A Beginner's Guide to Dyeing Wool

Ok, I know that this isn't exactly a guide to felting; however at some point, especially once felting becomes a bit more than a side hobby, you'll likely start considering how to acquire your materials at a cheaper rate, or when you want to have colors that are difficult to find. I have discussed it a few times, including going over it on one of my live "Sip 'n Stabs," but I thought I'd get it all written out for you too. Note: this is a simple beginner's guide to acid dyeing; I'm not going to into the more difficult dyes or natural dyes. If you are interested in those, I highly recommend buying or checking out some books on the topic. There is a bit more work involved.

After all, $30 for a lb of wool is not exactly cheap, and that's the cheapest I've found for dyed wool. That's for the coarse stuff - merino is far more than that (though it's also more undyed/unprocessed). Especially when you can get undyed wool for $12-16 per pound (sometimes even less if you buy it in bulk). Ebay is a good place for buying wool. So are the fiber sale groups on Facebook.  

Yes, it is a little bit more work, but it's not so much work that it isn't worth it. You can get all the supplies you need for about $100 new or less if you already have some of the things on hand or find them in a thrift store (like the stock pot), and after that it's just a matter of spending a few bucks here and there to build up your dye collection and buying your wool. 

What you will need:

  • HUGE stock pot. Not one you use for food prep. Stainless steel is best, 20 quart minimum. You can get enamel pots too, just note that they are not recommended for glass-top ranges. On Amazon they run about $40 for a 20-quart with a decent rating. Check out restaurant supply warehouses - you'll likely find them there cheaper. STAY AWAY FROM ALUMINUM POTS - they will pit from the acid over time.
  • Acid dyes. They are not actually acidic. What that means is you use an acid to set them. Some people have had luck with using fiber reactive dyes with protein fibers (which is what wool is, as well as silk) and setting those with acid. The two brands I use are Jacquard and Dharma. 2oz of wool will easily last 2lbs of wool, and costs about $2-5 depending on the dye.
  • Acid. I like to use citric acid. Some people use vinegar. If you dye with vinegar, your house will smell like vinegar (but it won't stay in the wool). Not to mention a bag of citric acid takes up less space and goes a long way. You can get a 5lb bag on Amazon for $13-15
  • Thermometer. Plenty of people dye without one, but I like to use one because certain dyes, like turquoise, require a really high temperature, but you don't want the water to boil lest you felt your wool. I have a glass candy thermometer that clips on the side of the pot. Those run about $5-7
  • Milligram scale. Your average kitchen scale isn't going to be sensitive enough to weigh out your dye. Again, not everyone does this - some people just sprinkle it in without measuring because math. On the other hand, weighing it out means you're not needlessly weighing dye (a little goes a long way) AND if you keep a log, you can write down how much dye you used and how long you dyed it to achieve a particular color. It's hard enough trying to replicate a color, but I guarantee it's infinitely more difficult if you don't remember what you did to get it in the first place. The milligram scale I have comes with a little dish that you can put your dyes in as well as little spoons which I use to scoop the dye out of the container. Unfortunately the one I purchased comes with tweezers now instead of scoops, so make sure you buy some mini scoops as well. You can use a plastic spoon too. Scale $15-20. Scoops $5-8
  • Mesh colander. Any sort of strainer you have in the kitchen should work just fine. You just need to be able to let the wool drain after it's dyed and cool off before rinsing. My favorite are the free-standing mesh type. $17 on Amazon for a 3-piece set
  • Tongs. These are to move your wool to and from the dye pot and to help stir your wool. These rarely cost more than a few bucks. Any tongs will do. I have a cheap pair of metal ones that I keep with my dye stuff.
  • A tub, bucket, or big mixing bowl of some sort. This is to soak your wool before dyeing and then rinse it out after dyeing.
  • Glass jar. I've seen some people who just sprinkle the dye into the dye pot. That's great especially if you want some variation in your dye. I personally like to use a plain jar (clean out a jar from your pasta sauce, jelly, etc. and reuse that) and some of the heated up water to dissolve the dye in the jar before pouring it into the dye pot. Use a wooden skewer to mix it. Again, don't use anything you plan on using for food prep. 
  • Safety equipment. You'll want dust masks and gloves. You definitely don't want to be breathing in the dust, and the dye is not easy to wash off your skin. I also like to spread a trash bag on the countertop where I put my tools for easy clean-up so I don't have to worry about if I spill some dye on the counter. Goggles are also not a bad idea to have on hand. Tip: next time you go to your doctor's office, see if they have any sitting out for patients/visitors. My kids' pediatrician's office and children's hospital have them in the waiting areas. Either way, they're cheap. A 50-pack of dust masks is $6-7. Disposable gloves are $5-6 for a box. You can order them on Amazon, or if you have a Harbor Freight nearby, stop in there.
  • Wool. Check Ebay, fiber buy-sell-trade groups on Facebook, sheep & fiber festivals, or do some searching online for raw wool. I use the same fiber I use for my core wool, so I buy up a bunch in bulk and dye as needed. 

