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Stick & Stone Fiberarts

or : One pound of fiber, two fiber artists, three yarns, and four colors.

In this article we plan on demonstrating how your dyeing is akin to your 'signature' or your fingerprint. Two fiber artists, given the same tools, using the same method, can wind up with very different results.

Materials used by Symeon and Amy for dyeing

  • Safety gear
  • Fiber -- one pound of domestic wool top
  • Jacquard dyes
  • Acid mordant -- white vinegar
  • Dye mixing containers and utensils
  • Synthrapol
  • Roasting pan -- enameled turkey-type roaster with lid
  • Oven
  • Sink for rinsing
Here's an overview of our dye process.

We start out by soaking our fibers for about a half an hour in enough warm water to completely cover them. Then gently strain the excess water out. (Try to handle your wet fibers as little as possible, to avoid neps or other damage like felting.)

We both used the same 4 colors of Jacquard acid dyes, purchased from Dharma Trading.

yellow #601
emerald #629
navy #626
purple #613

Although, the name "acid dyes" sounds pretty ominous, the only time they pose a danger are when they are in powder form.

Dyeing Safety Tips

  • Use tools for dyeing only, do not use any tools (pots, utensils etc) that will be used for food later. The oven and sink don't count
  • use dyes in a well ventilated area,
  • wear a dust mask when mixing dyes
  • keep pets and children out of the room
  • use rubber gloves
  • protect the surfaces that you'll be dyeing on (newspapers are good)
  • wear old clothes and shoes
Employing some simple precautions, such as using dyes in a well ventilated area, keeping pets and children out of the room, wearing a dust mask and rubber gloves, are strongly suggested.

It's also a good idea to not use the dye pot or utensils used for mixing or applying dyes for food.

We begin mixing our dyes by creating a slurry out of very hot water and our dye powder, by adding adding just enough hot water to create a paste and dissolve all the powder.

How Hot is Very Hot Water?
Since each color has its individual 'strike point', or temperature that it must reach to grab on to the fiber, in our experience, anything with red or yellow in it will take more heat to strike. For example, blue will dissolve to its even color at a lower temperature than green. So, bring your dye-mixing water to a boil.

Once completely dissolved, we can finish making our dye mixture by adding more water and our acid. We use white vinegar, approximately one part vinegar to three parts water.. White vinegar or citric acid crystals are preferred mordants. If you are using citric acid crystals, dissolve them before adding them to your dye mixture.

Hard Water?
If you have hard water, it will affect your dyes. There are dyeing-specific water softeners out there, some of which are toxic and require more precautions. Sodium hexameataphosphate is sold by many suppliers, including Dharma Trading. (You can use this in your soak and/or dye mixture.) Please follow the directions on the label.

The amounts of dye powder that you use will affect the outcome of your product. You can use very little for a light effect or quite a bit for more intense color. However, there is a point where your wool cannot take any more dye. It will use what it can and the rest will be wasted. The goal is to not waste dye and to have what you use be fully exhausted [that means it's absorbed by the yarn, leaving clear water behind].

Gently placing our damp wool in our enamel roasting pans, we apply color. You can either transfer your dye into a squirt bottle, or pour on your dyes directly from the containers you mixed them in.


When satisfied, we set the dye with heat.

Place in the oven at 250F. for about 30 minutes. (This time and temperature was a compromise, as one of us sets our dyes at 300F for 20 minutes while the other sets at 200 for 45 minutes.) Most dye manufacturers claim that most of the color should be absorbed within the first 20 minutes.

Remove roasting pan from oven and let cool completely (back to room temperature).

Then remove it from the roasting pan, and gently place it in a colander to strain out excess liquids. Rinse gently to remove any dye and mordant that remains. A dash or two of Synthrapol will ensure that any unfixed dye will come out. But be very careful during this step -- this is when most people accidentally felt the roving. (Always remember that the key ingredients for felting are soap, warm/hot water, and agitation.)

Now that the dyeing is done, the rovings don't seem to be dramatically different. The divergence in overall tone is spectacular, as one appears to be more "green" and the other more "blue" (or one is lighter and one is darker).

While both samples take advantage of controlled color bleeding, one incorporates the principles of negative space in its scheme (Amy), while the other is fully dyed (Symeon).

But let's look at what happens when we start spinning. The contrasting values are highlighted when the wool is spun into yarn, and altered even more when the wool is spun to various weights and particular styles.

With this, we also hope to demonstrate how to change the characteristics of a dyed top to suit your wants and needs. (If you haven't heard it, or experienced it for yourself, we'll repeat it here.... the most 'eh' dyed fiber, can turn into the most jaw-dropping yarn if spun into what it wants to be. Sadly this can also work in the reverse.)

First up, our bulky thick-and-thin single.

Both spinners took slightly pre drafted fibers (about pencil sized strips) and spun them at a low TPI/twist angle, with regular intervals of slubs. These yarns don't stray too far from the individual roving much, and the color changes remain intact. Although, with the yarns sitting side by side, the deviations start to pop out at us. The use of negative space in the yarn on the left is now in sharp contrast with the fully dyed yarn on the right.

Next, our 'high-low' 2 ply.

Here, both yarns are composed of one high-twist smaller single and a low-twist larger single. This application manipulates the color properties by distributing the colors to bring more balance to the overall tone of the yarn. It also adds a new dimension of texture. (The alteration of the textural landscape will be more apparent when worked into a fabric -- but that's another story.) This method is good to use when you are after accents, rather than a complete departure from your bulky single.

Last, but not least, our balanced 2-ply DK wt.

For these yarns, two (relatively) higher twist, evenly spun singles are plied together. This traditional plying method ensures a more thorough distribution of color. The tones of both yarns have changed radically. The orientation of the colors works with (and against) themselves to create a new layer of color. (A simple example of this principle is to ply a solid red single with a pink or white single. It will considerably 'lighten' your yarn & subsequent fabric.) This arrangement often gives a very nice "tweed" effect.

We hope that we provided some food for thought with this brief examination. Not only does an individual fiber artist have their own distinct way with colors, applied and articulated in a style as unique as their fingerprint, but, there are many ways to utilize a small palate, including incorporation of negative space, color bleeding, the size of one's drafting zone, and the distribution of color through plying techniques.


Amy King [left] is a Crazy Homeschooling mom by day. Whacked out dye maven by night. All her exploits can be found here.

Symeon North [right] lives with her family in the wilds of Vermont. By day she runs her online yarn shop, whist performing jobs such as short order cook, story teller, nurse, judge and jury, teacher, juggler and all round corraller of children. By night she has been known to drink beverages of fermented grapes and lift elephants over her head. You can visit her blog where she documents it all.