How to Make Natural Dyes for Yarn
Dyeing your own yarn can help you achieve the perfect color, especially if you’re reusing yarn from an old or thrifted garment. It’s also a lot more eco-friendly to buy undyed yarn and dye it yourself using natural materials.
You can extract dye from all kinds of plants around your neighborhood or garden. You can even use food scraps and vegetable waste!
Making natural dyes for yarn isn’t hard at all. In most cases, you just have to boil the organic matter – like leaves – on the stove and leave it overnight. Then choose how you want to dye your yarn. You can pick one color or use multiple dyes to create a unique set of skeins.
How do you dye yarn?
If you can make a pot of tea, you can dye your yarn!
Before you start, you’ll need:
- A container that can be used for dyeing and set aside for craft projects
- White vinegar
- Spoons and cups
- A second container or cling film
- Your natural dye
- A heatable pot you can put on the hob (your “dyepot”)
Make sure to wash your yarn with white vinegar. Add 3 tablespoons of white vinegar per skein to enough warm water to cover all the yarn in the container. This will clean the yarn and open the fibers so the dye can take.
After soaking for 30 minutes, rinse the yarn under cold running water. Then place it in the second container or on top of some cling film.
There are several ways to dye yarn:
- Solid dye
- Tonal dye
- Gradient dye
- Variegated dye
- Speckled dye
Below you can find modified instructions for dyeing techniques that are as eco-friendly as possible. You can also look online for more instructions and modify them to suit your purposes and equipment!
Remember that natural dyes for yarn will not have the same contrast and vibrancy as synthetic dyes.
Before beginning to dye, make sure that all the equipment you use isn’t also used for food prep. It’s good practice, and you don’t want to accidentally introduce an allergen or give yourself food poisoning.
How to dye solid yarn
Solid dyeing yarn is one of the simplest ways to dye yarn, and it will give all the fibers an even coloring.
To give your yarn a solid color, you need to:
- Fill up your dyepot with enough water to cover your yarn
- Add your yarn to the pot
- Add your natural dye and let it soak for 5 minutes
- Place the dyepot on the hob and let the water come to an almost boil
- Gently stir the pot without felting the yarn to disperse the dye
- Take the pot off the heat and let it cool to room temperature
- Once cool, rinse the color out with cold water until fully rinsed
- Hang the yarn on a line or airer to dry
How to dye tonal yarn
Tonal dyed yarn, also known as semi-solid dyed yarn, has a marbled look due to dyeing different areas with different strengths of color. This is usually done with the same coloring.
To give your yarn a tonal dye, you should:
- Fill the dyepot with enough water to cover your yarn
- Add a small amount of natural dye and let it disperse
- Add your yarn to the pot
- Let the yarn sit and then gently turn it over
- Set the pot on the hob and heat to a simmer (or medium heat)
- Add some more dye and flip the yarn over occasionally
- Repeat adding more dye as you want and continue flipping the yarn over gently
- At the 30 minute mark, turn off the heat and let the yarn cool
- Once cool, rinse under cold water until the color is fully rinsed
- Hang the yarn on a line or airer to dry
How to dye gradient yarn
Gradient dyed yarn, also known as gradated or ombre yarn, starts with the darkest color and gradually fades into the lightest color. This can be done with one color or two.
To give your yarn a gradient dye, you need to:
- Separate your skeins into mini-skeins without cutting them – you can do this by wrapping part of the skein, tying it, and continuing to the next skein
- Set newspaper on a table and cling film on top of it
- Use the same number of paper cups or small containers to the number of mini-skeins you have
- Fill each cup or container with a third of warm water then add your natural dye at different levels – starting with the darkest color on one end and then the lightest or a different color at the other end
- Mix the dye in the water
- Lay the mini-skeins on the cling film with some separation
- Pour half of the first cup/container of dye onto the first mini-skein and gently squeeze the dye into the yarn without felting it
- Repeat the above step for every mini-skein
- Pour the rest of the dye onto the mini-skeins cup-by-cup
- Make sure the yarn connecting each mini-skein receives a mixture of dye between each step
- Let the mini-skeins absorb as much dye as possible without manipulating it too much, then wrap the skeins together in the cling film
- Add the wrapped yarn to a microwave-safe bowl and heat it for one minute at a time until any water leakage is clear
- Let the yarn cool before opening the cling film and rinsing each mini-skein at a time under cold water
- Rinse out excess water and hang the yarn to dry
- Once dry, undo the ties and wind the mini-skeins into one skein
Another way to dye gradient yarn is to separate the mini-skeins and place each in a mason jar or container with water and different strengths of dye, soaking them separately. You’ll need to use warm water for this to make sure the dye takes.
You can also use the solid dye technique but alternate the mini-skeins, letting them soak for longer to achieve a darker color and less time for a lighter color.
How to dye variegated yarn
Variegated dyed yarn uses up multiple colors, so it’s best for when you have leftover dyes from other dye attempts.
You’ll need to mix your dyes separately according to the best practices for that dye, then pour the dye and water into a container or mason jar.
To give your yarn a variegated yarn, you should:
- Fill your dyepot with enough water to cover your yarn and add the yarn
- Add the first dye to one section of your yarn gradually – use a spoon or spare pencil to gently move the yarn so the dye can take
- Once the first color has spread through the yarn, add the second color to another section of the yarn without completely touching the first amount of color
- Repeat for as many colors as you have – let the colors blend naturally
- Once the yarn has been completely dyed, put the dyepot on the hob and let it simmer at medium heat for 30-40 minutes
- Turn off the heat and let the yarn cool
- Rinse the yarn under cold water until the water runs clear
- Hang the yarn to dry
Another method to dye variegated yarn involves hand painting the dye, similar to dyeing gradient yarn.
