Finding a remarkable woolen item is not so hard. The real challenge is getting one in your preferred shade. You’ll often spot beautiful wool, be it yarn or a sweater, but find the natural or factory-added color unflattering. Do you forgo your project? Absolutely not.
If you put your thinking cap on, dyeing is likely the first idea on your mind. But is dyeing wool a viable option?
So, how do you dye wool? Wool readily accepts dye. However, to dye wool, you must follow a different process from what you might be used to when dyeing cotton or you risk ruining your wool.
To successfully custom color your favorite woolen item, keep reading for the best dyeing methods, dye recommendations, and more. We’ll offer tons of helpful tips too, so let’s dive right in!
What To Consider Before Dyeing Wool
You’ve probably dyed cotton at least once or perhaps several times. Even the tie-dye shirts and bandanas you made at summer camp or parties count.
However, dyeing wool is far different from cotton or other plant-based fibers. Unlike cotton, wool is a protein fiber.
It is obtained from shearing animals’ coats like sheep, goats, llamas, rabbits, etc. Wool fibers are made from complex amino acids and how dyes attach to the complex bonds is not the same as with cellulose fibers.
Consequently, wool doesn’t fare well in certain dyeing conditions that cotton does and must be handled uniquely. Here are the things you’ll want to consider:
It is common practice to use alkaline dyes or add soda ash to the dye bath when dyeing cotton. It helps the dye set.
However, soda ash changes the pH of the dye bath to alkaline. Contrarily, wool will not dye well in alkaline conditions and instead thrives in acidity.
Therefore, ensure the dye you choose is acidic and not alkaline. There’s also no need to add soda ash, as most cotton dyeing recipes suggest.
But you should pre-soak the wool in an acidic solution first before dyeing. Citric acid or white vinegar are favorites for DIY dyeing.
Gradual Heat Changes
Heat is essential when dyeing wool as it has to simmer in the dye for some time for the color to set. But the irony is that the same heat can alter the wool fibers.
Wool fibers will spring to shock when hit by a sudden extreme heat change. They will shrink or felt. To prevent this, heat the dye bath gradually, making small temperature increments. When done, cool the fabric slowly as well.
Stirring And Agitation
Stirring a dye bath and turning the fabric is a normal part of dyeing fabric. It helps the dye really get in there and color it evenly.
It’s a different story with wool. When dyeing wool, you want to avoid any excessive stirring and agitation. You can swish the wool once and very gently.
When wool is agitated in the heat, it starts a process known as felting, where the fibers fray, and the scales begin matting or interlocking with one another. Once felted, the original appearance of the wool cannot be restored as matting is permanent.
Type Of Wool
Natural wool requires more care and delicate handling when dyeing than treated wool. Superwash wool, for example, has already undergone a series of treatments to condition it. Therefore, it is unlikely to felt or shrink and can be dyed easily.
Finer grade wool typically dye better than course ones. The fiber content must also be considered. If the wool is not 100% natural and has synthetic fiber blended into it, it may not dye completely.
If you do not know the background of your wool, you can check the care label or manufacturer’s website for fiber content. Care instructions are also an indicator of whether the wool is treated or not.
If it is machine washable, then it certainly is already treated. If instructed to hand wash or dry clean only, the wool is all-natural.
Supplies Needed For Dyeing Wool
The supplies needed for dyeing wool may vary depending on the method you choose; whether you are dyeing yarn, fabric, or an article; if you are dyeing it one solid color or multiple colors; and so on. But we have the standard essential.
Choosing dye for wool is easy. Unlike synthetic fibers, wool accepts many different kinds of dyes as natural fibers do. Here are some of the best dyes to use on wool.
Acid dye is the best dye for wool. The range of acid dyes out here is vast and includes metal complex dyes, acid leveling dyes, and washfast dyes.
By brand, we highly recommend Jacquard acid dyes for hand dyeing wool. It is beginner-friendly and easy to whip up.
