Dyeing Wool With Food Coloring – It’s a thing!

DownloadsIf you have been reading my blog, you will know that I had this huge amount of English 56’s that I felted a sample with as I didn’t find it effective for spinning. (That could be down to me, but hey…)  It makes a good hard felt, although a bit scratchy and hairy.  The shrinkage rate is only about 20% and is hard work to felt.  I’ve read about one blogger using it as a backing for a rug.  She had a tough time with it also, but she ended up with a really nice rug.  I thought I might try dyeing it and making a wall hanging with it.  Neither of those things are something I have done before.

I have acid dyes, but I don’t have separate equipment for using it, which is what you need.  While on YouTube, I came across some videos about dyeing wool with food color.  The only thing I ever dyed with food color was Easter eggs.  I did that as a child and then again with my own children.  The only other thing I ever used food coloring for was making home made play dough.  The upside to dyeing with food coloring is that you don’t need separate equipment for it.  I was able to use my pots and pans that I already had, and I could also use my microwave as it was all food safe.  You only need an apron and rubber gloves too!  It can get messy.  Being the sceptic that I am, I put the question to a spinning group on FB I belong to and sure enough, it is a thing!  People do dye wool with food coloring and with great results.  So I thought I would give it a go.  I researched the food coloring used in the videos and found that it was quite expensive.  I guess it is because it made in the USA and has become a very popular brand.  Unfortunately, the colors that ‘break’ are difficult to get here.  There are other companies that make gel food dye and I bought some made here in the UK.  It is by a company called Sugarflair.


Now, you only need three colors to make all the colors in the rainbow: red, blue and yellow, the primary colors.  A bit of black is also nice to darken things.  However, turquoise is challenging to make and I bought some others for their ‘breaking’ properties.  That means that when you dip dye, you should get the colors to separate that are used to make the blend.  Watch some videos to see what I mean.  It is a cool thing.  All you need apart from the coloring is vinegar or other acid like citric acid or concentrated lemon juice.  I have plenty of white vinegar for my felting rinse and it is really inexpensive.


I had 500g of wool that I split into 100g sections and braided.  I then made up the colors in jars I save.  You never know when you need one to make jam or chutney.  I used the immersion dying method.  I tried to use as little water as possible that I could get away with.  I used my largest pots and pans and a stainless steel mixing bowl, plus I used a melamine mixing bowl with boiling water and then reheated in the microwave.  As with acid dyes, the wool should take up all of the dye and the water should be clear when it is ready.


Here we are drying on the line after rinsing to make sure all the dye was out.  I spun them in the salad spinner to get most of the water out.  We have some nice colors here and none of my roving got felted.


Here they are all dry.  You can see some variations in the colors.  I got exactly the colors I wanted to make my wall hanging.  They are the same as in a duvet cover I have used for inspiration!  If I have some stronger colors in some areas, that is because I poured some extra dye onto the wool half way through the dying process.


I unbraided the roving and rolled them into balls.  You can see that there are no white bits, only pale bits.  The dye went through the wool and all of it has color.  I am really happy with how it turned out.  I am also very happy I used food coloring as I did make a bit of a mess, but it cleaned up really easily.  I had some leftover color and decided that I would space dye some 23mic natural merino roving.  That is a blog post for another time!  I still have some leftover dye and will need to find something else to dye!  It’s fun!

So, I have laid out the wool for my wall hanging.  That took one day.  The piece is the size of my dining table, without the extensions, approximately 45 x 30 inches.  After two layers I wet it out.   This wool likes water, and soap.  It took some time to make sure it was wet on both sides.  I needed to use cool water (room temp) as I didn’t want it to felt.  I then laid out another two layers for the decoration and left it alone as I was quite tired from standing and I also like to pause as when I paint.  The next morning I made some tweaks and added more wool and then I wet the whole thing out.  I think I might have used about 3-4 liters of water!  I also used a lot of soap.  Making sure the whole piece was wet through and absorbing the water is a job in itself. I am not sure if dyeing the wool made it more thirsty.   Then I needed to suck up the excess with a sponge.  I decided not to use the sander here as I didn’t want the wool to migrate too much or my decoration to move around, so I have been rubbing it all by hand like I used to do with my vessels.  Gentle, like on a baby’s bottom to start with.  I used plastic gloves to make it easier.


Here is what it looks like on the back.  The piece is so big I needed to fold it in sections to felt the back as it is too heavy to flip over.  When I thought it passed the pinch test, I rolled it 150 times and then when I unrolled it I had a little freak out as it still needed some more rubbing.   So I spent the next two hours wetting, rubbing and soaping on both sides and removing water also.  I’ve left it overnight to give it a rest.  I shall be working on it some more today.  With any luck, it should be ready to roll, again.  Here is a sneak preview of part of my design.