Experimental Recycled Sleeve Dyeing with Food Dyes

comments (8) December 14th, 2008     

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leethal Lee Meredith, contributor
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A ball of gorgeous, unique hand-dyed yarn would be a fabulous gift for the knitter in your life!
If the colors blend more, youll get a nice variegated colorway.
This in-progress scarf is being knit with yarn dyed this way.
A ball of gorgeous, unique hand-dyed yarn would be a fabulous gift for the knitter in your life!

A ball of gorgeous, unique hand-dyed yarn would be a fabulous gift for the knitter in your life!

Photo: Lee Meredith

I love experimentation, especially in craft projects, and I find it exciting when I don't have full control over the outcome of a project—it's like the object takes on a life of its own and becomes what it wants to become. I came up with this method of dyeing yarn when I wanted to get a nonrepeating, long-section striping colorway, and I continue to be surprised at all the different looks that can result from this one technique. This whole process will use elements from a couple of previous CraftStylish tutorials—my recycled yarn how-to and Tina Hilton's Electric Kool-Aid Dyeing Test. I'll go through the dyeing steps for this method here, but if you want more info or other ideas, check out Tina's post.

You'll need:

  • A wool (or mostly wool) sweater that can be unraveled
  • Seam ripper and scissors
  • Plastic wrap
  • Kool-Aid or food coloring
  • White vinegar
  • Cups for mixing dye (and a spoon or mixing stick)
  • Optional turkey baster
  • Large microwavable bowl
  • Microwave

If you got excited to unravel sweaters back when that tutorial got posted but put it off and haven't gotten to it yet, here's your chance to still put some sweater parts to use as a gift. You'll need a sweater that follows the guidelines of that post—no serged seams, not felted, an unravelable weight (not too fine), and you'll want to make sure the sleeves are pretty large, since they are the only parts you'll be using for this project. It's disappointing to go through the whole process only to find out when you're done that you only have 60 yards of yarn.

Fiber content is very important now that you'll be dyeing it—for yarn that will take up dye best, look for 100% wool or other animal fibers such as angora, alpaca, and cashmere. If you find a yarn that's something like 50% wool, 30% angora, 20% nylon, it will work, but the color will be a bit muted because of that nylon—if you want more pastely colors, go for it!

As for yarn color, this is a great dye method for overdyeing, starting with a colored sweater (just not too dark), since you'll probably see much of the original yarn color in the finished yarn. So, if you want your finished yarn to be all dark, you won't want to pick a white sweater—you should choose a gray or brown one.

And lastly, the way your yarn turns out will depend a lot on the knit of the sleeve—a tighter gauge or lots of cables will result in a more tie-dyed-looking finished yarn, which I think looks cool, but it's a little weird. If you want a smooth, even dye job, find a sleeve that's knit more loosely, with no cables.

I dyed two different sleeves with two different dye patterns for this tutorial, so you'll see how this project can have such varied results. You'll be seeing photos of both sleeves throughout the post.

So to start, you'll need to detach a sleeve from the rest of the sweater—refer to the unraveling tutorial for this step.

Take the sleeve seam apart, starting at the wrist and going up around the shoulder, being extra careful not to cut the sweater yarn.

Soak the sleeve for at least a half hour before you start dyeing. This step will help the yarn absorb the dye evenly and is especially important since you're dyeing knit fabric. Fill a large bowl or a sink with water, and add a splash of vinegar to help with dye absorption. If you're using Kool-Aid, a small amount of vinegar is fine because the Kool-Aid contains acid already, which is what is necessary for wool to absorb dye. If you're using food coloring, you'll need to use more vinegar (about a cup) because food coloring has no acid.

Submerge the sleeve in water and vinegar until it's completely wet all the way through the fibers.

Squeeze out the water—don't wring, just squeeze until it's not dripping wet anymore. Lay plastic wrap over your work surface, covering at least a couple inches more than the size of your sleeve; you'll probably need two strips overlapping in the middle. My work surface for this is my kitchen floor, which works out well for me. You'll want a surface that won't be harmed by some dye and will be easy to clean up because even with that plastic it's almost impossible to avoid some spilling or overflowing. (Which is why I keep a towel nearby!)

My second sleeve was extra long—perfect for this project!

Now mix up your dye. The best way to do it is to have each color premixed before you start applying it to the yarn because the longer the dye sits there on the yarn, the more it'll bleed together. How much water and dye you use for each color depends on how wide you want the color sections—I usually use about 1.5 inches of water and about half a packet of Kool-Aid for each stripe. Of course, if you want to use a color more than once, mix up enough for all the sections you want. If you're using food coloring, add a little vinegar to each mixed dye cup. You can also mix Kool-Aid and food coloring to get different colors! Color mixing is fun, try it!

If the colors straight out of the packet (or bottle) aren't what you want, try mixing colors!

Once your colors are ready, it's time to dye! If you want more control, you can use a turkey baster to apply the dye; however, that feeling of control is a bit deceptive. The colors will run and bleed together, even when using a baster, so I usually just carefully pour straight from the cups.

When you apply the dye, gravity will pull it down under the sweater, where it will bleed.

This whole bleeding issue doesn't have to be a problem—it's just important to be aware of when planning your stripes. You'll want to place colors together that will blend nicely, and you don't need to apply the colors so they're touching because they will close gaps on their own.

I apply the dye sparingly because I know from experience that the dye will run and fill all those blank spaces.

With the green sleeve, I tried making thinner stripes with the baster to see if it would work out, all in the name of experimentation!

