Dyeing Wool with Sabraset Acid Dyes

It’s a beautiful fall day in northern Michigan! The weather can change on a dime during this time of year so we have to make the best of these last few nice days to get out into the dye studio. Dyeing is much more pleasant to do when there’s no snow on the ground. I’ve been experimenting lately depth of shade and thought I’d share the steps I take to create gradient yarns.

I’m getting ready to start a tapestry project and wanted to dye the wool I plan on using. So here we go! Let’s get dyeing!

The Tools You’ll Need

Before you start dyeing, it’s helpful to gather everything you’ll need for your dye project. Here’s a list of must have items as well as items that will make your dye project easier.

For sure you’ll need scales that provide the weight in grams. I use two scales- one larger (used mainly to weigh the yarn) and one smaller (used to weigh salt, sodium acetate and citric acid). I also use cupcake liners and/or small cut pieces of wax paper which I put on the scale and then measure out the dry items. In terms of measuring liquid, I use a 100 ml cylinder, 10 ml dropper and a one ml dropper. Metal spoons are always handy for scooping the dry items.

I’m going to be making five dye pots each with different depths of shade of the main base color. I’ll need 5 ball jars to mix each variation and then five dye pots. It’s important to note here that any items that you use for dyeing CANNOT ever, ever be used for cooking. In addition to the jars and pots, you’ll need containers to mix your stock colors and then having little plastic cups available to pour dye liquid can be helpful.

Pot holders and/or large heat resistant gloves are a must for moving hot dye pots. You’ll need metal spoons and a thermometer for measuring the temperature of your dye baths as they heat up. Although not necessary, wooden sticks are helpful when moving your yarn in the dye bath. If you want to label your skeins, electrical tape and a Sharpie marker are a must. I sometimes weigh many skeins at a time and label each weight on the tape and adhere it to the skein- it holds up in the heat and the marker does not run.

You will absolutely need rubber gloves and an N95 mask. These items will be used when measuring out the dye powder.

You will need citric acid- this drops the pH of the dye bath which allows the wool to accept the dye, pickling salt and sodium acetate. These are all referred to as “additives”.

Of course you’ll need your acid dyes. I’m using Sabraset Dyes which I purchased from ProChem. A few years ago my aunt and I created a dye book which contains samples of mixed colors at different percentages at a 1.0 depth of shade. I use this book as a starting point and then vary to depth of shade from there.

Then you’ll need a heat source. I use this propane camping stove. It’s sometimes a trick to keep the temperature level and I’ve found that this works best. It also helps that you can have two pots cooking at the same time. A hot plate is also a good option.

Before You Actually Dye…

There’s a little bit of prep that needs to be done before you start mixing those colors. I purchased this wool from a mills end store so it needed to be wound into skeins. I wound the yarn into manageable skeins using my niddy noddy. You want to be sure to tie your skeins in several spots to keep the yarn as even as possible. Be careful, however, to not tie it too tight as to cause the tie to interfere with the take up of the dye on the skein.

After the skeins are tied, they will need to be scoured. This will ensure that all the dirt is removed from the yarn. Even with purchased yarn, this is a good idea as oils from the machines can get on the yarn and interfere with the take up of the dye. To scour the yarn, I simply submerged the yarn in very hot soapy water and let it soak for about 20 minutes. After soaking, I rinsed out the yarn and let it dry.

Once fully dry, the next step is to weigh the fiber you intend to dye during your dye session. This is done before you wet the fiber during the wetting process and is referred to in the calculations as WOF (weight of fiber).

Just to keep the math simple, each of my five skeins weighs 34 grams. Especially if your skeins have different weights, you’ll want to get out that electrical tape and write the weight on the tape with the Sharpie marker and stick it onto the skein. This will help you keep the skeins organized. Once measured, the next step is to wet the yarn. I keep my skeins immersed in water overnight. I also place a plate on top so that all the yarn stays below the water.

Getting closer, but now there’s a little math. Doing the math ahead of time really helps you move smoothly through the dye process. First you need to choose your color. I want to make a green, so I’m having to mix yellow and blue. Because I have my dye reference book, I can see what the colors look like at a depth of shade (DOS) of 1.0. I decided I liked the 70% mustard and 30% royal blue.