Commercial food coloring is also made from permitted food-grade acid dyes and can be used to dye wool. It produces good results with protein fibers and is inexpensive.
Fibre Reactive Dyes
Fiber reactive dyes are a great alternative to acid dyes and color wool very well by reacting with its fibers.
Procion MX is one such dye though it works as an acid dye. Remazol, Dharma’s Liquid Reactive Dye, and Vinyl Sulfone are, however, the actual fiber reactive dyes.
Lanaset dyes are the most effective dyes for wool with incredible permanence. The colors set really bright and are washfast and fade resistant even in hot water.
Any all-purpose dye will successfully dye wool, as long as its composition consists of an acid dye.
A bonus point for all-purpose dyes is that they rarely require any mixing and are ready to use. They tend to be relatively expensive, though.
Rit Dye is a popular all-purpose dye you can use on wool.
Last but not least is natural dyes. Compared to other fibers, fine undyed wool seems to produce the most satisfactory results with natural dyes.
The coloring matter is extracted from natural items like herbs, spices, flowers, roots etc. Hibiscus, turmeric, onion skins, tea bags, beets, and nettles are all natural dye sources. Natural dye is preferred for at-home dyeing as it is non-toxic, readily available, and literally free.
But contrary to popular belief, these dyes are not an eco-friendly alternative to synthetic dyes as many would like to think. They require the use of mordants to attach permanently to fibers. Otherwise, they wash off instantly.
Mordants are chemical dye assistants, most of which contain toxic metal salts like chromium, tin, iron, and copper. Because natural dyes wash off easily, these mordants help the color stay and hit the satisfactory mark of wash fastness.
If you go the natural dye way, opt for alum. It is the least toxic. Some natural botanicals contain tannins, for example, the avocado pits. In that case, a mordant is not necessary as the tannins act as the mordant.
You must also beware the colors will not always be consistent every day or match what the item looks like.
Marigold flowers, for example, can produce yellow dye today and orange or brown the next. Red onion skins give amber-brown coloring, and avocado pits make dusty pink dye.
2. Dye Pot
Next to dyes in importance is a dye pot. Whichever recipe you choose, you will always involve heat to help set the dye either by steaming or simmering.
This is where a dye pot comes in. Remember, it must be separate from your other kitchen pots and can never go back to preparing and serving food.
The dye pot’s material is a point of consideration. You need to use a non-reactive material like stainless steel, which doesn’t react with chemicals if the pot holds the dye.
Aluminum reacts with chemical salts and should never be used for a dye bath. However, it is ok to use if you will only be steaming the wool or using it as a hot water bath. An enamel-lined steel pot also works well.
The dye pot must be large enough for the wool and have ample wiggle room. Remember, you won’t be stirring or agitating the wool to prevent felting.
If the wool is crumpled, it will dye unevenly. Therefore, choose an appropriate dye pot for the number of skeins or the size of the article you want to dye.
The only time you may use small-sized dye pots is if dyeing the wool in sections. In this case, canning jars or small bowl, come in handy as alternatives.
You can use any material for the pot of water below since the jars will be the dye pot and will be immersed in hot water. The material of the outer pot holding the water doesn’t count.
Maintaining the dye bath at a specific temperature is essential to prevent sudden extremes which can harm your wool. Having a thermometer to keep track of the temperature is thereby non-negotiable.
A glass or stainless steel thermometer is perfect for this job as the materials will not react with the dye and contaminate it. Again, this should be a special thermometer just for dyeing and not the one you will use in your kitchen.
4. Other Basic Accessories
There are several other accessories you may want to utilize while dyeing wool. Some can be improvised or substituted if you don’t already have them.
- A pair of tongs for lifting the hot wool fibers
- Glass rod or silicone stirring spoon
- Measuring spoons and graduated cups
- Dye mixing containers
- A stovetop or other appropriate source of heat like microwave
- Protective clothing like respiratory masks, aprons and gloves
- Cling film or tarp to protect your work surface from staining
- Wool wash, to wash off the dye, chemicals, and salts residue in the dyed wool, remove the smells and condition the wool.