At this point, it looks like I'll get some nice stripes with this dye job.

With the second sleeve, I stuck to the nonrepeating, wide stripe look that this method is really meant for. If you look around the edges, you can see the colors running below the sweater.

It's important to place the colors so they will blend well—blues and greens together, reds and oranges together, etc.

Now, take another strip of plastic wrap and place it over the top, pulling the plastic edges up from the sides to fully contain the sleeve in plastic.

This is the messy part—dye will get all over, it just will.

Fold up the plastic-wrapped sleeve lengthwise, and roll it inward so it will fit in your microwave-safe bowl. Carefully lift it into the bowl, check that there aren't any major holes in the wrapping, and put it in the microwave.

The plastic will hold the dye in place a bit and help steam-set the dye job.

Now microwave the sleeve for 2 minutes on high (or 3 minutes if you have a low-wattage microwave), then let it sit in the microwave for at least 2 minutes more. Check on it and close up any holes that opened in the plastic, then repeat the 2 minutes on high and 2 minutes sitting. Repeat the whole thing a third time, then check to see if the dye has all absorbed. Three cycles is always enough for me, but if it looks like there is still dye around the sleeve, you can repeat the whole thing again. Take the sleeve out of the plastic and let cool (careful, the steam can burn!).

I dump the sleeve into a colander in the sink to cool, but you could also just leave it in the bowl.

Once it's fully cooled off, rinse it out with room temperature water, being careful not to agitate the wool, which could cause felting. Then squeeze out the water, and to get out as much water as possible, roll up the sleeve in a towel and stand on it. That will get out enough water so it won't drip where you hang it to dry. Hang it until it's completely dry—I usually leave it for two days, turning it over after one day, since sleeves generally take longer than yarn skeins.

I hang it on a coat rack, but you could use a towel rack or shower curtain rod.

When it's dry, unravel that yarn! Find the end, and pull, pull, pull, winding it into a hank. See the recycled yarn tutorial for more details if you need to. The green sleeve ended up giving me 138 yards of yarn.

Notice how that narrow-striped dye job turned into barely distinguishable variegated colors.

Now you'll have to go through the yarn-washing process to clean it and get the kinks out. Your skein should be very kinky at this point! So, fill a big bowl or sink with warm water, add a good amount of dish soap or shampoo, stir in, and submerge the skein. Let it soak for at least a half hour, preferably longer—I usually give it a few hours. Then rinse, squeeze, roll in a towel and stomp, and hang to dry. (See more details in the recycled yarn post.)

Twist up that hank to gift for a mysterious skein—the recipient won't be able to tell how the color pattern works.

For an even more mysterious gift, you could ball up the yarn by hand in a traditional ball, so only the first couple of colors show on the outside. Then as the yarn is knit up, each color change will be a surprise! If you have a ball winder, or access to one, you can use it to ball the hank and make the color pattern visible. That longer sleeve gave me 192 yards!

If the yarn is wound in a center-pull ball, you can see all the colors and the order in which they'll stripe.

Want to see some more yarns dyed with this technique? This smaller sleeve (only 74 yards) was dyed in a kind of rainbow colorway:

A loosely knit sleeve resulted in a pretty even dye job.

This more tightly knit sleeve dyed up in a kind of tie-dyed look, with lots of white showing:

This yarn looks weird for sure, but I've gotten tons of compliments on it from knitters!

And here is the hat knit from that yarn (from my Spiraling Stripes Hat pattern):

When the tie-dyed-looking yarn is knit up, it smoothes out and looks pretty great.


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posted in: yarn, recycle, dyeing, kool-aid, food coloring

Comments (8)

queenofsheba writes: Coming back to this one with a discovery. I have no microwave so I doubled up on the plastic wrap and put my sleeve on the top rack of my dishwasher, with my dirty dishes, and ran it though one cycle. It worked perfectly AND I ended with clean dishes! Bonus!
Posted: 1:03 pm on March 9th
leethal writes: gracie_girl: This technique would not work on a cotton sweater because acid dyes like kool-aid and food coloring only absorb into animal fibers like wool, alpaca, etc, not plant fibers like cotton. You would need to use a different kind of dye method for plant fibers.
Posted: 7:46 pm on January 5th
imjustso writes: Fabtabulous! I have an too-small, moth-bitten aran sweater waiting for someting to be done with it. Now I think I know what to do!
Posted: 7:41 am on December 29th
imjustso writes: Fabtabulous! I have an too-small, moth-bitten aran sweater waiting for someting to be done with it. Now I think I know what to do!
Posted: 7:41 am on December 29th
gracie_girl writes: Beautiful idea! I love the look, and the fun of dying a fabric and seeing the finished effect. [I've done a few silk blanks up, and I always love the surpise awaiting me when I'm done]. This would be a fun project to try with a not-too-young child! Thanks for sharing your idea. It would also be fun to try with an already variegated yarn for another twist on a unique idea. Do you think it would work as well on a cotton sweater??
Posted: 8:07 pm on December 28th
Janesdesigns writes: very clever!! thank you for sharing
Posted: 11:07 pm on December 14th
croqzine writes: This is a really fabulous tutorial of a great technique. Good idea doing it as a sleeve! Love it!
Posted: 8:12 pm on December 14th
LuLuFuFu writes: That is super cool! You took the sock blank idea and created a new way to achieve it - by recycling! You totally ROCK!
Posted: 4:46 pm on December 14th
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