Dyeing Wool With Wilton's Icing Colors

Rissa Peace Root © 2005

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Dyeing wool with food coloring is both simple and safe. It is so easy that all you really need is some Wilton's Icing Colors (available at any craft store in the cake decorating section), some vinegar, a stock pot and an adventurous spirit. Any wool thread, even embroidery threads such as Appletonís, Medici or tapestry wool can be dyed or over-dyed.  Knitters and spinners have been using Wilton's and Kool-Aid to dye yarn and roving for years, but there is no reason why the same methods can not be applied to needlework threads.

If you do not care for the smell of vinegar, fear not. Citric acid is a perfect substitute for acetic acid. Citric acid, sometimes called ďsour salt,Ē is used in gourmet cooking, wine-making and soap making. It is available in a variety of quantities on eBay, but you can also find it in small quantities in a variety of places, including many health food stores. For dyeing purposes, one tablespoon of citric acid equals one cup of vinegar. It is perfect for acidifying the water, which will help the wool take up the dye and make it less likely to felt.

Wiltonís is a food coloring product and is, by definition, non-toxic.  It is, however, very messy.  If you are worried about using it in your favorite stockpot, designate a special pot just for dyeing. You will want to choose either a stainless steel or ceramic coated canning or stock pot or an old crock pot. You will also need a stainless steel spoon or knife to put the dye into the stock pot and a colander to drain your dyed wool. You may also want gloves or finger cots to protect your fingers and hands from staining. The dye will come off, but multi-colored fingers can be embarrassing and difficult to explain.

A single color of Wiltonís will often split in the dye pot, giving you a variegated color without having to use multiple colors or special dyeing techniques. For example, you can get purple, pink and blue thread from a single application of Wiltonís Violet. Use Black and you will get a similar color way with the addition of gray and maybe a spot of black. A friend and fellow dyer suggested that starting with cold water, then heating it with the wool and dyes, will encourage it to split before it sets. Part of my interest in using Wiltonís is the enigmatic way the colors strike the wool and set. The first time you watch the dye exhaust in a pot of water, you will be hooked.

You can also apply dye directly to the soaked wool. One of the best techniques is sometimes referred to as the ďhot knifeĒ method. Basically, you take a knife or spoon and dip it into hot water to warm it, then you place it into the bottle of Wiltonís Dye gel before you randomly place the knife/spoon into the dye pot with the soaking wool. Be careful not to stab too vigorously, you do not want to agitate wool in hot water, even though wool is not prone to felting in acidified water.  The other method is often referred to as "painting."  Place wet wool onto a piece of plastic wrap and directly apply Wilton's with a knife or spoon.  Allow to sit for a few minutes before placing in the dye pot, where the excess dye will dissolve and fill in the "blank" places. 

Being careful to avoid bring the water to a full boil, heat the acidified water until the dye exhausts and is rendered clear again. Gently wash your thread in a mild detergent and warm water, then rinse. After your thread dries, it is ready to use.

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