Friday, September 10, 2010

How to Dye a Rainbow

I was a good little professor and spent much of the summer hacking out two papers that I'd been wanting to write for some time. Yes, I must publish lest I perish, and I'm not even in a tenured position yet. I'd like to be, and so I must publish just to get on the publish-or-perish track. Yesterday I finished the second paper, which is now resting, and I will edit it next week and submit it to a journal.

So today I played.

I got out my copy of Hand Dyeing Yarn and Fleece that I'd been meaning to do something with ever since I got it back in May. With that, a box of food coloring, and a half-skein of KnitPicks Bare fingering-weight merino (this method only works with protein fibers: wool, silk, other animal fibers), I set to work on one of the projects in the book.

First, you make a dozen mini-skeins of 10 or 15 yards. Soak the yarn in a solution of one part white vinegar to three parts water:

Then you make your stock solutions of dye. A pint of warm water, a teaspoon of yellow, a half-teaspoon of red, and a quarter-teaspoon of blue:

Next, you mix your dye batches. Three of the jars have four tablespoons of the primary colors: yellow, blue and red. Between them you mix your secondary and tertiary colors: three tablespoons of yellow, one of blue; two tablespoons of yellow, two of blue; one tablespoon of yellow, three of blue; and so on around the jars. Already you've got the rainbow effect going. I have four extra jars for the box of neon food dyes that I wanted to try out: fuchsia, lime green, purple, and turquoise.

Then, as you might guess, you add the yarn. Squeeze out the excess vinegar solution and drop a mini-skein in each jar. Let it sit for about 30 minutes:

Turns out I had one extra skein, so I did a rainbow dip: the middle in yellow, one end in red, the other end in blue, and then the blue end in red again to make purple:

After the jars have soaked a while, you heat-set the dye. The quickest way to do that is to send them on a spin through the microwave for about two minutes, four jars at a time (the plastic-wrapped rainbow skein went in, too, sitting on top of a set of jars):

If everything goes well, the yarn should take up all of the dye molecules and the liquid should be clear. If it's not, try another minute in the microwave:

Once the jars are cool enough to handle, dump each one out in a strainer, squeeze out the liquid, and there you are!

I hung the yarn over the shower curtain rod to keep them out of reach of curious kitties while I went to the library, another treat because I haven't made it to our city library all summer. The university library, yes, but not our own library, just for my own self. I came back with Color in Spinning and The Essential Guide to Color Knitting Techniques, which will occupy much of this evening.

Once yarn was dry, I twisted it into skeins. Rainbow!

What I found out about food coloring is that the standard red and blue make a pretty unsatisfying purple, which I kind of thought would be the case, based on years of dyeing Easter eggs with food coloring. The purple that's mostly blue is okay, though it has mottling that show that the fiber took up more red pigment in some spots and more blue in others. The half red/half blue one is sort of a dull burgundy, and the mostly red one is sort of brick-colored. This might be because the standard red is more of an orange-red than a pure red. Great for making oranges, not so great for making purples unless you like very subdued, muddy purples. The purple from the neon colors box was much better.

And what do you do with a rainbow of mini-skeins? Um... mine are going into a jar for decoration and color reference for the future. I'm sure other folks could think of other creative things to do with them.

There's also a pattern in the book for a baby sweater that uses small amounts of hand-dyed yarn to make a rainbow yoke. Very pretty. It takes worsted-weight yarn, though, so not a project for my samples.

I can see this being the basis of a very colorful science fair project, too. It might be about color theory, or a kid might just use the primary colors and try to dye protein fiber (wool, silk, other animal fibers), cellulose fiber (cotton, linen, hemp, ramie, or even rayon), and man-made fibers. Comparing acrylic and nylon would be interesting, since acrylic doesn't take up acid-based dyes, but nylon does.

If you've had a hankering to try out a little home dyeing, this is a good book for getting started. Stock up on some undyed yarn and play with it for a while, then you'll be ready to tackle more complicated projects.

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