Different Ways To Dye Wool
There are a couple of ways of dyeing wool. Your choice will depend on how simple or dramatic you’d like your wool. The following are a few good techniques with step-by-step directions.
1. Acid Dye And Immersion Technique
Method 1: Solid Color
The immersion technique is one of the most straightforward wool dyeing methods. It is ideal for dyeing any form of wool, be it several skeins of woolen yarn, roving, or a finished article like a sweater in one solid color.
Things You Need
- A large bucket
- 100% woolen yarn or sweater
- Acid dye
- White vinegar or citric acid (may be provided with dye)
- Dye pot
- Warm some water and fill ⅔ of the bucket with the warm water.
- Add white vinegar 1:4 parts water into the warm water and stir to mix well.
- Immerse wool and let it soak in for 15-30 minutes.
- In the meantime, prepare your dye as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Fill the dye pot with warm water ¾ way up and bring it to the same temperature as the vinegar soak.
- Pour the acid dye in and stir.
- Using a pair of tongs, lift the wool from the acid soak and transfer it to the dye pot.
- Bring the dye pot to a simmer for about an hour, then turn off the heat when the dye appears exhausted.
- Allow the wool to cool down by itself to room temperature before rinsing under running water.
- Remove all traces of loose dye until the water runs clear.
- Wash with wool wash or mild detergent, rinse, and dry.
You can watch how to do it in this video by Hue Loco as she goes through all these steps concisely.
Method 2: Semi-Solid Color
You can also use the dye bath technique to dye wool Hanks semi-solid or two-toned, that is two solid sections of color.
Additional Things You Need
- Hank of wool
- Two different colored acid dyes
- Two mason/canning jars
- Trivet or bracket that fits inside the dye pot
- Follow steps 1 through 3 in method 1 above.
- Prepare the dye as per the brand. Each color is prepared separately in individual jars.
- The jars are now the dye baths, so ensure the water you use is the same temperature as the vinegar soak.
- Transfer the yarn from the soak into the jars placed side by side. Put either end in one jar adding more yarn to both jars until only the middle is resting at the brim of both jars.
- The middle may be undyed for now, but the dye will be shift up slowly from both jars. Ensure you don’t mind the new color that will form at the border when the two colors meet. For example, if you choose hot pink and blue, the border may be purplish.
- Fit the trivet or bracket in a large pot so the jars stand on top and don’t touch the bottom of the pot.
- Now put the wool and dye-filled jars inside and fill the pot with warm water.
- Bring it to simmer for about 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the jars appear clear, meaning all dye is taken up.
- Continue with steps 9 to 11 of method 1.
2. All-purpose Dye And The Kettle Dyeing Method
Kettle Dyeing is also known as low immersion and is quite popular. It is a hand painting (which we shall discuss next) and immersion combo.
Things You Need
- Undyed wool
- Citric acid
- Dyeing pan
- Rit all-purpose dye
- Measuring spoons
- Mixing cups
- Squirt bottle or droppers
- Put a little tap water in a dyeing pan. The bath should not be more than 2 inches deep.
- Add 1-2 tablespoons of citric acid and stir.
- Warm the pan using medium heat, then add the wool. Spread it out with a spoon or tongs.
- Give your wool a nice 10-15 minutes soak in this solution.
- Slowly pour the dye a little at a time across the pan in strips or random spot. Whichever way you choose, it’s up to you.
- Do the same with the second color and leave undyed borders between the colors.
- Cook in medium heat for 10 minutes or so. Check if the colors have moved. If not simmer for 10 more minutes.
- Once all color has moved, let cool down, gently rinse and hang to dry.
3. Food Coloring And Hand Painting Technique
Hand Painting wool is another way to make gorgeous variegated wool. You can choose stripes, sprinkles, random coloring, or a repeating pattern. It gives you so much control and freedom of dye placement.
