I’ve been looking longingly at all of the gorgeous & fun speckled yarns that indie dyers all over have been turning out, but I couldn’t help but wish there was a naturally dyed version. I scoured the internet for a tutorial or idea, but came up with nothing. After making Unicorn Farts for a special project a while back, it hit me… making naturally dyed speckled yarn wouldn’t really be that hard and I already had everything I needed for it. Thus, this tutorial was born.
I’ll eventually be selling naturally dyed speckled yarn in my Etsy shop, but for now I’m having fun playing around and experimenting while I perfect my technique. I also want to share my process so other dyers can learn from it. One of my favorite parts of the fiber community (and crafty community in general) is the free sharing of information. Most people are happy to share their processes and lessons they’ve learned. I’m no different, I’ve learned so much from other dyers’ tutorials and advice that it’s the least I can do to add to this wealth of knowledge.
Making speckle dyed yarn is a little more complicated and time consuming with natural dyes rather than acid dyes but it is well worth it. Though the results can be more unpredictable than using modern chemical dyes, one of the things I love about natural dyes is that they continue to surprise me. If you are aiming to make a specific color or effect, keep in mind that natural dyes are finicky and often don’t behave how you want them to so they’ll probably come out darker, lighter or just plain different than you wanted but they’ll all be beautiful!
In this tutorial you will make concentrated dye solutions, thicken them up with guar gum and then sprinkle to your heart’s content on pre-mordanted fiber. The final product is then heated in the microwave to set the dye.
This process doesn’t need a lot of dye and these instructions will make enough to dye more than a pound of yarn.
So let’s get to it- making a naturally dyed speckled yarn. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Protein fiber yarn (wool, silk, alpaca, etc.)
- ¼ oz. Cochineal bugs, ground
- Big handful goldenrod flowers
- Green hulls from about 6 fresh walnuts
These amounts are just suggested. Feel free to use more or less to make your final color darker or lighter.
You can use any source of natural dyes using the same basic process, but I am writing the instructions using the sources I used in my example photos. If you use other dye sources, look up instructions for that specific source and just make about 1.5 cups of concentrated dye solution. If you don’t want to or can’t use local dye plants then sites like Dharma Trading sell lots of good quality natural dyes both in extract form and in whole form.
- Guar Gum
- Non-iodized salt (i.e. kosher salt)
Small amounts of alum can be purchased from the grocery store in the spice section or you can find larger amounts for cheap online. I get mine by the pound from Dharma Trading. Guar gum is an all-natural thickener that can be found at most health food stores or online.
- 4 mason jars
- 4 squirt bottles
- Plastic wrap
- 3 small pots
- 1 large pot
- Measuring spoons
- Plastic bowls
- Scale to weigh your yarn & alum
- Plastic table cloth or newspapers
- Latex or rubber gloves
Even though this is a non-toxic and eco-friendly process, you should never use pots or utensils that you use to prepare food for dyeing. I suggest hitting up the dollar store or thrift store to get cheap utensils, cooking pots and other tools you will need. I bought my entire dye set-up for about $25 by nabbing old pots from my mom, taking a few thrift-store trips, going to the dollar store and rifling through stuff in my basement. I also suggest that you designate a microwave specifically for dyeing. You can pick up a cheap one at a garage sale or keep an eye out for your friends & family who might be getting rid of one, the one I use is my old microwave from college.
First, mordant your yarn the day before you plan to dye.
If your yarn isn’t wound into a dye-ready skein already, wind it into one. I won’t go into it in this post, but there is a good tutorial on winding a skein here if you need to learn how.
Weigh your dry yarn and calculate 15% of the weight (by multiplying the total weight by .15) to determine the amount of alum you will need. (For instance, if you have 1 lb [16 oz.] of yarn, 16 x .15 = 2.4, so you will need 2.4 oz of alum).
Fill your large pot with warm water while leaving lots of room for your yarn to be added. Measure out your alum and add it to your pot of water. Stir until dissolved, then add your yarn and bring the whole thing to a boil. Reduce heat & simmer for about an hour, then turn off and let cool overnight (or at least 8 hours).
