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How to dye natural fibre for fibre art

Let’s start by saying that everyone will have their own way of dying natural fibres using synthetic dyes (NOTE: natural dying is a whole different ball game!). The following is the way that I was taught, and I’ve used it with great success for my fibre art purposes. These instructions assume you have already prepared the liquid dyes.

Dying fibre process by Sarah Ritchie

  1. Soak your fibre (e.g. wool, silk) in a bucket of water with white vinegar and a squirt of detergent. How much white vinegar? Great question, I’ll take a guess at around 1 cup per bucket. Let the fibre soak for 30 min (some people say 10 min, others 20 min – with 30 min you can’t go wrong).

  2. Set up a table outside. Synthetic dyes are TOXIC, so the more air the better.

  3. On the table lay two long rows of overlapping cling film. You can weight the corners of the cling film with stones or weights.

  4. Lay your fibre on the cling film in a single layer. Spread out the fibres so you can be sure to get all the fibre covered with the dye. NOTES: Personally, I don't mind mixing my fibres in the same process (e.g. wool and silk together), because I’m doing fibre art, and not concerned with dyeing bulk lots or precision dying. Strictly speaking you are better to separate your fibres so that you can better monitor the ‘cooking time’ for each. Likewise you should separate out dyeing skeins of spun wool from dying carded fibre, etc.

  5. Squirt the dye on the fibre and massage the colour in lightly until it’s covered. Don’t over-saturate the fibre, and don’t agitate too much as you don’t want to felt the fibre. You’ll see - in the photo above - I used Gotland which had already been well-carded and some of the fibre felted in the dying process. For me, and my fibre art, that's OK – for you, maybe not! If you are happy with one all-over colour, you can simply put the fibre into a zip-lock bag, pour in some dye, zip it up and massage away, pouring out the excess dye before steaming.

  6. Fold up the bottom edge of the cling film over the fibre, then bring the top edge of the cling film down, then fold in the two side edges, making a neat package.

  7. Make a zigzag ‘snake’ of the package.

  8. Put the package into a ziplock bag and take out some air prior to closing it.

  9. Put the ziplock bag into a steamer (located outside), and this steamer must only be used for dying, never for food. NOTE: some people like to use crock pots, steel pots on a gas burner, or microwaves. If you are using a microwave, be careful as you can over-cook fibre this way and felt or burn it.

  10. Steam for around 30 min, checking periodically for the water to run clear. It doesn’t really matter if the water doesn’t run clear. It may just be a sign that you didn’t have enough fibre-to-dye ratio to start with to soak up all the dye.

  11. Leave the fibre in the ziplock bag overnight or at least for a few hours until the fibre goes cold.

  12. When you take the fibre out of the cling film, wash the remaining dye and vinegar in hand-hot running water (note: some people say cold water). Don’t agitate or go hot-to-cold or you could felt the fibre. Squeeze the water our gently.

  13. Leave the fibre to dry over a washing rack or on a tarpaulin. It’s then ready to use!

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