Dyeing and Overdyeing, or: My process, shared

I did a little more overdyeing about a week ago, fixing up some more yarn I wasn’t completely happy with and, since a few of my lovely knitterly friends had recently asked about how I dye yarn, I took some photos as I worked. I thought there might be some other curious people out there, though I have to stress that this is only how *I* dye yarn; I have no idea what others do, or even if I’m doing stuff that might be considered ‘bad’ by people with more know-how than myself. My steps do not contain specifics because I really am just figuring out how this goes myself, and I haven’t worried myself with exact measurements and repeatable colorways just yet. So this isn’t a tutorial, just a general overview of my process – it works for me, is relatively low-maintanence, and produces yarns I like knitting with. Which is pretty much all I really want from the whole thing.

To start with, I like to re-skein my yarn in as big a loop as is manageable – I usually use the long end of my coffee table. Honestly, this step is kind of a pain in the ass, but it makes a thinner skein, which makes it easier for the dye to get into those hard-to-reach places. I soak those skeins in a tub of water overnight …


… with nothing added, just water. Some people add a dab of dishwashing liquid, or even a little vinegar, but I don’t. No big reason, I just don’t. I let that sit overnight, to make sure the yarn is fully saturated. When it’s time do to the dyeing, I measure that same water into my two dyeing pots (which were on their way out and are now only used for this purpose) with the appropriate amount of vinegar. I get my measurements from The Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook, which I happily recommend to anyone looking to dye wool or yarn. Even if you have no desire to knit socks or do any handspinning, this book has the best, simplest, overview of the various dyeing methods. You’ll notice it open in a couple of the photos below – I always keep it handy when I’m dyeing in case I freak out and need some guidance.

So the yarn is now in the pot, with a water and vinegar mixture, which means it’s time to start heating it all up.


I keep the heat pretty low-ish – I’d rather wait longer than accidentally ruin my yarn – and let it slowly rise up to where I want it. I’m being vague there on purpose, because the temperature depends on what I’m doing. The dye will start to strike at a certain temperature, so I might add it to the pot below that temperature if I’m aiming for a more solid yarn. That way, the dye will have time to disperse evenly in the pot before the yarn starts to really take it up. If I want colors placed right where I pour them, for a more variegated effect, I will let the water heat more before I dump it in. While the pot heats, I mix up my colors …


I use Kemtex acid dyes and, again, my formula for dye mixing comes straight from The Twisted Sisters book. I am starting to understand how to create a repeatable colorway and a better way to mix colors but, for now, I just try to have an idea – especially if I’m overdyeing – of what I’m aiming for, and then work my way backwards. If you look again at the top photo, you’ll see that I started with two blue yarns. The one of the top originally looked like this – no way was that not going to pool. In that case, the goal was definitely to drown the pinks to create more of a blue-purple semi-solid. The other skein was actually a lovely color (more blue than the ‘before’ photo shows) but, surprisingly, had enough shade variation to obscure any pattern I tried. That was a little simpler, I just wanted to even out the shading.


I mixed up some blue dye, which is quite bright, for the first skein to try and get those pinks as close as possible to the blues. I used navy for the second because it was an almost perfect match for the darkest blue already in there. Because I wanted good coverage in both cases, I added the dye before it was fully heated.


I let the yarn bathe in the dye while it continued to heat, and waited until the water was clear. That’s it, really. When the water’s clear, it means that the yarn has taken up all of the dye. At this point I might carefully add more if there’s still more work to be done on the skein. If I’m happy with it how it is, I let it simmer very, very, very lightly for ten more minutes, then remove it from the heat. The last step is rinsing, and you want the rinse water to be the same temperature as the yarn to avoid felting, which is easiest to do if the yarn has cooled completely.


I pour it out of the pot and then dump the water out once it’s stopped steaming. When it’s ready to rinse, I use another tip from The Twisted Sisters and use the yarn to create a barrier between the drain and the water.


Just a wee drop of dishwashing liquid is enough for rinsing, and I just sort of lightly squish the water through the yarn on its way to the drain. When the water’s clear, that’s it!


The best part is watching the skeins dry; the colors always look slightly different dry than wet. As wet skeins, I was slightly underwhelmed. I was happy enough with the left skein, and it looked even nicer as it dried.

Overdyed commercial sock yarn

But the other skein really bothered me – it looked so dull and blah. I should’ve known what to expect – the white is the bamboo content, which can’t take up acid dyes and has a vaguely gray-ish look when wet. But dry – what a difference! The white returned to full brightness and shininess, the dull grayish color turned into a deep midnight blue – it went from blah to beautifully dramatic!

Overdyed commercial sock yarn

Overdyeing Day: Saving the stash one skein at a time

Way back when, when I was still a pretty new knitter, I – like many young knitters – discovered Kool-Aid dyeing. Whatthewhat?! You can make your own beautiful hand-dyed yarn, just like all those on etsy, with a packet of overly sweet drink mix?! Snort. As if it were that easy. But we all imagine we’re going to sprinkle some blue powder around and come up with magic – like a yarn fairy, if you will.

