The Impetuous Weaver Makes Good Use of Sunlight
Oh, that delightful time of year when we can shed our layers of woolens and wiggle our toes in the grass! These first sunny days can make us feel a little giddy here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, as though anything is possible (and we also know that "june-uary" could be just around the corner, so Carpe that sunny Diem!).
The big, giddy plan when the sun came out last weekend was to dye a Giant Tub of yarn and fibers outdoors, using the heat of the sun.
Inspired by everything that is warm and wonderful, I chose bright and sunny shades of Acid Dye: Salmon, Golden Yellow, and Pink. In addition to dyes, this project also requires a large covered tub*, a few smaller containers, water, white vinegar, and an outdoor space that gets lots of sun.
Solar-dyeing is a wonderful choice for several reasons: though it takes a full day/day-and-a-half, the time you actually spend tending to it is minimal; the very slow warming and cooling is gentle on delicate or felt-able fibers; and it only requires solar energy- no microwave, stove, etc. Also, you get to be outside, with your toes literally in the grass!
This dye method works for any yarns or fibers that can be dyed with acid dyes, including all hair fibers (wool, alpaca, cashmere, angora, etc.), silk in any form (roving, hankies, lapps, yarn), and most types of nylon. Step one was to pull undyed fibers and yarns from my stash, and gather them into a big pile, and then pare down the pile to something more reasonable. And then add some of the new Superwash Merino roving to, you know, fill it out.
I ended up with:
- superwash merino roving, 7 ounces
- mixed BFL roving, 5.6 ounces
- assorted pieces of silk laps, 2.3 ounces
- Superwash Merino Angora Nylon Sock yarn, 3 100g skeins
For a container, I used a large storage container with a nice broad base. The fibers/yarns need plenty of space to swim around in the dyebath for more even coverage. Into this empty container, I poured a few "glugs" of vinegar- probably about 2-3 cups worth, and then 3 gallons of room-temperature tap water. This was enough for all of the fibers to be submerged, but not so much that the dye colors would all run together. The more water you use here, the more uniform a color you will get.
Then, there is some waiting. While it's certainly okay to gently push the fibers into the room-temperature water if you are in a hurry, they will all** eventually sink on their own as they become saturated. If you have the foresight to start soaking the fibers the night before, that will be the gentlest way to treat them.
While you are waiting for the fibers to become saturated with the vinegar solution, you can prepare the dyes. This is where you need the smaller containers. I use pickle/salsa/sauce jars that I save for this purpose, and then recycle.* Other options are yogurt containers, paper cups, etc. that you can dispose of afterwards or re-use for future dye projects.
I don't measure my dyes, though that is good practice if you want repeatable results and/or efficiency in large-scale production. In general, less dye produces a paler color, and more dye produces more saturated color. I used a medium amount (maybe a couple teaspoons?) for the Salmon and Golden Yellow, and a sparse amount for the Pink. Use a disposable or dedicated spoon to scoop dye from the jar and mix it into the water.*
If you want a more uniform solid color, you now want to gently lift the roving/yarn from the tub, mix in the dye (already dissolved in water), and then set the roving/yarn back in the vinegar/water/dye mixture. Or for variegated multi-color fiber/yarn, leave it all in the tub and gently pour the dyes where you want them, using a utensil* to gently wiggle the dye down to the bottom. I put the yarns on top of the rovings, knowing that it was more important for the yarns to have even dye distribution. The rovings could be less evenly dyed, and still be sorted out in the spinning process. If your tub is not already there, cover it up and move it to the sunny outdoor area, and just leave it!
You can check on it all you want while it warms up, but avoid removing the lid and letting the heat out. Give it as many hours of direct sun as possible, especially this early in the season. Temperatures were in the low 70's here, and I left my dye tub to "cook" for about five hours, which seemed like just enough time. You can feel the sides of your container to make sure it is warming up nicely.
I ended up rotating the tub around a couple times since it was still feeling cool on the back, and even moved it over to sun-warmed pavers once when it was still cold underneath. In solid 80-degree or warmer weather, this stage is even more fuss-free- you really can just leave it and forget about it.*
Probably my favorite moment in acid-dyeing is when the water turns clear, and you know it is done- it's delightful every time! Like magic (and exactly how it is meant to work), the fibers will absorb all of the dye, and leave behind clear water. Once your dye pot has been warm for a good long time, you can lift the lid just enough to poke a utensil in, gently scoot the fiber aside, and see if the water is clear.
Once it has reached that point, you can move the whole tub to a shady outdoor or cool indoor place, and again, just leave it and forget about it.* When it is cooled down (check in the center of the container to make sure it is cooled through), you can carefully drain the water out, or carefully lift the fiber/yarn out of the bath. The waste water is safe to pour down a sink (or bathtub) drain, but never into your yard or storm drain.
To get most of the water out, you can turn the container on its side over the sink or bathtub and press the fibers gently against the edge of the container. Then either lay flat or hang up your skeins and roving to drip-dry. I usually drape wet roving and yarn on clothes-hangers and hang them over the bathtub while they are still dripping, and occasionally give them a gentle squeeze where the water has pooled at the bottom of the draped loops. Once they dry enough to stop dripping, they can be hung somewhere with good air circulation or laid on a sweater-dryer to get completely dry.
These lovely rovings and skeins are now ready, and what vibrant, sunshiny colors they turned out to be. I'm loving the added layer of interest that the mixed-color BFL brings to the dyepot, and just look at that juicy silk! While certainly a departure from colors I usually choose, these will always remind me of that "first-sunny-day" feeling.
If you do try some solar dyeing, we would love to see!
You can share with us on Instagram (@weavingworks), Facebook (@weavingworks), or by email (email@example.com).
Happy Spring, Everyone!
- Only use containers and implements that are specifically dedicated to dye projects- never re-use these containers for food storage or preparation. If your dye implements look like kitchen tools, write all over them with sharpie to avoid confusion.
- Protect your clothing and hands from dye staining by wearing an apron and gloves while you work with dyes, and consider setting aside specific clothing that is okay to get dye on. Trader Joe's makes a tea-tree hand wash that I have found is excellent at getting excess dye off your hands, if that should occur.
- Acid dye is non-toxic, but you still want to avoid making airborne dust with it. Always carefully spoon powdered dyes right onto the water- do not pour or drop. Wear a respiratory mask if you will be mixing dyes for an extended period of time.
- A big tub of liquid, even a shallow one, can be a drowning hazard for small children, pets, and wildlife. Please don't leave children and pets unattended around this dye project, and do make sure that the lid stays securely on the container.
**As it turns out, the superwash merino did need some assistance sinking into the vinegar solution- it may have been content to float on top of that water forever. So I gently pushed it to the bottom of the tub, pressing all of the air bubbles out. Even so, I think it was holding its breath under there, and still managed to avoid much of the dye. Or was my tub simply too full? We may never know. ; )