Food dye is awesome!

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m rather fond of making yarn pretty colours. These days, I do a lot of work with natural dye, but that isn’t where I started*. I started with food dye. Kool aid to be precise, but that’s getting vanishingly hard to find as those little packets without extra sugar, and so I generally use icing dye these days.

Food dye? Really? Yes really. It is incredibly wash fast (and light fast and colour fast) on wool and silk. It does absolutely nothing to cotton except a pathetic stain that washes out fairly readily (unless it’s your or your kid’s favourite shirt, then you’re doomed), and even less to linen. Wool and silk? Sticks like glue!

Fibre Acid Dye Heat

It is really pretty basic, all in all. You need fibre, you need dye, you need something acidic, water and heat. I mostly work with wool for my food dye playing, it’s cheaper than silk. I have used both citric acid and vinegar as my acid in this, I find that vinegar is cheap and easy. (Are you sensing a theme here?). This is not the place to use that lovely artisanal amazing vinegar, the cheapest white vinegar from the store is just fine. The more expensive higher octane stuff is probably also fine, but I’ve never gone out and bought it on purpose, so use what you’ve got.

Your fibre needs to be good and clean, this is true for any dye project. We often call this step ‘scouring’ in the dye world, but end of day.. good and clean. Hot water, bit of soap, you want no dirt, not much lanolin left, no spinning oils, nothing that is getting in the way of the dye. Rinse it well. The theory in the dye world is to ‘Rinse until you’re willing to drink the rinse water’.

If you are dyeing right away after scouring, perfect, your fibre is good and soaking wet! If not, you need to get it good and soaking wet. Wool resists getting wet, so this is not a dunk and call it good, this is a dunk it in and walk away for a little while.

This is a good moment to pause and consider the heat aspect, as that will inform what sort of container you are using. Food dye is an exception to the rule about never using a container you are going to use for food. Everything you are using is food safe. Except perhaps the fibre, please don’t eat the fibre, but technically it isn’t poisonous, just you don’t need that high of a fibre diet. You can see above that I often use an old crockpot. However! I have popped things in the microwave, I’ve used a steamer basket on the stove, I’ve baked wool in the oven, as seen in the photo above. (That is an interesting conversation to have with your partner ‘ooh, what are you baking? It smells.. sweet? And … sheepy?’ ‘Electric blue Kool Aid and fleece.’) I have shoved fleece into an old and clean peanut butter jar and stuck it on the back deck in the heat of summer. I’ve put jars of dye into a crockpot of water to have half a dozen colours on the go at once. Your options for heat are endless, but it will inform what container you’re using.

Right, so we’ve covered fibre, and getting it wet and containers and heat. The acid part is really very simple, I add a glug of vinegar to whatever water I’m using. That’s it. Nothing exciting, nothing fancy, just a basic glug. If I was doing this in a giant pot, I’d be aiming for perhaps a glug glug glug, but this is a no measure experience and just have faith. A glug is fine. (Citric acid powder is a whole lot more concentrated, a small spoonful should do it. Less in a mason jar, a big spoonful in a giant pot. You get the idea.)

Now you need to add colour. This bit is entirely up to you, and what you are aiming for. In the casserole style above, I had barely enough vinegar water to make things wet, and then sprinkled dry koolaid powder randomly about as I was aiming for something variegated. In the bucket of dayglo orange below, I dumped a packet of orange kool aid in and stirred liberally before putting in my sopping wet yarn, as I wanted it pretty uniform. I’ve been known to tie off sections, shibori style, or throw in balls of yarn, knowing that the dye was going to hit different sections at different times. This is entirely up to you, but I will say that know that the dye and water does not penetrate nearly as far into the ball of yarn as you hope, you end up with an outer layer of colour and nada in the middle. I was sad, so I share that with you so that hopefully it does not make you sad as well.

Orange kool aid and yarn in a random plastic tub in the microwave

I liberally mix my colours to get a liquid approximately the colour I’m looking for, and accept that it will not be quite the same on the yarn, but close. The little tubs of icing dye are VERY CONCENTRATED, so use sparingly. Really sparingly. I have been known, for a mason jar or small plastic tub, to measure them out with a toothpick. A very saturated dye in the crockpot, I went to tiny scoops on the end of a small spoon. Like seriously, you are aiming for amounts that would make small children who are trying not to eat a food happy. You can add more, but you do not want to be rinsing for 80 years.