Of course, we kind of do, only maybe not as quickly as we like to think we will. I think any yarn dyer, professional or not, will tell you that even those early tragic skeins teach you so much about how the dye interacts with the yarn, how the colors interact with each other, and how to plan color placement on the skein. I’m absolutely not even close to a professional just a hobby kitchen dyer, dunking a few skeins every once in a while, but even I’ve come a long way since I first gave it a whirl.

My first Kool-Aid skeins have been wasting away in my stash pretty much since they came out of the dyepot – I think I’ve always known in my heart of hearts that they weren’t right. I didn’t know yet what kind of yarns I like to knit with (almost exclusively solids and semi-solids now) and I’ve given some of them a sporting try, but they all just obscured any pattern I tested and the colors were just a little too Kool-Aid. I got sick of them sitting around wasting space, so I finally set aside a whole day to deal with them. Get pretty or get out of my stash, enough was enough.

Here’s some before and afters, though I have to admit that this is a little bit like those weight loss ads in crappy magazines. Of course the after person looks amazing compared to the before, shown with limp, greasy hair, no make-up or styling in a grainy, gray photo.

First up – this used to be called Hawaiian Morning:

Hawaiian Morning Sock Yarn

But is now Jolene:

Overdyed Hand-dyed Yarns: Jolene

Ugh. I hate even having these ‘before’ photos on my pretty blog! The old colors don’t seem that offensive, this was more a case of the placement of the colors. I added ten tonnes of red, making it a nice semi-solid. It was still way too bright though, so I added, oddly, more red to make it deeper and then a little plum at a time to chill it out. I will, apparently, never get a nice photo of a red yarn with my simple little camera, but the photo up there is at least a close approximation of Jolene. This skein taught me to think ahead about what you’re basically going for and how to aim yourself in that direction. I’m not a big fan of red, generally, so I really had to think about what kind of red would be acceptable to me and then work myself there backwards.

This ‘before’ yarn, Take On Me, was definitely the worst of the bunch:

Take On Me Sock Yarn

But became my biggest win, Because The Night:

Overdyed Hand-dyed Yarns: Because The Night

Seriously, what the hell was I thinking?! Stripes might’ve been cute in these colors, but it was just a big splotchy mess instead. With that selection of colors, I knew the only way to save it at all was to just cover the whole damn thing in black, under the theory that plain black yarn is infinitely more useful than hideously ugly yarn. That worked pretty well, but it came out just slightly uneven with little touches of the orange showing through here and there. I threw it back in the pot the next day and dumped red and plum on it, which worked exactly as I’d hoped: a rich jet-black with a sort of purple-y glow. Overdyeing certainly takes time and patience, but does result in wonderfully deep and rich colors.

Amber Waves, a yarn that looks way nicer here than it had any right to:

Amber Waves

Became Grass Is Greener, this yummy grassy skein:

Overdyed Hand-dyed Yarns: Grass Is Greener

The ‘before’ photo is unfairly flattering – the real color was less canary-ish, much more highlighter-y. It was one of my first attempts with acid dyes and was actually almost nice; adding a little brown would’ve been a really simple way to make it more user-friendly. Um, if I hadn’t just bought a skein of Malabrigo Sock in that exact color. Dumping Jade over it did the trick just as well, but it still took the addition of some navy to defeat that highlighter glow.

Perhaps the yarn I most wanted to save was a batch of handspun laceweight, a merino/tencel blend that took me weeks to spin and ply. Man, was I disappointed when I tried to knit this yarn up into a Citron last year. Doesn’t it look like it’s going to be gorgeous in the skein? I thought so too, but in reality, I’d taken beautiful hand-dyed fiber (which I’d hoarded for a really long time as it was) and muddied up all the colors. Just to make matters worse, I’d somehow spun one skein to be self-striping and the other not so much. Just a sheer coincidence, where the colors met while plying, but it made them difficult to use together in one project. This problem yarn used to be called Starlite:

Starlite Handspun

The addition of blue fixed it right up, though it’s much more steel-y in real life, which is why I’ve re-named it Blue Steel:

Overdyed Hand-dyed Yarns: Blue Steel

What a relief to have saved it! Remind me to be more careful next time I spend so much time spinning laceweight.

And, finally, my very favorite overdye job. Valentine, as it was, didn’t seem so bad – not the worst yarn ever, but too much shade variation for my taste:

Valentine Sock Yarn

Plum – a cure-all, apparently – made all the difference. I think this one, now called Neat Little Rows, will be in my stash for a long time – not because I’m avoiding it again, but because I’ll be hoarding it.

Overdyed Hand-dyed Yarns: Neat Little Rows

This whole extravaganza was such an enormous success, I’ve gathered up two more bags of yarn with color issues for further overdyeing adventures!