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The Adventures of Dyeing Cotton Yarn With Natural Dyes

I never thought this day would come! I have been thinking of dyeing yarn at home for quite a while now, but kept putting it off and making excuses for myself. I don’t know WHAT happened but the other day I just got off my butt and went for it and i’m so happy that I did!

First off, I am a whim kind of person when it comes to creativity. I know that if I have the motivation to create something, that motivation can fizzle out quite fast if I don’t do something with that energy immediately.

With that being said, the first day that I tried dyeing, I only tried natural dyes that were already in my house, mostly because of the convenience factor. I didn’t have to go out and get any supplies or equipment, all I needed was some yarn and some things I had in my kitchen that I knew had a reputation for making stains.

My First Hurdle

Although we want every project we dream up to be easy, it’s hardly ever that simple, there always seems to be something that gets in our way. I knew my hurdle right away, before I even got out of bed to give this dyeing thing a try.

I wanted to dye Cotton Yarn

Now you may be thinking so what? I certainly thought the same thing, until I started doing a little research, or well… discovered that there was no research to be done.

It felt like there was NO comprehensive information on dyeing cotton yarn anywhere on the internet. Could I have looked a little harder? Perhaps, but overall I had to bounce between many articles that had contradicting information until I had a vague idea of what steps I should probably take.

The Thing About Cotton

Cotton apparently is much harder to dye than animal fibers. I don’t know the exact science behind it, but from what I gather, animal fibers can really just soak up dyes without a lot of prep work or effort. Cotton on the other hand, needs a little more help when it comes to holding onto dyes.

From my “research” I came away with a few main bits of information

  1. 100% cotton is going to dye the easiest
  2. You have to soak and wash the yarn before dyeing it
  3. Salt and Vinegar work as natural boosters for adhering dye
  4. Heat is also needed to make dye stay and become more vibrant

With these little facts that I now had I decided to just roll with it and see what happens, worst case I was going to be out of one skein of yarn.

Yarn Preparation

Most things that I read stated to soak the yarn in water from anywhere between 10-30 minutes

Yarn prep

I decided to spit the difference and soak it for 20 minutes with water, soap and vinegar. While the soap make sense, to wash away any impurities in the yarn that may negatively affect the dyeing process, I honestly have no idea how or why the vinegar is supposed to help the dye adhere better, but I think it actually made a difference.

Natural Dyes

So as I said, on the first day I only used natural dyes. When trying to think of what I could use to try to dye that I already had on hand, my mind immediately jumped to Turmeric, the king of natural dye. Turmeric is almost impossible to get out of things once it stains, so that seems like the exact kind of thing that I needed!

I started to look around the kitchen to see if there was anything else we had that might be strong enough to dye something and I found a bag of frozen mixed berries. I thought the berries would be perfect to try to make a kind of red or purple dye so I figured I would try that too!

At this point I wanted to try one more thing, so I googled what things usually caused the worst stains and naturally grape juice came up! Now I didn’t have grape juice, but I did have some prune juice and I thought that might work, so i decided to give it a try!

natural dye ingredients

Dye Bath

Now I knew I needed heat to make the dye really adhere to the yarn and I had seen hand dyers usually dye on the stovetop, so I figured that is where I would start!

For the Turmeric I looked at a couple articles that said you had to let it simmer for 20-30 minute to allow the actual powder to dissolve so that was the first step. I made sure to add a little vinegar to the mixture as well, hoping that any extra amount would hep the dye stick. A little word of caution, as the turmeric dissolves it will create a cloud of turmeric that will coat your stove so beware haha.

For the Mixed Berries I knew that simmering them in a pot of water (and vinegar) would thaw them and extract their juices and therefore there colors. I let them simmer for about 10 minutes and then strained the berries so that there wouldn’t be actual berries in the water when the yarn went in. Another word of caution, make sure you very finely strain your berry juice, do not make my mistake and have to pick little bits of berry out of the yarn when you are done!

For the Prune Juice, well it was already just juice and din’t need the extra steps that the turmeric and berries needed so I simply added a little bit of water and vinegar to the juice and brought that to a simmer as well.

Dyeing The Cotton

Now the actual dyeing process isn’t difficult physically, but it was difficult mentally (for me at least), because you have to be super patient, which isn’t always easy. I knew I had to be super patient if I wanted any of the dyes to really stick around in the yarn after I washed it.

I placed each mini hank of yarn into their respective dye baths and let them simmer for 30 minute each, hoping the heat would help the dye penetrate the cotton.

dyed cotton

I ended up adding salt to the berries and the prunes because I read that specifically when working with fruit dyes, that adding some salt will help keep the dye adhered better. I do think I noticed a difference after adding the salt, the colors seemed to deepen in the yarn within a few minutes of adding it.

After the simmer, I let them each sit in the dye baths for an extra hour to try to absorb as much of the dye as possible. I also knew that the next step was going to be to wash the hanks out with water and I was terrified or seeing all of my hard work, quite literally, go down the drain.

After The Dye Bath

Of course I had to face my fears and wash the yarn eventually. Naturally, in some ways I was intrigued by the results and in other ways I was a little disappointed.

natural dye color results

The only dye that really seemed to keep the vibrant color that I saw in the pot was the turmeric, which honestly wasn’t a surprise. While the berry came out of the pot a nice red wine kind of color, it washed out to be a muted purple and dried into a grey. The prune juice came out of the pot a medium brown shade and washed out and dried into a light sandy kind of color.

Although the colors were not as vibrant as I had hoped, it is incredibly amazing to look at the swatches I made with the dyed hanks and know that I created those colors all on my own!

All in all this was a very cool experiment and I highly recommend giving it a try if you have an itch to give yarn dyeing a try but don’t want to go through the hassle of getting all of the usual supplies!

2 thoughts on “The Adventures of Dyeing Cotton Yarn With Natural Dyes

  1. Thank you so much for this, I too have been searching for info on dying yarns using natural dyes. Your experiments are a good start for me too. Thank you again.


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