In the morning (or about 8 hours later) take the yarn out of the pot and squeeze as much water as you can out of your skeins, they should be damp but not dripping. There is no need to rinse them.
You can also let your mordanted yarn dry at this point, store it, then wet it again before you want to dye.
Meanwhile, make your dye liquids.
In your three small pots, put your cochineal in one, goldenrod flowers in the second, and walnut hulls in the third. In the cochineal pot put about 4 cups water. In the other two pots, cover the hulls and flowers with water (at least 2 cups).
Bring it all to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for about an hour. Turn the heat off and let cool til it won’t burn you then strain the contents into mason jars. Split the cochineal dye evenly between two jars.
To one cochineal jar, add 3 tbl. vinegar and ½ tsp salt. It will turn a bright and clear red. To the other, add ½ tsp salt, this will stay a dark purple. The final colors won’t be as starkly different as they look in the jars but there will be a slight difference in shades of pink/purple.
Now, thicken your dye.
Guar gum is now added to control the flow of your color when it hits the yarn. It keeps it from wicking up the fiber too fast and contains the dye to the areas you want to color. It will flow a bit but should generally stay where you apply it.
To each jar of hot dye liquid SLOWLY add ½ tsp. guar gum while whisking (I use a small battery-powered milk frother because I’m lazy and I had one, but a whisk works just as well). Whisk until the liquid is smooth and thickened.
When the guar gum has been dissolved and the liquid is thickened pour the dye into your squirt bottles. Hang tight until your yarn is done being mordanted.
Time to rock & roll!!
Cover your work surface with a plastic table cloth or newspapers to protect from spills and stray splashes. Make a rectangle with 4 pieces of plastic wrap, overlapping the ends, and leaving a small hole in the middle. It should fit your skein of yarn opened up into an oval.
Don a pair of gloves, so you don’t end up with rainbow hands when this is all over, and lay out a skein of yarn on top of the plastic wrap then loosen and spread the yarn out a bit.
Now comes the fun part! Take your first color and drip the dye on from about 2 feet above the yarn. Put as much as or as little on as you want. Go wild- make stripes if you want, or keep the drips random. Repeat with all of your colors until you are happy with it. Make sure to open up the skein and find any remaining white spots adding more drops of color where you think it needs it. I like to leave a good amount of white.
When you are happy with the overall color coverage, roll the plastic wrap tightly around the entire skein. Lift up the edge in the middle and roll the excess plastic wrap from the outside edge around and under it. You will end up with a doughnut of plastic-wrapped yarn.
Take your wrapped yarn and place it in one of your plastic bowls, folding it so it lays flat in one layer on the bottom of the bowl. Put it in the microwave and heat on high 2 minutes, let sit 2-4 minutes, then heat again on high for 2 minutes. Repeat this process, heating for a total of 5 two-minute intervals.
(You don’t have to microwave it- this would work just as well if you prefer to steam your yarn in a pot with a steamer basket. The important part is that it gets heated up to set the dye.)
Let your yarn cool, wrapped in the bowl, until it is room temperature. (I know it’s tempting to rip open the whole package immediately, but this step is important! It gives the dye more time to adhere to your yarn.)
Once the yarn is completely cool, carefully unwrap the package. (Scissors are NOT your friend here. You’ll risk cutting your yarn, so don’t use them!!)
Rinse your yarn until the water runs clear, squeeze out as much water as you can without wringing and hang it up to dry. I usually lay the whole skein on a dry towel, fold the towel over it, then roll up the towel and put some weight on it to press out water. If you’re feeling adventurous you could also throw it in the washer and run a spin cycle to spin the water out. You do you.
Once your yarn is nice and dry, it’s time for the next fun part- making something beautiful with it!
I owe a huge debt to Miss Reena over at The Impatient Dyer as well as the tomboyknits’ Unicorn Farts Tutorial. This is the same basic process they use, altered to work with natural dyes. If you haven’t already, please take a look at their tutorials. They are both very talented dyers, and if you want to speckle dye or hand paint yarn with safe & non-toxic dyes that aren’t plant based, follow the links over there and read up! They both use primarily food coloring as a dye, and Miss Reena even has a tutorial on how to dye with cake sprinkles!