Natural Dye Workshop

Last weekend I went to a natural dye workshop in the city.  I never really understood why people would dye their own yarn.  You can just buy whatever color you want so why go through all the work of trying to find a way to dye it.  Then I realized that’s what people say about knitting too.  The final temptation was when I stumbled on Grackle & Sun’s blog.  There were a series of posts about natural dyes and suddenly it all became interesting.  There were no guarantees and so many variables that now it truly became a unique and fun idea.

I went searching for someone teaching natural dyes but I didn’t find much.  Finally I found sifu design studio & fine yarns that was having a Saturday afternoon workshop.  I was a little anxious about the parking since my parallel parking skills aren’t the best but luckily it all worked out.

The workshop was informal and the instructor even said she was using the “alchemy” approach in order to give us a good intro and overview.  If you want to be able to reproduce a dye lot you have to take very detailed measurements and notes.  Detailed notes take a lot of time so we skipped that part and just went straight to the dying.

We each got one white Cascade skein (not the super wash) split into three mini skeins.  This gave us the chance for three different dye attempts.  We had four dye baths going: onion skins, beets, marigold flowers, and Brazilwood sawdust.   We let each pot sit for an hour and then strained the water.  For my first skein I used the Brazilwood sawdust and ended up with a light pink mini skein.  I thought about putting it in for a second time to try to get it a bit darker but the skein was already tangled enough I didn’t want to risk it.

For our second skein we talked about the concept of a resist.  A resist happens when something interferes with the yarn taking the dye.  It can happen on accident or on purpose.  Some of us decided to go ahead and try it on purpose for our second mini skein.  We didn’t have rubber bands so we used some balloons and tied them tightly around sections of the yarn.  The idea here is that if the dye doesn’t reach the yarn then you will have white sections left in your yarn.  After that you can decide what you want to do about those white sections.

Some people wanted to try a different dye bath, some left it white, and some put it back into the same dye bath a second time.  I decided to try this out with the marigold dye bath which gave an awesome yellow.  However, my resist wasn’t very noticeable to me.  I could see the white parts but they were just too narrow to really have any impact.  I decided to put my mini skein back into the marigold bath and leave it in for a while in hopes of completely eliminating the resist.

It worked pretty well.  My mini skein ended up a beautiful almost fluorescent bright yellow and I don’t notice the lighter sections unless I’m looking for it in direct sunlight.  Unfortunately it was also during this dye bath that the only bad part of the class came up.  It was made very clear to us how many of our mini skeins each dye bath could hold.  There was just enough for each person in the class to dye one of their mini skeins at a time.

I guess someone thought they were better than everyone else and she decided to dye her skeins however she saw fit. In the pic here you see me and another classmate with our mini skeins in the marigold dye bath.  It was empty and we each put one in leaving two skeins in the bath.  We were told repeatedly that this dye bath had a limit of two skeins at once.  Well when we came to take them out there were now four skeins in there.  Not three, but four.  And guess what?  The extra two were from the same lady.  So not only did she ignore the dye bath limit she also ignored that we should only do one skein at a time.  I have no idea why someone would do this.  We had plenty of class time and there was a limit to the number of skeins we had to dye.  It just completely baffles me.  She ended up sitting around for the last hour of class with nothing to do.

The last topic that came up in class was the concept of over dyeing.  This doesn’t mean you leave your yarn in too long it means that you take an already dyed yarn and dye it again.  It came up with the topic of the resist.  You could use a resist in the first dye bath and then over dye the skein in a different dye bath.  This would leave the white yarn sections with the color of the second dye bath while the rest of the yarn would be a combination of the two dye baths.

My resist didn’t work so well the first time so for my last mini skein I decided to do a simple over dye of the entire skein.  I used the onion dye bath first.  This gave a different yellow than the marigold.  It was a little muddier and had some orange in it.  I wasn’t too thrilled with that yellow which I’d already seen other classmates get from the onion bath so I over dyed it in the Brazilwood sawdust.  This gave me a light/orange peach color that I was much happier with.

So in the end I had my three mini skeins in yellow, pink, and orange/peach. They were still wet here on the back of the chair but pretty close to their dried colors.  I let them hang over night to dry.  All three mini skeins got tangled up enough that I had to hand wind them.  In the future I would make sure to tie the skeins in multiple locations instead of the one tie I had.  Hopefully this will leave me with neater skeins to wind.

While the alchemist approach to dyeing is great as an intro I think I would really like to be more exact on any future dye attempts.  I’d also like to experiment more with the concept of the different mordants and well honestly everything.  I heard that some master dyers even get the pH of the soil for plants they use in their dye baths.  I know that our results were more of a let’s see what we get but I would have more fun trying to get a certain result from the beginning.  Either way I will definitely be looking into dyeing yarn again!


  1. Such pretty yarn! I too center discovered Sifu & love it. Nice to know they offer dye classes.

  2. Thanks for the very kind mention! How cool that this class has got your interests cooking. It sounds like it was a lot of fun (despite the dyepot hog, lol). I LOVE the colours you got! So pretty. Hope you stick with it. It’s a lot of fun. And you’re right—there’s all kinds of dyeing—including the kind for those of us who want to explore all the variables and be a little more exacting about the process.


  1. […]  I had a lot of fun and I’m sure I’ll be going again this year.  I also took a Natural Dye Workshop in Chicago.  I don’t know what I’ll do with this now that I’ve tried it but […]

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