Natural Dye Tutorial: Part I

April 14, 2010

I really want to say thank you to every one of you who either emailed or left a comment about Jacob beginning school. I think that I am still in shock, but you all made me feel like I was not failing, and that trusting both his feelings and needs, and my own intuition was OK. I am always amazed at how lucky I am to “know” all of you.

I wrote this post on Monday, after shooting the videos for all three segments that I wanted to cover. I was so excited to put it up yesterday, until You Tube decided to have a massive toddler style temper tantrum on me. It is currently 10:59 pm on Tuesday, and I am still waiting on one of the videos to finish. Of course, that did give me more time to spend outside in the gorgeous Spring weather, so perhaps I should be grateful for their lack of speed?

In thinking of putting together a tutorial on dying yarn naturally, I realize that this may not be something that can be done in one, or even two posts. Today, I wanted to go through the basic materials that are needed, the reasons for why natural dye has both positives and negatives, and how to get started.

A lot of people ask me why I chose to work with natural dyes. The common knowledge with synthetic, acid based dyes, is that they are safe because all you need to add to them is vinegar. That is 100% correct, except that they are synthetic dyes that are released into our water stream to be ingested.

Having said that, natural dyes have their drawbacks as well. Up until about ten years ago, you had to use heavy metals in order to have natural dyes adhere to your material with any kind of bright coloring. This practice is where, for the most part, natural dying can sometimes get it’s bad rap, and rightfully so.

Today, natural dyes can be made brighter, and just as long lasting as synthetic dyes by using Alum. Alum is a type of salt that is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, and is used in many different types of food products, cosmetics, and just about everything else you can imagine.

In all of my dye practices, I use something called Mordant Pot Economy, where I add mordant to our large mordant pot at 10% (cotton) and 20% (silk) of the weight of our yarn in ounces, only once. From there, I only add 5% with each additional batch of yarns that are mordanted. This usually lasts through at least four mordant batches, and greatly cuts down on the amount of alum needed.

My dyes and my mordants come from The Dye Works, as well as from plants that we grow in our dye garden. I would encourage you to check out the Dye Works website in detail. The original owner of this very small company, Donna, was my dye instructor, and she came to natural dyes because her husband had become very sick over the past 10 years with chemical sensitivities (both of them were chemists), and synthetic dyes were not an option. My father, both of my children and I all suffer from multiple chronic illnesses, so it was very important to me that I was sure that no one would get sick from my dying. I do not use gloves (I think that I learned that from my instructor, who did not wear them either), and I have had my heavy metal levels checked recently to ensure that I was safe, and I had a very low count of any in my system, no more than an average person who does not dye every day.

Our fiber comes from a farm in Northern Colorado that does not use their sheep for meat, and our yarns come from various sources around the US (although to be clear, while we use US companies, the yarns are from all over the world). Our cashmere is from a private source, and is not commercially milled. None of the wool that we use is chemically treated in any way. Of course, we are relying on our wool and fiber suppliers to be straight with us, since they do not reveal the sources that they get their materials from. Having said that, I have a completely chemical free home and work environment, and I react quickly to even a small amount of chemicals, so I feel confident that since I have been dying for a long time using the same process, and have never gotten sick, that the yarns that are used are indeed safe from chemicals of any kind. All of this is important if you are trying to achieve a completely naturally dyed yarn. I have recently found a wool supplier who I am just so blown away with, and who I can work one-on-one with, rather than having to go through a yarn distributor in order to use. I would recommend looking for someone like this, both to make your yarns truly unique, as well as to be able to know, first hand, exactly what you are getting with each skein of yarn.

To begin the process of getting yourself prepared to dye yarn, whether for many, or just for yourself, there are some tools that are essential. These may seem like a lot as we go through the video below, mainly because what I am showing you, I used for a business. You can dye your own yarns using much less than what I show here, with the idea of being able to look around your home, or to inexpensively purchase the materials that you need. To be honest, dying yarn is not an inexpensive hobby, and naturally dying yarn with concentrated dyes can get pricey, fast. Having said that, it is a growing craft, and one that so many find joy in.

As you saw above, dying yarn requires some basic materials from the kitchen, and can be very scaled down if you are simply dying for you. For instance, the HUGE steamer that I use for dying multiple skeins at one time can be achieved by either creating a mock steamer from a large pot in your house, or purchasing a very inexpensive bamboo steamer from just about any store. You can use your own tea pot or a simple pot to boil water for your dyes, etc. Naturally dying yarn does not require much if you are doing so in small amounts.

One tip that I was given, and that I strongly recommend, is that with each yarn you plan to use, you cut a small piece of it off and create dye cards. This can be done with every color that you have in your dye collection, or simply done each time that you achieve a new color combo that you like. You simply stick a label next to the hole punched slot, and write down the combo of dye mixtures (and their percentages) next to it. This helps to be able to have quick reference for each yarn that you use, and the different colors that can be achieved.

Now to get started. In the next post, I will actually take you through some dying techniques, and the basics of naturally dying yarn, but for today, we begin with filling a large enough bucket up so that your yarns have room to move in. I soak my yarns in plain water overnight (or at least 6 hours), to ensure that they are completely soaked through (if any part of the yarns are dry, the dye will not adhere).