Which Dyes to get

My opinion, get them all! LOL

That being said, that would be a lot of money, and even I don't own all the dyes. So, I do this two ways. First, I buy the primaries in larger quantities (8oz-1lb). For specific colors I buy them in 2oz increments. My reason is that it's a LOT of fun to mix up colors, and it's not that hard to do. Want a reddish orange? Use a lot of red and a bit of yellow. Want a goldenrod color? Use a lot of yellow and a pinch of red. However, some colors are a little more difficult to obtain through mixing, like browns or hot pink or a bright purple. 

These are the primaries for Jacquard acid dyes:

  • Warm primaries: 617 Cherry, 624 Turquoise, 601 Sun Yellow
  • Cool primaries: 618 Fire Red, 623 Brilliant Blue and 601 Sun Yellow

Dharma's primaries:

  • Warm primaries: 402 Fire Engine Red, 404 Sapphire Blue or 409 Dark Navy, 401 Brilliant Yellow
  • Cool primaries: 411 Deep Magenta, 407 Caribbean Blue, 401 Brilliant Yellow

Luckily Dharma lists (primary) next to the dye names on their site. There are more primaries than the ones here - that just means those colors are not easily obtained by mixing the primaries. Like hot pink or black. Those I'd only get in 2oz increments. Although Jacquard lists two primary yellows, at the time I researched this, 601 worked for both warm and cool colors (if it's a pure enough color, like a pure magenta or pure cyan, it works for both). You do want to pay attention to warm vs cool, because it does make a difference. They'll be good for mixing some hues but not others. That being said, there is no "wrong" in mixing dyes - this is why it's important to experiment and document to figure out how to get the colors you want for your projects. 

For the other dyes, grab what you need when you need it. Dharma's shipping is incredibly fast.

Mixing Dyes 

If you know basic color theory, that's pretty much all you need to know to mix your colors. 50% red and 50% yellow will get you orange. 50% yellow and 50% blue will get you green. Play around with the percentages to get different hues. 

However, you can get even more specific if you have a very specific color in mind and want to know how to obtain that. You can find the color you want using this CMYK picker (C=cyan, M=magenta, Y=yellow, K=black). Then, you can use the CMYK value of the color to figure out how much of each dye to use. This PDF explains the math behind it, or use this calculator to do the math for you. I personally love the converter because it tells you how much dye to weigh out, not just the percentages in the total makeup. For the depth of shade, enter in how dark you want it to be. I typically use 2% for everything (if you look at the charts on Dharma's site for the colors, those are supposed to be at 2%). Since I'm not getting into dye stock solutions, I'm not worried about the stock solution percentage, water ratio, or any of that. I don't have the storage to set up a bunch of stock solutions - I just mix and go. For what we're doing here, just pay attention to the CMY or CMYK, the dry weight of your fiber (weigh your wool that you plan on dyeing), and your depth of shade. The other side will tell you how much dye you need to weigh out for your fiber. This is a good calculator even if you're not mixing colors because it'll still tell you how much dye you need. So if you're dyeing 2 oz of fiber at 2% OWG (% Of Weight of Goods), you'll need .04oz of dye. See, you don't have to do math, it does it for you.

Prepare to Dye

Anyone else think of Inigo Montoya from Princess Bride here? "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." No? Just me?

So, you have all your stuff out ready to go. Now what?

First, after weighing out your wool to figure out how much dye to use, get it soaking in a bowl of water. You can put dry wool directly in the pot, but it takes the dye up easier/more evenly if it's soaked first. Some people soak it with the acid, some people don't. I don't use acid in my soak, which I'll explain in a minute. 

