. Rinse in hot water and cool slowly before drying.

Cotton and linen require more mordant. For 1 pound, use 4 ounces alum and 1 ounce washing soda to 4 gallons water. Add the fabric; bring to a boil. Boil for 1 to 2 hours (the longer time for thicker fabrics). Cool; leave the fabric in the mordant for 12 hours. It can then be dyed directly without drying.

Modern synthetic dyes are convenient to use, usually color fast, and available in a wide range of colors. (For good dye sources, check craft magazines.) Natural dyes are more complicated to prepare and apply, but they produce a range of subtle, interesting colors. In fact, rarely is it possible to duplicate a color exactly, even using the same formula; the maturity of the plants and the season in which they were gathered can vary results.

For the best penetration and color fastness, most dyes must be applied with hot water. However, there are special cold-water dyes for use in batik work and for dyeing wool without shrinking it. Cold-water dyes will take only on animal or vegetable fibers wool, cotton, linen, silk, and rayon. Natural dyestuff Many flowers, leaves, bark, berries, nuts, and roots yield dyes, especially those that easily stain your fingers. Most flowers produce a brown or yellow dye no matter what the blossom color. Mature plants yield the best dyes. Pick flowers at their prime, berries when fully ripe, and most nuts just after they’ve dropped. The strongest dyes come from fresh materials, but dried ones can be used. Soak woody materials, such as bark, for at least a week before cooking.

To make a natural dye, put the plants in a large stainless steel or enamel pan with enough soft water (treated tap water, rainwater, or distilled water) to cover. Cook them for a specified time, strain out the plants, then add enough soft water to the dye to cover the article. The following recipes will dye 1 pound of fabric or yarn.

For a bright light-green, simmer 1 bushel (8 gallons) of stalks and flowers of Queen Anne’s lace for 1/2 hour. After preparing the fabric with mordant, simmer it in the dye bath for 1/2 hour.

To make a soft yellow dye, use yellow onion skins. Save the skins in a bag in the refrigerator until you have 1 pound. Boil for 11/2 hours; strain. Add yarn or fabric, and simmer for 1 hour.