This percentage (70%/30%), the WOF and DOS is what will be used to calculate how much dye of each color as well as how much of your additives you’ll need. I created this worksheet to help with the calculations. Remember, I’m dyeing five different skeins with different DOS. This means I have to calculate the amount of dye for each of those dye pots. The 1.0 DOS is my base and I want to dye two skeins darker (DOS of 1.75 and 2.25) and two skeins lighter (DOS of .5 and .25). For each skein/dye pot, I had to do the following calculation:

  • Multiply the WOF by the DOS. This will give me the total amount of dye I need in milliliters. In the following picture, I multiplied 34 grams by 2.25 DOS (this is my darkest skein) and got a total of 76.5 ml.
  • Multiply this total (76.5) by the percentage for each color. Since my recipe is for 70% mustard, I multiplied 76.5 by .7 and got 53.5 ml. For the royal blue I multiplied 76.5 by .3 and got 23 ml.
  • Then to calculate the additives. Citric acid is always 4% of the WOF and sodium acetate is always 1%. The amount of salt used is dependent upon the DOS. If the DOS is greater than 2.0 you do not use salt all. If the DOS is between 1 and 2, the percentage of salt is 2.5 of the WOF. If the DOS is between .5 and 1, the percentage is 5% and if it’s below .5 then use 10% of the WOF.

One last calculation. We will be making a stock of each dye color so we need to know how much we need to make. To do this, add up all totals per each color. For this dye session, I figured I needed 137 ml of mustard for all five pots and 60 ml of royal blue.

Now that the yarn is weighed, wetted out and all the calculations are done IT’S TIME TO DYE!

Making the Dye Stock

Now we make our dye stock. The calculation we need to know is that for each gram of dye we need 100 ml of water. I boil my water first so that it is easier for the dye to dissolve. For this dye session, I calculated that I needed 137 mls of mustard. I rounded up to 150 mls. So I measured 1.5 of the mustard dye powder.

Then I dissolved it in 150 mls of hot water. Note: I used rubber gloves and the N95 mask during this part of the process.

I repeated this process for the royal blue, however, made a little less as I only needed 60 mls.

Now that I have my stock dye, it’s time to get out those jars, my worksheet which contains all the calculations and the measuring tools for liquids (100 ml cylinder and droppers). I lined up all the jars with the darker colors on the left and began putting in the listed amount of mustard dye.

I repeated the process with the royal blue and then set the jars aside for a bit so I could get the pots ready.

After the dye is prepared, it’s time to put the salt and sodium acetate in the pots. Because there is a difference in the calculation of salt, I line my pots up under each jar on the floor. This is only one way to organize your pots, you can also label the jars if that helps you. To each pot I add in about an inch of very hot water and then add in the amount of salt on the worksheet per each dye pot and the sodium acetate.

Now give each pot a little swirl to dissolve the salt. Now the fun begins! One pot at a time, add the dye and hot tap water. Add enough water so that the yarn moves freely though the water, but not too much water as you want the dye to be able to find the yarn. Then add the yarn.

I always keep my pots lined up based on DOS and then let the pots sit for at least 30 minutes.

Adding the Heat

The trick to dyeing is to get the dye to adhere to the yarn evenly. Wetting the yarn ahead of time helps and gradually heating the pots helps as well. It’s kind of a trick to keep the heat at just the right temperature. Having my propane camping stove helps a great deal. So to begin this process I put the two darkest pots on the stove first and light the stove to the point where I just see the blue tips of the flame. What I want to do is sloooowly heat the dye pot to 120 degrees. I’m hoping this will take 20-30 minutes. Once the heat reaches 120 (or slightly above) I add the citric acid. The citric acid is what allows the wool to accept the dye. I want to make sure the citric acid is dissolved evenly in the pot so I remove the yarn, put the citric acid in and give it a stir and then put the yarn back in. I then sloooooowly bring the pot to a simmer (185-205 degrees)- wanting this process to take about 40-45 minutes. Once at a simmer, I keep it within that temperature for 45 more minutes. The goal is for the dye pot to “exhaust”. Meaning that the wool has absorbed all the dye and water in the pot is clear. Sometimes this doesn’t happen so I keep an eye on whether the wool is absorbing the dye and may add a little more citric acid throughout the heating process if necessary.

Finishing Up

Once the dye pots have exhausted, they were removed from the heat to cool. I typically cool the pots overnight. Once cooled, remove the yarn, rinse and hang up to dry. Now let’s see what we have.

Photos just don’t do the colors justice. I have to admit I don’t love this green. Actually I had a little trouble with the take up of the royal blue. I think next time I try a green I’m going to use sun yellow and maybe flag blue. I did everything I could to ensure an even dye, but it just didn’t work. If you look at the middle skein you can see a bit of variegation with blue streaks. It’s kind of cool, but it wasn’t planned. Although I don’t love this green, I really love the other colors that I dyed. Check them out.

To get this turquoise color I used 10% scarlett and 90% turquoise. I was able to get an even dye and I love this color- may absolute favorite.

The blue turned out pretty good too. I’m going to be creating a tapestry with a beach/landscape vibe and this blue, along with the turquoise, will be perfect for the water. To create this variation of blue I used 10% scarlett and 90% royal blue.

I needed some red accents for the sunset so I dyed a few skeins using 60% deep red and 40% mustard. I’m pretty happy with my colors so far. I just need to dye some golds and I’ll be ready to get to work on my tapestry!

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