Dyeing in the Kitchen - Myra Dorman

March 29, 2003

Myra Dorman

Myra Dorman
Myra Dorman
Photo: Terry Henley

Coming into the meeting room, what did I see? Can you guess? A large table on top of which were all kinds of beautiful balls of white wool, cotton, variegated colors in what was obviously a carefully prepared arrangement. Near the wall atop a two-burner stood two stainless steel, three-gallon pots, filled almost to the brim. In spite of the title of this presentation, surprise was there. What would happen next? Seated near this array was a jolly woman ready to talk and share her knowledge.

Myra was able to demonstrate very clearly that with careful planning and preparation, anyone could do dyeing of raw fleece, finished products, commercial or hand-spun yarns in their own home. Not only that, but with a little more planning and forethought, dyeing could be done with little children; with the children, her advice was to do any necessary heat treating before or after. That way, even very little ones can have fun with the room temperature or cold-water procedures.

The first decision might need to be, what to wear. What disposable garment do I have because, as she said, anything that you don't want to be dyed will get colored. To work with children there are dyes that can be mixed in a cold-water preparation and heat-treated later in the sun or the dryer. Where to do the dyeing? Your kitchen might be the best place, water and stove being handy. Myra suggested confining yourself to a small area. Cover all counter spaces to be used and the floor space as well. Never dye in any utensils that you use for food. Any mixing necessities can be inexpensive plastics. Once they are used keep them separate from your culinary supplies. Once you have used chemicals in a pot or put utensils inside a solution the chemicals can never be extracted. So, to be even more specific, build a supply of dyeing tools and put them aside, out of the kitchen if possible to be used the next time dyeing is to be done. Lastly, do not have food in the area when you are dyeing; it's better to remove the gloves you are probably wearing and leave for another room to eat in. Chemicals involved in the dyeing process are hazardous to health.

Members trying the dye process
Members trying the dye process
Photo: Terry Henley

Again, dye is often in powder form; this means dust so that you may want to not only cover tabletops and counters but remove any foods or utensils that are around. In preparing, try to account for doing all at once. Dyeing is chancy, no matter how careful you might be about the proportions, the temperature, any and all of the variables.

From her long experience, Myra has discovered that the biggest mystery element is often the kind of water that is available. And even if you try to repeat everything exactly and precisely a second time, it may not turn out- it could be a difference in the water, a difference in the precise amount of the powder, or ??? Both chemical and natural dyes are equally mysterious. For example you can use some beets to get a deep red color; try the same thing again and you might get dark brown.

Myra uses Procion commercial dyes. Procion MX dyes for all cellulose fibers and acid-based dye for protein fibers (animal fibers, cotton, silk, etc). These dyes are easy to use; they require only hot water, salt and soda ash. It is useful to keep a format card or formal record of precisely what was done. Include the time of year and it may be possible to repeat. You can add some white vinegar to a dye bath; the acid in the vinegar activates the dye. At this point in her talk Myra began a demonstration. The tabletop had already been very well covered with plastic. Now she covered the floor with several layers of newspaper. She took a rollag of mohair and put it into a porcelain-lined roasting pan. She took some of the hot water that had been mixed with soda ash, non-iodized salt and some vinegar and wet the mohair slightly. Then she put one-half teaspoon of orange dye powder into a spray bottle that had about one cup of water. She then sprayed the mohair because what was wanted was a variegated color. Another color could then be added. This pan will be covered and put into the oven for 45 minutes at 400 degrees. It will be left to cool with the cover on. It will then be put into another container until it warms up. (cools down).

When it is cool it can be carded and spun. For yarn that is already spun, the same technique can be used. Generally synthetics do not dye well. Neither do fabrics that have a finish on them.

More experiments
More experiments
Photo: Terry Henley

Always wash any product before you put it into dye. Wash all wool in Ivory soap, very gently. Don't abuse yarn; this means do not rub or scrub it, just soak it with a little detergent and squeeze gently when you remove it.

Myra mentioned that Kool-Aid is used for dyeing with children. She cautioned us that when it is heated to set the dye, Kool-Aid becomes carcinogenic. She suggested using Dylon with cold water and then heat set it later in the sun. Leave it on a hedge for two days. Icing colors can also be used with children. Again the suggestion is to use cold water and heat set it later.

The workshop became a hands-on experience for many of us who had the chance to brush cotton with red and blue dye after it had been prepared in the hot water bath. So we all had a variegated strand to take home and dry and heat set. Thank you Myra for sharing with us.

--Sara Briggs