The Rainbow In Your Hands: Protocols for Hand-Painting Yarn

this is an artsy craft blog now. artsy craft blogs are cool, right? ...?

Figure One.

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.


In the aftermath of the unicorn dissection…

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.

“Yaaay! More bum-colored yarn! In acrylic! For reasons!”

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.


Dr Glass insisted that the packaging of the Wilton Icing Colors was meant to evoke the artistic works of Damien Hirst. I refused to believe that a paleontologist could know more about art than me. I, whose first degree was in Humanities! I, who was raised by a tribe of Fine-Arts-art-history-and-humanities-majoring wolves!

… But after a long discussion that involved a lot of Googling, I began to see his point.

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.


Craft blogs always include dreamy macro close-ups with the objects in the distance being really blurry. Here’s one of those.

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.


Pour your yarn a nice bath and seduce it a little.

Then I laid the yarn out on plastic, over a floor that I didn’t mind cleaning.

Most craft blogs suggest that you laminate your entire kitchen before doing this project. I half-assed with a posh bag.

Most craft blogs suggest that you laminate your entire kitchen before doing this project. I half-assed with a posh bag.

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.


Parts of this project looked disturbing.

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.


Look what I caught!

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.


Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose….



Results: I declare this protocol a success.

Now I just need to make something out of it.


1. Tips for Handpainting Fiber with Dye

2. “How to Dye Yarn with Food Coloring and Small Children.”

3. Dye Your Yarn


ETA March 26 2013: This post got Freshly Pressed! How exciting! It will probably go live in a few days.

New visitor? Stopping by for the first time? Welcome. I am a revolutionary scientist princess and this is my personal science/humor blog. Popular posts include “Cups Runneth Over: Love, Lifestyle and Clothing Tips for Large-Busted Ladies” and the ever-humorous Illustrated Compendiums Of Search Terms (Part One/Part Two.) I have guest-blogged on Captain Awkward (Here and here). I am currently collecting anecdotes and experiences from women and minority groups in STEM fields – if this is you, please share yours – and I can always be reached at the Contact! form, Facebook and Twitter.

Spammers, I warmly encourage you to stop by my first Freshly Pressed Post, “You’re a Strange Man, Charlie Darwin.” You must be aware that when one gets FP’ed, one is swamped by a howling swarm of insincere folks who wish to spam one with links to their profoundly uninteresting blogs. One is supremely uninterested in spam, and considers it only fit for target practice and revenge. Please keep this in mind.



87 thoughts on “The Rainbow In Your Hands: Protocols for Hand-Painting Yarn

  1. “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.”

    You OK there, Elodie? You seemed to get a little upset in the middle.

    Joking aside, this looks INCREDIBLE.



      I’m glad that you like it. (You’re getting something rainbow-themed as a wedding present, btw…)

      • Don’t worry, it’s just the everlasting grey of winter in Britain – I am wearing the brightest and clashingest colours I can at the moment until the sun comes back. I am unpopular with my husband as a result.

        I think this post may be the best thing there has ever been on the Internet. That is how much I like it.

        • Some day I’ll do Outfit of the Day posts where you can see exactly how brightling and clashing I’ve been trying to be! The bright yellow duffel coat cheers the whole world up, husband.

          Do you knit, Madame Misspiggy?

          • No, sadly I do not knit. This makes me even more admiring of people who not only knit, but do exciting hand-dyed yarns to cheer up the rest of the world. Yes, Outfit of the Day posts please! If I am to be denied a bright yellow duffel coat it would be very heartwarming to see one on someone else. (But there is significant hope of acquiring a bright yellow sofa, so progress is being made.)

  2. Oooooo, that’s a stunning piece of work Elodie! I particularly love the orange colour in the middle.
    Also, your sarky captions are genius as usual.