Things you need
- Bucket or large container
- Undyed or light-colored wool
- Gel food coloring one or multiple colors
- White vinegar
- Cling film
- Sponges, sponge brush, syringe, or squirt bottle
- Dye mixing containers
- Skewer or chopsticks
- Steam basket
- Fill the bucket ¾ way full with warm water. Add white vinegar and stir so that everything mixes.
- Immerse the wool and allow it to soak for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare the dye in a container by first adding a few drops of white vinegar. Then, fill about two-thirds of the container with hot water.
- Next, squirt in a few drops of gel food coloring until the desired intensity is reached. Remember that the dye will dry a shade or two lighter.
- Once the 15 minutes are up, take out the wool and let the excess water drain.
- Place the damp wool on a protected table or surface lined with cling film and lay it out.
- Depending on the number of colors you want to use, you may have to cut the sponge into two or four pieces, one piece for each color. (Some people opt to use syringes or squirt bottles and pour the dye directly in small quantities at a time. It is much faster and easier if you are accurate and don’t pour too much).
- Dip the sponge in the dye and start painting the wool. Use a fresh sponge for a different color.
- You can use the chopstick or skewer to lightly flip the wool so that the dye penetrates the underside as well unless you want to leave it undyed intentionally.
- When satisfied with the saturation, put the wool in a steamer basket and then put the steamer basket in the pot with a bit of water.
- Heat the pot and let the wool steam for 45 minutes on medium heat. Also, you can use a microwave instead to heat set the wool. Cover with cling film and microwave for no more than two minutes at a time, checking in between, and let it cool a bit before repeating. Total shouldn’t exceed 6 minutes.
- Let cool, and rinse before washing normally with detergent.
This video by ChemKnits Tutorials shows this entire hand painting process using syringes and a microwave.
4. How To Dye Wool Using Natural Dyes
Unlike commercial dyes that come with preparation instructions, you have to figure your way out with natural dyes. Here’s how to brew natural dye and dye wool with it.
We used red onion skins as they are always in season, so easy to find and don’t take long to extract the dye. Other natural dye items require overnight soaking to get the color out, so choose carefully.
Things you need
- Onion skins
- Dye pots
- Vinegar or citric acid
- Measuring cups
- Start by preparing the dye. You can do it ahead of time, like a day before or the same day if you have plenty of time.
- Collect the red onion skins and put them in a pot of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 1-2 hours or until the skin appears white. Strain and set the pot aside.
- Prepare a vinegar and water bath in another pot and soak the wool in it for 15 minutes. Use warm water.
- As the wool soaks, prepare a mordant bath. Use one tablespoon of alum per gallon of water.
- Once the 15 minutes have elapsed, remove the wool from the vinegar bath, wring and transfer it to the mordant bath. Let it simmer for about 60 minutes.
- Set the dye pot with onion dye extracts on heat, warm it and stir a bit. We want to maintain a consistent temperature from one bath to another.
- Remove the wool from the mordant bath and place it inside the dye bath. Simmer for 45 minutes.
- Allow it to cool but let the wool stay soaked in there overnight.
- The next day rinse the loose dye out and wash with mild detergent.
- Rinse and dry flat.
You can watch how to do it in this video by WOOLapyk Podcast using avocado pits.
That was so much to absorb in, right? Let’s just recap on the main points then.
Wool is a dye-friendly fiber and can be dyed. The best dye for wool is acid dye. You can also use natural dyes, fiber reactive dyes, lanaset dyes, and all-purpose dyes.
Wool will dye successfully after a soak in an acidic bath to open up the fibers to receive the dye. White vinegar or citric acid are the norm and have proven mild and successful.
Heat is also necessary to set dye in wool, but stirring and agitation are discouraged to prevent felting and shrinkage.
Remember always to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for commercial dyes and instructions provided in recipes with regards to measuring dyes, water, acids etc.
Lastly, check that your dye pots are heavy and non-reactive material, so nothing leeches into your dye. And don’t forget to wear protective gear.