One of the essential features of my new ARTHaven when I was designing and planning it, was to have a sink with running water, and a microwave. This picture was taken before the work was finished.
I now have a table in front of the balcony door from which to work – this is moveable and can also take up residence in my ARTHaven proper if necessary. My intention is to fix a drying rack above the sink – the previous owner of the house left behind a steel saucepan rack (Ikea, I think), and once I have sawn the rails to length, I shall fix a bracket over the microwave and the rails will enable me to suspend skeins of yarn by hooks so that they can drip into the sink. In the meantime, I can use the airer in the utility room.
Many years ago I did some experiments with acid dyes and woollen yarn, but this remained very inconvenient to pursue until I had a better setup, so it all got set aside and packed away. Ever since I got established in my new ARTHaven I have wanted to revive this activity, and this has now become more urgent because I am running out of the chestnut brown yarn for my knitting project. I am now in frugal/recycling mode and if I can dye some yarn to the required shade rather than buying it, I shall be well pleased. A while back I bought a large cone of unbleached 4-ply machine knitting wool just for this purpose.
I have set out my acid dyeing equipment on the table:
I also have some Procion (reactive) dyes for use with cellulose fibres (vegetable fibres, e.g. cotton) but for the moment I am concentrating on acid dyes which work best for protein fibres such as wool.
You might ask why I am using chemical dyes rather than natural dyes which produce such gorgeous subtle colours. The answer is that chemical dyes are very much more convenient to use, and it is possible to get repeatable results, which are not possible with natural dyes. Also, the process of natural dyeing is more complicated, with the addition of different mordants (dyebath additives that enable the dyes to “bite” into the fibres and become fast) for different materials, and to produce different colours from the same materials. The dye materials have to be sourced and gathered, often in quite large quantities in order to produce sufficient colour, and the whole process is a lot more messy and takes up a lot more room. Chemical dyes are very sophisticated these days, and while the basic unmixed colours can seem very harsh, especially at full strength, with careful blending and at greater dilutions, the most beautiful and subtle shades can be created, every bit as attractive as the colours produced by natural dyes, without the hassle.
When I made my initial foray into dyeing all those years ago, I bought this excellent book which explains how the different types of dye work, and how to use them in the small, non-industrial craft-room setting. As far as I know it is no longer in print, but there are many similar books on the market.
These are the dyes I bought at the time – a good representative selection of colours. It is possible to mix the three primaries (blue, red and yellow) to produce every colour, and with black, to create deeper tones (in this selection, black is called “toner”) but the addition of a turquoise blue, brown, pink (a crimson red with a higher blue content than the basic scarlet red) and violet, it is possible to create the full range of colours more easily and with less risk of “muddiness.”
These dyes come in powder form, and are extremely concentrated. In industrial quantities, they can be accurately measured and added to bulk quantities of fibre, but in the craft room setting, where one is dealing with much smaller quantities of yarn, it becomes impossible to weigh out the small quantities (minute fractions of a gram) that are required, so it is necessary to make up stock solutions of the powder with water – the standard is a 1% solution, which is 1 part dye to 100 parts water, or 1 gram to 100 ml of water. This basic solution of known strength can then be added to the dyebath with much greater accuracy with the use of small measuring cups and syringes, the quantity being governed by the exact weight of yarn being dyed, and the depth of colour required.
Unfortunately some of my original stock solutions have dried up, and I am not sure of the concentration of the ones that have not, so I am going to have to dispose of them and start again. It is not a problem because each stock solution uses such a small quantity of the powder and I have plenty more of each colour.
The amount of water required for the dyebath is known as the liquor ratio and is commonly 20:1, i.e. 20 parts water to 1 part fibre, or 20 ml water per gram of fibre.
The most astonishing thing I discovered when playing with this before was that if you measure everything accurately, however intense the colour may be with the addition of the dye to the dyebath, after the dyeing process has completed, the dyebath ends up absolutely clear, with every molecule of colour having been taken up by the yarn! This is very impressive to witness.