From there, you will fill your mordant pot with hot water, and put it on the stove to bring it almost to a boil. Once that temp is achieved, you will want to add your mordant in a ratio of 10% mordant to the weight of all of the yarn being added (in ounces).You will increase your mordant to between 15%-20% for silk. Lower the temp to a simmer, and cook for at least two hours.

You now have mordanted yarn that can either be dyed right away, or dried and stored to dye at a later time.

In the next post, we will dive into the many techniques for actually dying your yarn, as well as the joy of playing with different color palettes. See you then!


The boys and I are really excited to be joining Lisa for her Great Outdoors Challenge. Although I have not yet posted our activities, we have been loving spending many hours together playing in the Spring breeze, and literally collapsing into sleep at the end of the day.

Yesterday was special though, because a certain 4 year old learned to ride a bike. I am starting to feel like my kids have sprouted up and grown so fast, I am hoping I didn’t miss anything. Thank you Lisa for inspiring everyone with this amazing challenge.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

samthehamsmom April 14, 2010 at 11:17 am

HEATHER, CONGRATS ON THE FUTURE! Growth is inevitable and A GOOD THING! He will thrive in school, as he has at home. WOW on the bike ride! We have yet to but the boys bikes, so that is the plan for birthdays this year. The dying process is very interesting, thanks for sharing. Laura


jessica April 14, 2010 at 11:28 am

Heather- You have no idea how excited I am to try an dye my own yarn. It is something I have always wanted to try, but it boggled my mind and I had no idea where to start. Now I do and I am eagerly awaiting the next installment. I'm sure this series has taken a bunch of time to create and I really appreciate it!! Thank you!


Kelly April 14, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Loving this tutorial – what a great resource!


Childhood Magic April 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm

thank you for this amazing tutorial! We are planning to try yarn dyeing soon, so this is great timing.


Claudia April 14, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Love it! We've been dyeing yarn with food coloring last year, and I'd love to try natural dyeing soon!


Healing Hillary April 14, 2010 at 12:59 pm

What a treasures this is! Thanks so much for sharing yourself in this sweet and special way!


AdirondackMama April 14, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I think that I would charge one million dollars for a skein of yarn if I had to keep track of all of that! That is AMAZING!
You have such a pretty voice, by the way.

I can't believe how great Elwood did on that bike. Holy Cow! Thank you for sharing this part of you and Shivaya with us all, you really DO have a gift.


angie April 14, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Oh how wonderful! I am a big fan of natural dyes, of course, and dye all the yarns for our school in the manner you describe and for the reasons you describe, plus, I would say that because the colors are from the earth, they have a different "vibration" than synthetic, and are just simply pleasing and healing to look at….so truly, there is an intangible "spiritual" element. I also thing natural dyeing can be a harmonic convergence of plant, animal, and mineral worlds.
i know that sounds "out there", but those colors are just plain healing if you ask me, and so good for the earth.


heirloomseasons April 14, 2010 at 3:41 pm

I do know some basics but am so excited to learn more form you. I have a great book checked out of the library right now called Wild Color. It mentions using rhubarb or oak galls as a mordant, we sure have plenty of that here… Will watch your video this evening, thank you!


larissa April 14, 2010 at 5:15 pm

I know this is only the first part but i have already learned a lot! i've always wondered about the mordant. Thank you for taking the time do to this. Your little guy is amazing – mine were much older before we finally took off the training wheels.


Heather April 15, 2010 at 12:11 am

Thankyou so much for the tutorial. To be honest I have never considered doing something like this but admire those that do. I am going to give it a go. Looking forward to the next lesson. I find your blog so inspiring….I wish I found it ages ago! Sweet Elwood on his bike….so clever!


AG Ambroult April 15, 2010 at 1:35 am

that video brought a huge smile to my face! And wow. I had no idea how involved the dying process is. I learned so much already. Can't wait for more.


silvia April 15, 2010 at 1:40 pm

priceless tutorial, waiting for the rest. thanx so much!!


Alise April 15, 2010 at 4:33 pm

How great to see Elwood riding a bike! He is always trying to catch-up with Jake isn't he? Give them both kisses from me


SugarMama April 15, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Congrats Elwood! I can't believe how smoothly he is riding – he looks like a pro already.


Valarie April 16, 2010 at 12:40 am

During the Inside/Out course we have to write 27 things that we want to learn and dyeing yarn was at the top of that list and now the very next day here is the tutorial. I'm so excited and you've given such great directives. Thank you. Isn't it great to be outdoors again?


Valarie April 16, 2010 at 12:41 am

Oops I forgot!!! Elwood looks great on that bike. Way to go.


Francesca April 16, 2010 at 11:21 am

Heather, I read this post, watched the video, and I'm totally hooked. I can't wait to go to the following one, and learn how you use the roaster and the asian pots! You have a lovely voice and, well, I wish I had your accent:)!


Ivy April 16, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Congratulations to Elwood for learning to ride a two-wheeler. Way to go!


Lisa Q April 18, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I learned so much reading this…thanks Heather. I've been unaware of the different techniques and issues involved in them when it comes to dying yarn…so impressed with your knowledge and your ability and willingness to share. Congrats to Elwood too…oh the places he'll go!


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