At that point, pop in your wet fibre, steam/bake/nuke/stick in the hot sun and wait. Your choice of heating will determine how long you wait. I generally bake things in a gentle oven (say 275F?) for half an hour to an hour. Steam is more like 20 mins to half an hour. Sun dye is a few good days of solid summer warm (or months if you forget about it, and that’s fine too). Nuke it for a minute or two and see how it looks. There are not any hard and fast rules and regulations here. It needs to be hot, and it needs to be hot all the way through for a while. Not ages, but a while. If you don’t like what you get.. dye it again! 🙂

And there you have it, that’s dye with food colour in a nutshell. It’s fun, it’s easy, and if you are careful about choosing your icing dye combinations, it can look like you used natural dyes to get there without the fuss and hassle! (There are no natural dyes that give blue kool aid colours, just FYI.) Everything is non toxic, so it’s a great thing to do with kids without worrying that they are licking the mordants. Stick some wool and some colour in a mason jar and let it stew on the balcony! It’s a ton of fun.

*Technically I started with natural dye research. I was doing some fan fiction collaborative writing in the early 90s and it was based in a historical setting. The character I was working with was an early chemist, and so I went to the university library, and sat down with honest to goodness books about natural dye to be able to write her more effectively. That was the seed of it all, even if it took me years to actually TRY it, but the fascination started in dusty stacks of books and fiction.

Book Review: This Golden Fleece

I picked up a book from my local library on hearing it mentioned.. I don’t remember where, but it felt like something right up my alley. This Golden Fleece: A Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History by Esther Rutter. It was published in 2019, so there’s no discussion of the plague times, which is rather a lovely pause from the present day.

Support your local library! Thank you Guelph Public Library!

This book looks at the knitting history of the UK in a really gentle introspective memoir style of writing. The author spends a year travelling around the UK picking a different aspect of knitting history and visiting museums and festivals, talking with people and working on a suitable knitting project for her months’ focus. (Seriously, how do I get a book deal for 12 months worth of exploration? Sheesh! Anyhow.) The author did grow up on a sheep farm, so she came into this experience fairly familiar with all things wooly, although she admits that her knitting skills were relatively beginner when she started. She did not, for example, have to learn to spin, even if she was woefully out of practice. For all my pre-1600 folks, fair warning that this book happily settles primarily in the hay day of knitting life in the UK, mostly the 18th and 19th centuries, but she does not forget early knitting, and she even touches on naalbinding and has a go at it!

I found it to be a lovely conversational read, with plenty of good solid research to go with it, the text is chock full of end notes and rarely was there a spot that I eyebrow raised and went ‘Cite THAT source, if you would’. You know those moments, when someone is writing on something you’ve spent a fair bit of time researching and they pull out the ‘as everyone knows’, and there’s no endnote to be found and you sigh at the spread of more myth and less fact. Basically none of that here. A couple spots that I went ‘hunh.. that feels a stretch’, and better, more than a few spots when I flipped to the endnotes and copied down her source to go read it myself.

Not the most helpful table of contents.

The chapters are arranged by project and month, which makes it moderately a bear to use as a reference book, but at least it has an index, so there’s a hope of being able to find something again. I’m not sure I’m in a rush to go add it to my personal library, but I’m grateful that I can snag it from my local library. No regrets about the time I spent reading it.

Alum experiment

The lovely folks over at Natural Dye Education FB group, mostly the group’s fearless leader from Mamie’s Schoolhouse, put forth a challenge after watching a talk at the Natural Dye conference in 2020/2021 about alum not being absorbed out of the water quite as much as we think, and so clearly we had to try it. If you want to read about the results from the whole group, she has a collective blog post about it.

The premise was to use 7 identical skeins of wool, and one pot of mordant water. That water held 7% wof (weight of dry fibre) of but a single skein. So the first skein of wool into the mordant bath got a full dose of alum. Then, without topping up any alum in that pot, the next six were mordanted (and labelled!) in succession. So, in theory, we would have no alum left.. somewhere in that chain. All 7 then went into a dyepot, all at the same time, such that they would get the same dye exposure and show up where the alum stopped. So the theory went. It was left up to the dyer on what dye they wanted to use, but alum and wool were consistent for all of us.

This is not spaghetti.

I used madder (because of course I did), and had dug up some bulky weight wool yarn out of the depths of the stash, each 55g. (Except for the 2 that I mismeasured and ended up 65g. whoops.) So because my skeins were (mostly) 55g, a mere 3.85g of alum went into that giant pot of water. I kept each skein at a simmer for about an hour, and then hauled it out hot and let it cool, unrinsed. Eventually there was a giant pile of damp wool.

