Bring Your Wool Dyeing Into the 21st Century! Advanced Methods Made Simple

One snowy New Hampshire night, years ago, my friend Marcia invited me over to learn how to hook rugs. I was a seasoned crafter and explained to her that, with three young children, I wanted a project that could be completed quickly. So she showed me how to make a penny rug. For those who are new to wool crafting, penny rugs are comprised of pieces of wool that are appliquéd, using the blanket stitch, onto a base piece of wool, or other fabric. Generations ago, women used scraps from their wool rug hooking efforts, and cut the scraps into circles, using a penny as a template. The circles were arranged in pretty designs, stitched onto the base fabric, and turned into decorations for the house – table runners, doilies, coverlets, etc. Nowadays, penny rug designs may be much more complex, as crafters take the art to new places. The craft is gaining popularity, because it is easy to create something pretty and useful at the same time. And a simple project could be completed in an evening or two.

So my friend supplied me with wool from her stash to get started. From the moment she brought out The Wool, I loved the craft. I made my own design for that first penny rug and brought my own style to the project, using a theme from Genesis of the serpent in a tree in the Garden of Eden, with thorns embroidered around the edges, growing in towards the “garden” in the middle. The only elements in the design that could be considered “pennies” were the round fruits on the tree. I made it symbolic, telling a story in the Bible that was meaningful to me, and that first project grabbed my attention, so that I could hardly wait to do more.

When it came time to shop for more wool, I quickly realized that, as frugal as I was, I would have a hard time affording all the colors that I wanted for future projects. So I determined to learn to dye my own wool. I have never been one to take the beaten path or do anything small-scale, so I was not inclined to rush to the store and buy all the pre-formulated colors and just start dyeing. I needed someplace to start, and a way to sample a large variety of colors from which I could choose my favorites. So I rifled through old issues of ‘Threads’ magazine to see if there might be helpful information there. Lo and behold, I stumbled upon what turned out to be a life-changing article by Linda Knutson about dyeing using only the three primaries, dissolved in water to a 1% dilution. I liked this idea. It would keep the mechanics simple and the buying of supplies to a minimum, so that I could experiment to my greedy heart’s content. The article also outlined a systematic approach to trialing colors, using progressive percentage-based formulas. Brilliant! A way to address my need for organization, while allowing me to be creative.

So I would like to share with you, after the thousands of hours I have spent using these methods, why I love them.

KEEPING COLOR CHOICES SIMPLE The very first decision I made at the outset was to use only white wool. Since then, I have had to content myself with using natural, because white is not always available, and I want to be as consistent as possible, since I also sell wool. (Using natural wool does add a tiny bit of warmth to the colors, but not enough to worry about.) Before I started dyeing, I saw many formulas using a base wool of taupe, or khaki, etc., but I concluded that I would have every color of the rainbow eventually anyway, so to use one base color would keep everything consistent. I further standardized by creating formulas using only the three primaries. I work in color families or ‘tiers’ of color, from very bright to primitive, and I determine where a color belongs by how much of the third primary it contains. If I were using mixtures of pre-formulated colors, this kind of organization would be impossible. My method also allows me to see gaps between formulas, ensuring that I have a continuous selection all around the color wheel in each tier.

It is also easier to find colors that are in between colors you already have. For instance, if I am studying two blues and I want to find the color in between, splitting the difference in the formula will nearly always produce the color I want, provided that I start with two colors that are fairly similar. Sometimes it takes two stabs to get the formula right, but that is usually all it takes. By expressing all formulas in the same simple terms (three colors, in percentages), we reduce an unknown formula to a mathematical equation, rather than an educated guess.

GOING METRIC Like most of us, I am accustomed to using English measurements, and when I do anything else I still use cups, yards, pounds, teaspoons and all the rest. But when I started dyeing wool, I felt a great need to eliminate as many variables as I could. So I took a huge breath and switched my mindset, where The Wool is concerned, to using metric measurement for everything, despite my previous reluctance to do this anywhere else in my life. I am so glad I did. Honestly, using the metric system makes the math easy to manage once you are accustomed to it, and not beyond the average person with basic math skills.

The great beauty of the metric system is that 1 ml of water weighs 1 gram, so liquid measure and dry measure can be treated as equal for wool-dyeing purposes. This principle is absolutely key to everything one does when using this method. You can relate the gram weight of dye powder equally to the ml measurement of water when making dyestock, and you can relate the gram weight of the wool equally to the amount of ml in the dyestock, when choosing a value for a color.

For instance, I mix 1 gram of dye with 99 ml of water, creating 100 ml of a ‘1% solution dyestock’. Because 1 ml of water weighs 1 gram, this 1/99 ratio of dye to water is mathematically accurate and easy to quantify. I make 1% dyestock for each primary, and store it all in milk jugs. So remember:

1 gram dye powder + 99 ml water = a 1% dyestock solution

USING PERCENTAGE-BASED FORMULAS Now I’m going to make you think a little harder. You’d better go get a cup of coffee!

In addition to adopting the metric system, I continued standardizing my methods by rendering all formulas in percentages, rather than teaspoon fractions. This creates a ‘universal’ formula that will work, regardless of the size piece being dyed. For instance, if I am using a formula that is 90% red and 10% yellow, that percentage will remain constant for any piece I dye. Since every formula, no matter who makes it, is ultimately a mathematical equation, whether it is rendered in percentages or 1/16 teaspoons – working in percentages broadens your ability to apply that formula in any circumstance.

