Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Kettle Dyeing Gone Wrong

Before I move on to the second part of the Immersion Dyeing posts, I wanted to share this with you.
People worry that they are going to make mistakes when dyeing yarn, and that life, as they know it, will be over. I used to think that too... then this happened.

My first ever attempt at Kettle Dyeing (a.k.a immersion dyeing), was not the spectacular success I was planning.  But it was the first time I learned that one person's massive failure can become another person's most favourite yarn ever.

I think this was probably the second yarn I tried to dye on my own.  I had successfully done a hand painted yarn, and had watched a video on creating multicoloured yarn on the stove with food colouring. In that video, she used food colouring, but I figured I had Easter Egg dye tablets, so why not use those?

My plan seemed brilliant to me. I was going to use a blue, a yellow, and a red. In theory, the blue and yellow will combine to make green, the yellow and red to make orange, and the red and blue to make purple.  It was all going to be a picture perfect rainbow, and I was going to have the greatest skein of kettle dyed yarn ever!!

So I started by adding my yarn to the pot I was going to dye in, and added lots of water. I had forgotten that the dye tablets have some citric acid in them, so I added a bunch of vinegar to the water. I think one of her previous videos has said one tablespoon of vinegar per cup of water, so that was probably what I added

Soaking the yarn
I pulled out the Easter Egg dye tablets and found my red, blue and yellow.  Sometimes the colours are a bit tricky... the red looked pink and the blue looked purple. Even the yellow looks like it has specks of green in it.  (Tip - if you are not sure of the colour, get a slightly damp piece of paper towel and rub the edge of the tablet on the towel to see what colour you get)
The dye culprits, I mean tablets.

The water got to a bit more of a boil than I expected. Turns out this is "what not to do #1".  Or at least, if you get it to a rolling boil, make sure it has time to reduce to no movement at all.  Pretty sure she said that in the video, but I was new to this and, as you know, am a teensy bit impatient.  Making sure it has no movement means you need to move the yarn around to make sure that the water under it is not moving! That was one of my mistakes. The water on the top wasn't moving, but under the yarn, it was bubbling away

Next it was time to add the dye tablets.  I knew not to just drop them on the top, since it would not penetrate, so I moved the yarn slightly to make space, and added the dye tablets.  I added all of them along the sides, hoping to get the solid colours along the edges, with the blended colours in the middle.
All three colours added to the dye pot
Almost immediately, I knew something was not going to go right. If you look closely, the blue is very fizzy... that was the reaction from when I added the blue tablet to the water that had vinegar in it. It hissed and bubbled and spit at me. And it started to spread out and take over all the other colours.  "What not to do #2"... too much acid.... The spot that looks purple was from where the blue was taking over the red. In fact, you can't see any red in there at all, but I know I put in a red tablet.  I hoped that maybe a little more time would help...

After a few minutes
Time did not help... the water was bubbling under the yarn, causing anything under it to move around, mix and take over.  Where there was supposed to be yellow, the blue and red had already mixed together, and when they hit the yellow, I got a nasty looking brown

Then I did something really silly... "what not to do #3"... I decided that I was going to move the yarn a bit to see what was going on underneath.  I saw the rolling boil of the water, and then watched as the blue and yellow mixed and completely took over the yarn
My rainbow dream go up in steam....
I turned off the pot pulled the yarn out, put it in a bowl to cool and walked away, deflated. My dreams of the perfect multi-colour yarn had gone down the drain. Or at least they were about to, when I dumped the dye stock.
My failed experiment, sitting in a bowel while I tried to find my pride...
The purple was nice, as was some of the brighter green, but the remaining yellow had produced what appeared to be a nasty brown. The damage was already done, so I figured I might as well just finish the yarn.  Washed it, rinsed it and got it ready to dry
The wet dye... A couple of pretty spots, but also a couple of pretty gross looking spots
After I dried it, it didn't like quite as horrendous as I thought it would. It was still not what I was expecting at all, but it looked like maybe it would have some promise.  What were nasty brown spots on the dark yarn had dried to sort of light green/dark yellow spots, and there were not as many of them as I had though. In fact, most of the yarn was a rather pleasing green, with an equally pleasing purple.
Once it was dry, the colours were not as horrific as I thought
I caked it up and put the picture on my Ravelry stash page. At the time I was also posting my new dyeing skills on Facebook, so this fail was out there for the world to see.
Dried and caked, ready to knit with
Surprisingly, people were commenting saying they really like the colours, and thought it would be really nice when knit up. All I could see when I looked at it was the failed colourway of my dreams, but when others looked at it, they saw the possibilities. I put the yarn aside for a while and went back to hand painting my yarn. At least when I did it that way, I was getting somewhat predicable results.

A few months later I was talking to a friend about the socks I was going to make for her.  I told her she could have her pick of yarns, and asked what her favourite colour was. She was looking for something green. I told her I didn't have much with a lot of green, but that I would show here one mistake I had made a while back. If she didn't like it, which I didn't expect her to, I would custom dye something for her.  I sent there picture of the caked yarn and she absolutely loved it! She claimed it right off the bat.   That was they yarn she wanted her socks made out of.  Turns out "what not to do #4" is convince yourself that a failure is a failure...

Still skeptical that anything good could come of what felt like a catastrophe to me mere weeks ago, I cast on her socks. And was very surprised to see that as they were knitting up, the yarn was actually growing on me. I was liking it! How could that be? This yarn had crushed my kettle dyeing dreams, and I liked it?

I finished the socks, took a few pictures, and mailed them off to their new owner. She got them just as she was on her way to Scotland, and she wore them almost the whole time she was there.

Kelly's Socks
So don't let what you perceive as a fail, even if you think it is an epic fail, deter you from either knitting with it, or dyeing more. For a while I told myself I would never kettle dye another yarn again, but now I know that even if I don't get what I was intending, I might still get a what someone else is hoping for!

UPDATE - I discovered on YouTube today that Rebecca from ChemKnits did the same type of experiment, using Easter Egg dye tablets, back in early 2015 (I did mine in 2013), and it looks like it did something similar to her. The green just took over. In hers, more of it washed out later, but nice t know it is not just me it happens to :)


  1. The yarn did knit up very nicely. Very pretty with some interesting pooling. I think I saw Rebecca's vid also. Is that the one where she did a cake and poked the dye tablets down inside? I've been thinking about trying that myself.

    1. No, she did that one later on... The link to the one I was referring to is in the third paragraph. I did see the one you are talking about.