    What this reminds me of is dyeing my hair many funky colours with the temporary dyes. It always amazed me just how MUCH colour washed off afterwards. 😀

      • Red is so much fun! I’d wanted bright red hair since I was about 15 but Mum said no and I obeyed. By the time I reached post-grad though, my hair was my own! So I had it various shades of red, pink, almost-orange, and purple.

        I’m back to using the Lush Hennas though because it turned out I am too lazy to dye my hair every three/four weeks, and the bleaching between colour changes was beginning to fry the ends. But, it was fun, and if I end up in a job where I don’t have to classically ‘professional’ in appearance, I will do it again.

  3. This is amazing. If I wasn’t in the middle of 3 different knitting projects at the moment, I’d totally be on it.

  4. I love this, for it is hilarious, eminently followable, and timely. Being halfway through a scarf, I am eager to learn how to make exciting sea animals, and I want exciting colours to go with them. (I looked up the Amigurumi Knits book you had – the library has a copy, and Libraries West helpfully tells me that Eastwood Prison Library has one too, so there’s another option.) The berries reminded me of this photoset – (I don’t know how to do links) from a Finnish bookbinder who is indeed dyeing wool with berries and pinecones and nettles.

    • ALEX! I’m so glad to hear from you.

      1.) Thank you so much for telling me that a local prison has a deep interest in knitting monsters and starfishes. This is a piece of understanding that will cheer me up all day. I genuinely hope they get a lot of the book.
      2.) Please do share your knitting journey. If you tire of your scarf, perhaps you can turn the rest of it into a starfish (scarffish.)
      3.) Thank you for the educational visit to the bookbinder. When I see that sort of thing – whether it’s this person, making tiny bridles for toy ponies and nettle-dyed yarn, or a pregnant lady – I get the immediate immature urge to go “WELL, I COULD DO THAT TOO IF I WANTED TO, I’M JUST NOT DOING IT RIGHT NOW.”
      4.) If you do want to double a starfish, I have the pattern, though you’ll probably figure it out for yourself (and better.) Actually, that would be a great thing to have – mathematician knitting buddy who can help me double patterns. GET ON THIS, ALEX.

      • While I wait for the book to return to the library, I am knitting a glove. I may even make two. I wanted to follow your dyeing instructions for the starfish, but while in London at the weekend I dropped by I Knit and found some lovely yarn in a shade called Peacock (I have seen peacocks and this shade is at most a bit of a peacock, but it is so pretty) so now I will be making a peastar. One day.

        (Would knitting needles would be allowed in prisons? Because pointy. I am unsure. Can you take them on planes? Do I know how to use Google?)

  5. Elodie, these are absolutely gorgeous [really, they are so gorgeous, I don’t even know how to properly express that]!❤
    I'll have to read it again very carefully and with a dictionary beside me, though, because there are quite a few words I don't know (yet) so I can't fully understand the process at the moment. Which is essential, because I want to do something like this too!

  6. Dear Elodie,

    Decided to work from home today and just went to microwave my lunch.

    Do you have any idea why the inside of the microwave appears to be yellow, red, green, and blue?

    Your loving Dr

  7. I’m not a knitter and my nearest attempts at crafting were a failed attempt at jewellery making and sewing a simple shopping bag (fell apart pretty much straight away).
    I do love colour though and that is one beautiful array – I love how the different colours meld into each other. Oh, my, they are just so vibrant. You have to post a picture of whatever you make of that.

    Also, this is a pretty inspiring part even for non-crafty folk:
    “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.”

    Word, dude.

  8. I have a sack full of yarn I dyed for my aunt and uncle’s rug factory in my wardrobe upstairs. Dyeing things is SO MUCH FUN. There is little more satisfying than reaching into a pot of murky water and pulling out brightly-coloured cloth or wool. It still feels a little like magic.

      • There is a book called “No Sheep for You” that goes through many different types of yarn.
        Also a high quality merino silk blend might help with texture issues. Or, of course, cashmere… mmmmmm.