Cleaned out pot and and fresh water and in went 100g of madder. I had a grand plan of containing it in a little cloth bag so I didn’t have to rinse out madder dust for days, but my bag wasn’t big enough once the madder started expanding on getting wet, so that was abandoned early and I resigned myself to a million rinses later. (Dear Future Me: When you do this again, let the skeins dry after you pull them out and then whap them on the deck railing a whole lot to get most of the madder out that way. You’ll be much happier, you’re welcome.) That sat on the stove at not quite a simmer, about 70 – 80C for a couple of hours.

Top: Most Alum Bottom: Least Alum (plus bonus silk skein)

In goes all 7 skeins at once, and those got to sit around at not quite a simmer (80 – 90C) for another couple of hours before the heat got turned off and everyone went to bed. The skeins in the dyepot, and me.. well.. in bed. Next morning, rinse (and rinse and rinse and rinse and rinse) and plot what else is going in that pot of still dark red dye liquour. The exciting thing here is that in spite of there being successively less and less alum on these skeins, my 7 skeins are functionally identical. Now, madder is a dye that will take without a mordant, but not usually quite this dark and strong, so clearly more experimenting is required. (Oh /darn/, I’ll have to do more dye work. Such a tragedy. 😉 )

Well! I have more of that stash wool, so I grabbed another 600g of it, got that mordanted up (10% ish) and in it went to the same dye bath as the last batch. The madder bath was on a roll! The first 300g were still pretty solid colours, but by the last 300g I was getting pretty pale pinks and I was not in the mood to slowly simmer it down enough to bother storing it, so I called it there. Currently the big bulky wool is telling me it would like to be a stripy big thick sweater, but we’ll see how long that lasts. I’m not very good at using up the bulky yarn in my life, although I better start using up more of my dyed yarn, or I’ll be overrun!

Exhaust baths

Padauk experiment redux

When I wrote about my experiments using padauk wood shavings and isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) vs ethanol (vodka), there was a great conversation (mostly on FB alas) about it all. Those very same people who prompted me to do the first set of experiments, of course, had more questions. As did I! The main question that came out comes from how much distilled alcohol differed from fermented. So we (I) decided to do more playing.

The obvious one is concentration. Vodka starts out at 40%, my ale was 4.2%. (I brewed the ale in the last post, it’s not worth drinking, don’t be sad that I soaked wood in it. Better than it deserved really.) I finally remembered to soak some of the padauk in water, as I hadn’t done that in the last one, having done it before, but I don’t think I’ve ever proven to you, gentle readers, that padauk does basically nothing when soaked in water, so I figured I’d prove it.

Turkey basters are very scientific

The four jars are 5 g of padauk soaking in water, vodka, the ale I brewed and then.. just to be careful.. the ale that I brewed having been filtered through some butter muslin (good quality cheese cloth) that I stole from my cheesemaking spouse. It changed not a whit, nor was there any residue on the cloth, so it felt like an extraneous step. It sat for a few weeks at the back of the kitchen counter, largely being ignored to be honest, but not protected from light or anything, and kept at basic room temperature.

Eventually, I got off my butt and skeined off more silk, and got it mordanted with 10% alum. (Eventually I’ll write up more detail on that process, but honestly, it is barely exciting enough to get mentioned, let alone a whole post about it. Still, I’ll add it to the list.)

I usually dip a bit of paper towel into these dye baths just to see how much colour sticks there, it’s not a perfect indicator on how the dye bath is going to go, but you get the disappointment early at least. Rarely do you get no colour on a dip test and plenty of colour on your skein. Sometimes you can get pretty good colour on the dip and not great on the skein, so there’s opportunity for disappointment certainly, but it’s a good first guess.

I decided that I would dye all four at once in a water bath, as I just was not invested in working up four dye pots. Basically that means that each dye was in a jar, and that jar was in a large pot, filled about halfway up the jars and the whole thing heated on the stove. I do most of my dye work hot, I don’t have the patience (usually) to leave something for a couple of months at room temperature to let the reaction happen slowly. I generally want it now now now!

In this case, the dip test was a pretty good predictor. The water soak got my silk from white to vaguely beige. I had such high hopes for the ale soaked padauk, but the dip test tempered my expectations pretty solidly. It’s coloured at least, but not by much. Well sigh. The vodka was as an awesome a colour as ever, better this time for the longer soak!

Vodka, water, ale, filtered ale

Distilled alcohol is still the king of extraction, the fermented side of things is letting me down here. At this point, I am out of padauk to play more with it as my dyestuff, but I’m not yet out of alcohol extractions to experiment with! Suggestions welcome on the next dyestuff to include. (Must not extract well in water, must extract well in alcohol.) I am also on the hunt for any sort of historical context for alcohol extraction of dye. I’ve only really started poking there, but if you have a lead on it (pre-1600 please!), let me know!