To aid the colour take-up and the fastness of the dye, certain dyebath additives are required. With acid dyes, the acid is acetic acid, or vinegar. Glauber’s salt, or sodium sulphate, is a white powder which can be made up into a stock solution of 10% (100g powder to 1 litre of boiling water), and is added to the dyebath before introducing the fibre. Its purpose is to block the takeup of the dye by the fibres at the initial stage of dyeing; as the temperature is increased, this effect is reduced. This enables the dye to be taken up by the fibre in a more controlled way, resulting in a more even colour.
Here is my measuring equipment. The simple set of metric scales is very accurate; you simply slide the black bar along in the stand until the black lines line up with the weight you require on the scale, and when the correct weight of dye or fibre is placed in the white cup, the scales will balance on the stand which has a curved underside. I have several ice cream tub spoons, syringes in various sizes for measuring small quantities of liquid dye, measuring cups and glass and plastic stirrers. I also have a dairy thermometer (not pictured). With microwave dyeing, the temperature is less critical.
The great advantage of microwave dyeing is that it is easy to dye small quantities, which is probably what I shall want for most of my projects. Also, you can dye several batches at once, as they are in separate containers. The heat is very uniform and without the “hot spots” you can get on a conventional hob, which helps keep the colour uniform. The book says that there is no danger doing dyeing in a microwave primarily used for cooking, although the utensils used for dyeing should be separate. In my case, of course, the microwave in my ARTHaven is exclusively for art and craft use and is not used for food preparation anyway, and the equipment never finds its way into the kitchen.
From the beginning I decided to keep an accurate record of my experiments, and I used an A5 ring binder, and created a series of pages made from card with punched holes through which I could inset a small sample of dyed yarn, together with the recipe, and the description – e.g. Single colour, half strength (5% solution), so that all the colours could be accurately reproduced when required. This photo shows some of the darker colours, with the full-strength basic, unmixed colours on the left, and half-strength on the right.
Later on in the book are the results of a much weaker solution of dye, and some of the colours are beautifully subtle, especially when mixed.
With accurate measurement, any colour in the colour library should be easily reproducible. I never got round to finishing the book, but hope to complete the task soon, and also do some experiments with mixing from the colour wheel, which I have learnt more about since those days – for example, it is often better and more subtle to add a little of a colour’s complimentary from the opposite side of the wheel to dull the colour, rather than by adding black. There are instructions in the book for creating a colour wheel from rings of card wound with the different colours of yarn, and it would be fun to create one of these – not only is it a useful reference tool, but it is also highly decorative and beautiful.
When I was exploring the delights of dyeing all those years ago, I created this display board for a craft show I took part in, to show the small sample skeins I made at the time, attached to a cork bath mat with pins and narrow ribbon. Even though it is incomplete, it is still an attractive display! Each skein is labelled with a small tie-on label, giving the colour, intensity, proportions of mix, etc.
Watch this space for progress with my experiments. It will be very useful to be able to produce any colour I want, in the quantity I want, for any given project.
As time goes on, I am looking forward to experimenting with Procion dyes and dyeing some cotton fabric. I have some wooden printing blocks from Colouricious, and I also recently acquired some decolourant, a substance you can paint onto fabric or paper etc., or stamp with rubber stamps or wood blocks, and with the application of heat, the colour disappears. In my dye box is a selection of fabric paints which can also be block printed. Many moons ago, like my 1960s contemporaries, I dabbled with tie-dye and there’s a lot of potential with that, too. I have huge quantities of old white cotton sheets and it will be fun to transform some of this fabric into something creative and more useful. I feel the time has come to expand my mixed media work into fibre and stitch, and I am very much looking forward to getting going on the sewing machine and introducing free motion embroidery into my projects too, especially the teabag art. Combining all this with paper and card, inks and acrylics, gel mediums, metal, melted and fusible textiles, the boundaries are becoming less and less distinct and anything goes!!
Update – I’ve been dyeing all afternoon and have made up new stock solutions in all 8 colours, and after dyeing a test skein with a mixture of brown and red and a touch of yellow, have now dyed two nice skeins of a rich dark chestnut brown for my knitting! It is cooling in the dyebath and I’ll wash it later, and hang it to dry, so photos in the next couple of days, I hope. I have to report that the setup in my ARTHaven with the table by the sink and the microwave above, with light coming in through the balcony door, is absolutely ideal. I can even plug the kettle in nearby!