  9. I am just loving this post I am NOT a fellow knitstress, but my sister from another mister has gone through all your experiences ….onto looming and making your own yarn from animal hair… just hysterical I need to pass this on to her…. Love your humor!🙂 kiss,kiss~Silly~

    • What a brilliant job you’ve done of not paying any attention whatsoever to the post you claimed to read. I’ve removed the links to your blog, and will set your image in a voodoo shrine. You have been TOLD, child.



  10. Wonderful! I’m one of those that tends to stock-pile the yarn, and after a while, well… People have gotten scarves and hats galore, but I’m at a loss of what next to crochet. I love the use of the Wilton colors – I purchased a box with the goal of making my son a train birthday cake, but alas, the box is still unopened in the cabinet. I have a feeling I will be using the colorings for this instead. Brilliant!

  11. Craft activities make me tense and I practically come out in hives at the sight of a needle. But this made me laugh and I will point my knitting friends at your rainbow.🙂

  12. Beautiful colors! also my favourites. Yes, dyeing yarn is next on my to-do list – I’ve got half the materials for it … now if I can get a free weekend from soccer and tournaments, etc.

  13. Pingback: Freshly Riffed 25: At Night, The Ice Weasels Come | A VERY STRANGE PLACE

  14. I’m not a knitter but as a photographer I have to say those vivid colors are wonderful. Almost makes me want to start knitting just to work with the color. I’m not sure how much fun this would be in our 230 sq ft RV. Probably have to do the actual dying out on a picnic table alongside the coach and I can just imagine the comments from passers-by.
    Thanks for a fun, interesting read.
    A retired photographer looks at life
    Peter Pazucha dot Com
    Life Unscripted on WordPress

    • Now this is a gentleman whose blogs I’ll happily visit!

      I think the comments from passers-by would be half the fun! But for small colorful crafts, this technique should work with any other natural animal fibers – perhaps you could play with color outside in warm summer weather.

  15. I loved this post! Most craft blogs tend to bore me to sleep – they seem too sugary sweet that I tend to just tune out what they say completely. This entry, on the other hand, really felt like an actual person talking to me.🙂

  16. Fun! Dying my own yarn is one thing I’ve never tried. Maybe my daughters and I should make this a fun joint project!🙂

  17. Found you on FP and so glad I dropped by to visit because I had NO IDEA that you could abuse Wilton gel icing colours in this way. I merely make Red Velvet cake and other much more boring things🙂

    Not a knitter but am a handcrafter (teaching myself bobbin lace) so I completely understand about the MOAR COLOR concept – there is a saying you might know “if less is more, just think how much more MORE would be” – I think you embodied that beautifully here.

    Am also a photographer and loved the action series of shots (do unicorns really bleed rainbows, i thought they pooped them?) esp the close up shots at the end. Waves hi to you from Merino land🙂 Congrats on the FP!

  18. veeery nice indeed, the colours are incredible. Questions: 1. have you tried dyeing cotton? 2. if so, does it also work so well? and 3. how well does the colour hold when it’s washed? All these questions! You can delete this comment if you’re totally irritated🙂 But I loved reading your post and will follow you slavishly from now on.

  19. Love everything about the yarn, the colors, and the writing…bravo! I just started a food blog but I am crocheting a granny square every day this year and using them under my dishes. Hope this isn’t considered spam…you would like the colors, honest.

    • Not at all, my dear! I think your blog is great. And you’ll have a cool vintage afghan when you’re done!

      The spam that I hate is basically just those one-word comments with 500 repetitive versions of “Cool post, check out my blog.” But genuinely interesting people with attractive snacks get FOLLOWED!😉

  20. Pingback: hand dyed yarn… | misssmitchell

  21. Pingback: Liebster Award | Misadventures in craft

  22. :O

    I love jewel tones too, and I’d love to try out dying my own yarn at some point. You probably explained this in your post, but it went over my head–so how did you get such pretty variegation?

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