How to dye speckled yarn
Speckled yarn has spots, speckles, or sprinkles of color onto a plain background. This can be easily done using the gradient dye technique but only adding small splashes of color.
Why are natural dyes better for the environment?
Natural dyes made from plants and vegetable leftovers are much more environmentally friendly than synthetic dyes. Many synthetic dyes rely on chemicals that are carcinogenic or cause allergic reactions.
Natural dyes use organic material to cut down on chemical usage and be friendlier to the environment. However, this can still pose a risk, especially when using poisonous or irritating sources like nettles.
The amount of water needed to dye yarn synthetically isn’t just limited to extracting dyes like natural dyes. Simply producing synthetic dyes requires a lot of water usage. Homemade dyeing cuts down on the water, especially if you dye in batches and reuse water where possible.
What can you use to dye yarn naturally?
All kinds of plants can be used to dye yarn, including cabbage, flowers, stems, fennel, onion skins, and more. In fact, practically every plant can be used to dye, but the amount you need to bring out noticeable coloring can vary greatly.
Experiment with different sources of natural dye. If you’re going for any kind of brown, why not just throw together all your food scraps and extract a brown from mixing them together?
How to make natural dyes from plants
Dyeing yarn naturally doesn’t have to be difficult, as this guide from All Natural Dyeing shows. You can find sources of dye in your garden or neighborhood.
The best way to extract the dye from your natural sources is by boiling them in water. All you have to do is:
- Collect your natural source of color and chop or break it up into small pieces
- Add your natural source to the dyepot and cover with water
- Heat the dyepot until near boiling and simmer for an hour
- Allow the water to take on as deep a color as possible and leave the pot to cool
- Soak overnight
- Strain the solid remains of the source from the liquid – don’t use the same equipment you’d use for cooking
- Store the remaining dyed liquid in a mason jar or keep it in the dye pot and add your yarn
The resulting color will vary greatly depending on how long you boil the dye, how much you cut up the source, and how much water you use.
Sometimes overheating can ruin otherwise vibrant colors, so always make sure to do your research on how best to extract the color.
Mordants can be used to create more vibrant colors, but many mordants are poisonous or could potentially pollute water when rinsed. Provided you give your yarn a vinegar bath just before dyeing, you shouldn’t need to use a mordant.
If you do, try not to use it for every project. You might find you like the more muted colors!
Keep a record of all of your dye attempts so you can track which colors work best for you. Make sure to write down what you used, how much you used, how long it boiled for, and any other variables.
Include a small cut of the dyed yarn to the page or stick a label with a name or date on it so you can track the color.
You could even make your own swatch of colors!
What natural dyes make green?
Natural sources of green include:
- Chamomile leaves
- Coneflower flower heads
- Leaves and stems
- Lilac flowers
- Mint leaves
- Nettle (use gloves)
- Plantain roots
- Sorrel roots and leaves
- Spinach leaves – the older the leaves, the darker
There are many options for making a green dye for your yarn. Some are more surprising than others – lilac flowers and coneflower flower heads aren’t green at all!
You can also mix natural sources of yellow and blue to create green. This can be done together, though this might not produce solid color, or by first dyeing the yarn blue before dyeing it again with yellow.
It’s best to test this before committing to a full skein or else put it to the side for a future craft project if it doesn’t come out as you want it to.
What natural dyes make red?
Natural sources of red include:
- Bamboo shoots
- Chokecherries (whole)
- Red leaves in autumn
- Tomato pulp and skins
- Unripe elderberries
What natural dyes make purple?
Natural sources of purple include:
- Basil leaves and stems
- Blackberries (crushed)
- Blueberries (crushed)
- Elderberries (whole)
- Huckleberries (crushed)
- Mulberries (whole)
- Purple grapes (whole)
- Red cabbage
What natural dyes make blue?
Natural sources of blue include:
- Cornflower petals
- Hyacinth petals
- Indigo leaves
- Plum skins
- Purple iris petals
What natural dyes make yellow?
Natural sources of yellow include:
- Alfalfa seeds
- Bay leaves
- Burdock burrs
- Crocus petals
- Daffodil flower heads
- Dandelion flowers
- Goldenrod flowers
- Heather plant (all parts together)
- Marigold flowers
- Peach tree leaves
- John’s Wort flowers and leaves
- Sunflower flower heads (fresh)
- Tansy flowers
- Willow tree leaves
- Yarrow plant (all parts together)
- Yellow onion skins
What natural dyes make orange?
Natural sources of orange include:
- Butternut seed husks
- Carrot peels and leftovers
- Eucalyptus bark and leaves
- Lilac bark and twigs
- Orange peels
What natural dyes make brown?
Natural sources of brown include:
- Alder cones
- Broom sedge
- Coffee grounds
- Dandelion roots
- Dock leaves
- Fennel leaves and flowers or dried fennel seeds
- Ivy twigs and stems
- Juniper berries
- Oak acorn caps
- Tea leaves
- Willow tree bark and twigs
Dyeing your yarn brown is a perfect way of using up any loose coffee grounds and tea leaves.
What natural dyes make black?
Natural sources of black include:
- Carob pods
- Iris roots
- Walnut husks