What did you do this weekend, Elodie?
Nothing much. Met the Awkward Army, put the world to rights. Learned a bit of materials science and inadvertently created a new kind of polystyrene plastic in my kitchen.
Made a rainbow.
The richly glowing skein in Figure One is a sumptuous, hand-painted rainbow yarn that I dyed myself. With food coloring. And SCIENCE. You won’t find colors like that in a store…
And at the risk of becoming a craft blog (SCIENCE CRAFTS!) I’m going to tell you how to do it.
Knitting is an exhausting hobby. You’ll knit a few hats and socks, and then suddenly nothing will do but you have to make a Loch Ness Monster, a colony of plushy starfish and a squishy dinosaur hat for every baby in your social circle that you vaguely like. Then you start accumulating yarn, and so you start looking for patterns to make with it, and suddenly you find yourself in the corners of the Internet where people spin their own wool out of otters and hand-dye it with berries foraged from fairy forests. (I am exaggerating slightly because I am jealous.)
Now, the idea of hand-dyeing raised my eyebrows, because I love bright colors and handmade things, and who wouldn’t want to have beautiful yarn in their very favorite colors? After all, most commercially available fibers give the impression that their dyes were picked out by half-blind woodlice, paddling vaguely at a color chart with their uncoordinated paws.
So when I heard rumors that animal fibers can be dyed safely and effectively with simple food coloring, I perked up and took notice. The creative Earth Mother in me immediately decided that this was the best idea since homemade apple-and-rosemary jelly. The scientist in me itched to test new protocols and optimize chemical reactions, while the businesswoman quietly drew up plans to create a finished product that would appeal to others. The researcher in me lunged to the fore as she usually does, plunging eagerly into descriptions and definitions, learning about medieval terms like mordants and intriguing techniques like breaking black, diving into ancient manuscripts from various cultures and learning about cochineal and amphoteric materials. Eventually, she emerged with what she’d determined to be a good starting point, a nice blog post entitled “How to Dye Yarn with Food Coloring and Small Children.”
The principles of home-dying yarn are simple. You need a heat source, like a microwave, but presumably other things will do just as well. Get some wool – pure, pale wool is best; superwash wool is even better. Synthetic fibers won’t dye permanently with food coloring. Grab some acid (acetic acid, in the humble household form of vinegar, will do.) Snag some food dyes, preferably nice chemical-y American ones that haven’t gone all European and “natural” – the hippie-dippie kiddie colors available in British supermarkets simply won’t do. You need unnatural food dye – as American as possible. I used it as an excuse to buy a nice pack of high-quality Wilton gel, since I can keep using the materials, worth their weight in rainbow cakes. (You can also use Kool-Aid, but since I’ve never touched the stuff in my life and don’t think that it actually exists on this side of the Atlantic.) The Wilton arrived in the mail, filling me with all of the joy that young Elodie used to feel upon getting a new box of paints. Shiny. Colorful. Bursting with possibilities. AND MINE, ALL MINE.
Hypothesis: I can make something more beautiful with these colors than I could ever buy. I can make something more suited to my taste than anyone could ever design for me. And hopefully, I can dye yarn with food coloring.
Most of the dyes that professional fiber artists use are acid dyes, which latch readily onto the fabric. Food coloring, which is intended for gentler purposes, needs to be set with acid. Luckily, our home kitchens are stuffed full of acid. Vinegar will do the trick. The only pale non-staining vinegar we had in the house was apple cider vinegar, which I sloshed into a bowl, adding water to a random dilution, and admired the effect and the smell. After a quick test skein indicated that the overall protocol created a permanent set dye, I was ready to run with the big dogs. Wolves.
I skeined and tied my yarn, fifty grams of a beautiful creamy Merino superwash, and arranged it attractively in the bowl of acid.
The BATH OF ACID gentle soak in vinegar was meant to soften it up a little, you know? TO MAKE IT READY TO TALK To create the ideal chemical conditions to bond permanently with the sweet, gentle cupcake dye.
Then I laid the yarn out on plastic, over a floor that I didn’t mind cleaning.
Thankfully, Dr Glass keeps the household in lab gloves, so the next steps caused minimal damage to the kitchen. Using a butterknife like a palette knife, I took slabs of concentrated gel paste, mixed a few of them to create my absolute favorite colors, and set to work rubbing them into the skeined yarn.
This is one reason why it’s great to pick superwash yarn for hand-dying. As everyone knows, the long, rough, jagged edges of animal protein fibers love to cling to each other, and if you heat and agitate them they’ll felt, or become a solid material. Superwash yarn can be machine-washed and rubbed without felting.
I wanted a rainbow with lots of variation and variegation, and beautiful transitions between colors. My favorite colors are deep jewel tones, so I decided to err on the side of Too Much Paste rather than too little, aiming for a saturated, rich product. For the transitions, I combined the colors I’d mixed as well as rubbing and blending the colors together where they met. I didn’t end up with much yellow in the end….
Now it was time to permanently set the dye with heat. Unfortunately, Dr Glass wandered off so we don’t have pictures, but basically I wrapped it in clingfilm to prevent the colors from bleeding, arranged it in a bowl and zapped it on high heat for five minutes at a time. I kept the yarn slightly damp so that it wouldn’t burn. After a few rounds of this, the kitchen smelled faintly of damp sheep, and I proclaimed the yarn done.
I rinsed it in cold running water to finalize the setting of the stain. And let me tell you, food coloring + acid + heat creates a beautiful permanent dye… but a hell of a lot of unbound color still rinsed out. I went pretty wild with those super-concentrated gel pastes, so if you ever try this experiment at home, you can probably use a lot less.
But you know what? Fuck it. I didn’t want pasty-ass pissant colors on my rainbow yarn. I wanted life, vibrancy, saturation. Hold too much passion and ambition back and you’ll crumple in on yourself; your inner pilot light will go out; you’ll lose your chin and your mouth will pucker like a cat’s butt. SLAP ON THE PASTE, DARE TO FAIL! BETTER TO FAIL GLORIOUSLY THAN TO WIN AT BEING BORING. Colors take more work than beige, but they’re worth infinitely more: it’s the only way to live.
This will tell you a lot about my personality, and also about just how much dye I forced into that yarn. It bled beautifully for several minutes. The jewel-colored water ran through my fingers like child’s magic. I felt like I’d slaughtered a unicorn, or performed some kind of splendid alchemy. The color was more pleasant than paint; clear and pure, the light went right through it, and it didn’t stick to my hands.
And the dye held fast.
When I held the finished product up, it looked like something too bright and lovely to be real.
The camera actually couldn’t deal with it. It’s a brand new camera, specially purchased for such purposes, and it almost couldn’t manage these colors.
I laid the skein flat on a radiator to dry and went to bed on it. In the morning, it was even more beautiful. My most beloved colors – rich autumn oranges, wine reds, deep teals, passionate purples – were all so lovely that I only regretted not owning a dress in each perfect shade.
I was particularly pleased that I got some good variegation in the different strands of yarn for each color. When knitted, this will produce a lovely depth and texture, adding complexity to the knit. Plus, it looks handmade. Why bother spending your love and labor on something that will look perfect – mass-produced, homogenous? Make something that’s got you in it.
Results: I declare this protocol a success.
Now I just need to make something out of it.
ETA March 26 2013: This post got Freshly Pressed! How exciting! It will probably go live in a few days.
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