I also use percentage measurement to determine how much dyestock to use to produce the value I need. It is generally known that 1% dye to the weight of the wool will produce a medium value for most colors, and it is also well-known that doubling the amount of dye on the wool with each value produces a gradation that takes the color from light to dark in 6-8 jumps (this is, in effect, what the ‘jar method’ accomplishes). So one good option for producing 6 values, (working outward from the medium value at 1%) is to use:.125%,.25%,.5%, 1%, 2%, and 4% (although 3% produces a color nearly as dark, with less dye). Some time spent trialing values will give you a progression that you like, and this progression will work for most color formulas that you use, except, perhaps, formulas that are mostly yellow – a slightly more saturated progression is needed there.

Once I know what formula I want to use, and what value I want to make it, the only remaining question is how much of the overall formula to mix up, and I determine this by weighing the wool to be dyed, and doing some basic calculations. Follow me through a sample calculation, and see if you can make sense of it:

Let’s say I have 100 grams of wool (about ¼ yard), and I want to dye it to a medium value in a 90% red / 10% yellow formula. Since a 1% ratio of dye-to-wool produces a medium value, and I already use a 1% dyestock solution, equal parts of dyestock, and wool will, therefore, produce the medium value that I want, since 100 ml of 1% dyestock will deposit 1% dye onto the wool. Once I know that I need 100 ml of dyestock, I multiply that amount times the percentages in the formula. So I will mix 90 ml red and 10 ml yellow for this example.

Here is the same thing in equation form:

100g wool X 1 (factoring the percent of dye needed to produce a medium value) = 100 ml dyestock. Then:

90% X 100ml = 90 ml red dye 10% X 100 ml = 10 ml yellow dye

Here is another example, for dyeing 300g wool to a dark value at a 3% dye factor, using a formula containing 70% red / 10% yellow / 20% blue:

300g (wool) X 3(dye factor) = 900 ml dyestock
70% X 900 = 630ml red 10% X 900 = 90ml yellow 20% X 900 = 180ml blue

(Notice that we don’t multiply the weight of the wool by 3 percent, but by 3. This is because the percentage symbol expresses the amount of dye powder as a percentage of the dyestock that we need to get the value we want, but in the equation we are calculating the amount of dyestock itself to use, which is exactly 100 times the amount of dye itself. Using percent in the equation would divide the final answer by 100, which would be incorrect. So dropping the percent sign and using the number alone is a shortcut to getting the correct answer.)

Have you heard the adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”? This is, in essence, what I am doing. Rather than saying, “here is a formula that will dye 1 yard of wool”, I am showing you how to assemble boiler-plate formulas and equations that will take you wherever you want to go when dyeing, and with relative ease once you are used to it. Don’t let the math intimidate you – it’s all stuff we learned in the fifth grade, and you ARE smarter than a fifth grader!

I could go into more detail here (in fact there will be a book on this sometime in the future) but for now I am just giving you the gist of the method. I will provide more help in future articles, so stay tuned!

THE BENEFITS OF USING LIQUID DYESTOCK Liquid dyestock is, without doubt, the most convenient way to dye wool. Even if you use pre-formulated colors, maintaining dyestock in the colors you use most will speed up your dyeing — you can walk into the kitchen and dye a few pieces easily. One of the great conveniences of this method is that you need only produce dyestock occasionally, if you produce a fair quantity. For instance, 1,000 ml of dyestock will dye 1,000 grams (about 2 1/2 yards) of wool to a medium value, so if you produce 3,000 ml of each primary, (nearly a gallon) this will carry you through a fairly large project, or several smaller ones, even if you dye all your own wool. Once made, your dyestock will keep for a long time. Dyestock will, theoretically, last indefinitely, given the quality and sterility of the water you use, but for practical purposes, ProChem says it will last a minimum of 6 months. If you dye regularly, there is not much danger of wasting a lot of dyestock.

Using liquid dyestock will give you the kind of control needed to dye small pieces with accuracy. Using a 1-ml syringe (the type used to deliver insulin) helps make this possible. And when using several colors to produce a formula, small nuances in tone can be made. For instance, yellows are very, very difficult to formulate with accuracy, because tiny changes in the red and blue of a yellow formula produce dramatic results. Working in drops, however, these fine changes are quite possible, in fact there is a predictable mathematical progression of formulas in yellow that produces everything from near-green to near-orange, and every nuance in between.

Contrary to what you might think initially, I find this method to be a tidy way to dye, especially when the dye powder (nasty, messy stuff, in my opinion) spends most of the time in the cupboard. I use various-sized syringes and small pitchers to dispense dyestock. Because the dyestock that I use is dilute, spills rarely cause a stain if I wipe them quickly, even on my oiled oak floors and birch countertops. I use screw-top lids to store dyestock, and keep the lids screwed on when not in use, and I pour larger amounts of dyestock over the sink to avoid big accidents.

A FEW CAVEATS Using the three primaries does have its limitations, but they are few. I have formulated many browns and blacks using the three primaries, however, these colors are more difficult to produce. A lot of stirring is required, and the use of Glauber’s salt mandatory to produce any kind of even result. Even then, your results may vary from batch-to-batch. If you are more fussy about your results, you may prefer to use pre-formulated browns and blacks, and add a little of the primaries to adjust them.

I use ProChem dyes, and have yet to experiment with other brands, although I can guess that even if the overall results vary from ProChem dyes, those brands would still behave predictably, using the same methods.

I hope this inspires you to try this method, which has worked so well for me. This is the first in a series of articles on the subject, and in future articles I will provide more detail about the methods I use, including equipment (with resources), working in percentages, setting up mathematical progressions of color formulas, how to trial color samples, and the care and feeding of your dyestock.

Copyright Susan Sylvia 2010

Author: Jacqueline Louise Gagnon