Fill your pot with water and get it heating up on the stove. It's a lot of water, it might take a while. Clip your thermometer on the pot so that the tip is in the water. Personally I like to start the heat on high, then as it approaches boiling (at about 200 degrees F) I knock it down to medium. You want a lot more water than your fiber. This is why I recommend bigger pots. If you stuff your pot, the water (and dye) will not be able to get to all of it, and you'll end up with fiber that isn't dyed or barely dyed. You want it to float freely.

This is when I measure out the dye I'm going to use in that batch. Once the water starts getting nice and hot, I use the jar to scoop out some of the water in the pot, add the dye to the jar, stir it with a skewer, and once dissolved I pour the whole thing back into the pot.

Add your wool to the pot.

Here's another one where people differ on how they do things. Some people add the acid at the start. You'll want a cup of vinegar or 1 tablespoon of citric acid for a pound of wool. I don't do less for less wool, but you shouldn't need more than that. The other school of thought is, if you want to have consistent color, to not add your acid until close to the end, when the dye has had a chance to absorb into the fiber. If you add it in the beginning, you will have color breaks. Some dyes take longer than others to set. Reds set a lot faster than blues. In my experience, turquoise seems to take forever to get absorbed. If you like color breaks, have fun with it. The best way to figure this stuff out is through experimentation. You don't need the acid to absorb the dye, you need it to make sure the dye stays put and doesn't wash out.

Leave your wool to dye in the pot for half an hour to an hour, very gently stirring it (I'll just poke it with my skewer or the tongs a few times to make sure the dye bath is flowing through it). You don't want your pot boiling. You don't want to agitate your wool. Basically you don't want to accidentally felt your wool. This is even more important when dyeing finer fibers such as alpaca or merino than coarser wools, which can handle a bit more prodding. It seems as if finer fibers can felt a bit if you just look at them wrong. I would suggest if you're just starting out, practice on coarser fibers. Once it's been in there a while and the color seems to be where you want it, add the acid. You'll know it's done when you can see in the pot, and the water is clearish. Some people can get it nearly water clear, but having a bit of a tint to it is okay too.

Optional: if there is still a bit of dye left in your pot but your wool is the color you want it (it's not that easy to tell when it's wet, it lightens up a bit when dry), soak a bit more wool and throw it in the pot. I always do this when I dye, because even those lightly tinted colors are great, especially if you're blending your fibers later for a more custom color. Like, let's say you're going to do a wool painting of a sky, and you got your sky blue, but you still got some blue tint in the pot. Throw some more wool in for a baby blue wool. You'll be able to use that for your clouds!

If you're done and not dyeing more wool, remove it from heat and let it reach room temperature before removing your wool. If you plan on dyeing more in the same bath, use a pair of tongs to gently remove your wool and put it in a bowl to transfer to a colander or strainer of some sort. Leave it in the sink to drain and cool off.

Once the wool is cooled off, grab a bowl and fill it with lukewarm water. Add the tiniest splash of wool-safe soap (I use unicorn clean). Gently swish it in there to rinse out any extra dye. Change out the water and rinse it. Sometimes the dyeing process can dry out your fiber, so you can add a fabric softener (don't use store ones for this, Dharma sells milsoft, Unicorn Clean has a fiber rinse) to restore the softness. Don't use too much, because it's essentially coating the fiber, so the tiniest amount of that goes a long way.

Set your wool out to dry. You can hang it outside, or hang it over your tub, or place it somewhere on a mesh screen. It will be a bit drippy though, so keep that in mind. I have a contraption in my laundry room for hanging things to dry, and part of it hangs over the utility sink, so that's where I hang my wool. Periodically check on it as it's drying and gently pull the fibers apart to fluff it up and allow more air to circulate through it.

Once it's dry, it's ready to use! It won't look as pretty as the roving you buy online because it's not carded, but unless you're spinning with it, that's not really necessary. The photo above is how mine looks without being carded (I dyed roving, you can dye batting too. In fact you can dye wool in any form as long as it's scoured first). You can felt with it as is. I like to run mine through the drum carder one time before it's put away, but I was dyeing wool before I had any carders. It's totally fine.