Dyeing yarn and fiber with acid dyes requires the following:
dye, fiber, acid, heat, time, & opportunity.
WHAT CAN I DYE?
You can solar dye with anything that that you would could dye in an oven or a crock pot, including yarn, roving, top, and fiber. Acid dyes work on protein fibers such as animal fibers & silk as well as nylon. They will not dye plant fibers such as flax, bamboo, or cotton.
Food dyes such as easter egg dyes, cake decorating dyes, and food coloring gel work and arrange from ok to reasonably colorfast if they are set properly. The colors may not be as bright and give interesting breaking effects. You can use these with your regular cookware and canning jars.
Acid dyes, such as Jacquard, ProChem, Dharma Trading, Lanaset, Country Classic, can give a wider range of repeatable colors. If you choose these dyes, you’ll want to have dyeing dedicated containers and utensils.
Depending on how you want to dye, you can use dry dye powder or a dye stock solution. For directions and a video for how to mix up dye stock, go to spindlesinthewild.com
Presoaking your fiber or yarn will help the dye penetrate into the cortex. Dyeing on dry fiber can give interesting effects. You can dye and overdye using wet &/or dry yarn to get the style you like.
It’s helpful to know approximately how much your fiber/yarn weighs before dyeing. For solar dyeing, you will get better results with dyeing in smaller batches. Think of your dyeing as you would cooking. A baked potato takes longer to reach temperature than chopped potato pieces- even though they are the same weight.
Acid helps the dye strike (bond to the yarn). There are a variety of chemicals you can use. Two of the most common are vinegar (acetic acid) and citric acid.
pH strips or a pH meter can help you until you get used to how much of your acid to use. The more water you have, the more acid you will need to shift the pH. Aim for around a pH of 4- 4.8 Some colors may need a lower pH (more acid); others may need less. More acid is not always better. Trial and error will help you figure out which pH will set which colors. Too much acid can damage the fiber and can keep you from getting the colors and patterns you like.
Different colors need different temperature to set. Through trial and error, you’ll figure out which dyes are best on 70ish days and which need warmer days. In general, you are looking for 155-165F. Some dyes need 185-195F, but increasing the time at lower temps can help. Some stubborn dyes (frequently turquoise) need 185-195F for 30+ minutes. It’s possible to get those temps if you build some simple- or not so simple- contraptions.
SOLAR OVEN OPTIONS:
Simplest: A mason jar spray painted black. You can dye in a clear jar on your porch, and it will look amazing. But, that tends to work best on very warm, bright days.
Dark roasting or canning pot that will fit your container. You can also try a black trash bag. You’ll put your dyeing container inside the pot or bag and out in the sun. You can also put your spraypainted or clear jar inside a turkey roasting bag.
Goal: a set up where the wind is kept off of the dyeing jar but the heat is trapped. Dark things will absorb heat. You can use your car if it has a dark paint job.
Spray paint an opensided box black inside, make a reflector of tinfoil or a car shade and funnel the sunlight into the box. Set up facing the sun, block the wind with plastic wrap on the box if needed. Add concrete blocks or bricks spraypainted black to the base of the box.
Go to spindlesinthewild.com for plans and pictures for building a permanent solar oven
Solar dyeing is slow. Really slow. Put your yarn in, go for a hike or bingewatch an entire season slow. Even if the water goes clear, you need to let the yarn reach temperature and stay at that temperature for a while. In general, there should be condensation inside the jar and the jar should be too hot to touch for several hours. Unless it is a heat wave, 3 hours is your shortest time. If you are doing multiple layer techniques, you can add dyes along the way, but then you have to bring the yarn back up to temperature.
The dye molecules have to reach a place where they can attach to the fiber. Esp if you want deeper colors, this means creating conditions for the dye to go where you want it to be. You can use gravity, wicking, compression, and injection to move dye through the fiber.
Different dyes have different size molecules. You may need to layer different brands or close colors to get the saturation you want. Don’t be afraid to play with your dyes. Use a variety of manufacturers and techniques.
For uniform color: wash your yarn/fiber; presoak until thoroughly wet/relaxed; add yarn to pre-dissolved dye in lots of water. Bring to temperature slowly; add acid once the yarn is at temperature or use an acid that activates around 140F.
Uniform color is tough for solar dyeing because large tubs of water take longer to heat. Instead, use other methods of moving the dye through the yarn. Dip and swish the yarn. Lift and let gravity pull the dye through the yarn. Let rest for a bit. Rotate the skein and repeat. When you have a good color saturation in the fiber, then add the acid. Pick a wider, flatter container such as a baking pan to increase the amount of water exposed.
For resists: Change up the shape of your container, add rubber bands or zipties, twist or knot your yarn. A square jar will let water and dye collect in the corners so the yarn in those areas will be darker. You can also put different colors in the corners. They will blend along the faces of your jar and in the center. The less water, the less blending.
For handpainting & speckling:
Soak and then spin out as much water as you can. Lay your skein in a shallow dish or on a piece of plastic wrap. Handpaint. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and then cook in the sun or your solar contraption. Leaving it sitting on hot rocks is a great way to get it to set. Flip at least once after the yarn has gotten to temperature. Don’t admire your work. Open, flip, close to keep the heat in.
The sun went away!
You can put heat-safe jars in a canning pot on your stove. Oven-safe containers can be put in the oven for 200F until finished- or if they aren’t even close, set the oven to 250F and use a thermometer to monitor your temp. When the yarn/fiber reaches 195F, turn the heat to 200F and leave for at least 30-45 minutes. Let cool in pan.
You can use a microwave for smaller mason jars, but use 50-70% power and take your time. Boiling your yarn or fiber can do bad things to the finished feel of the yarn.
It didn’t set!
Of the list of dye, fiber, acid, heat, time, & opportunity, the last 2 are the most overlooked but are most often the reason a skein doesn’t set properly. If you use too much dye, no amount of heat, water, and vinegar will set the dye. You’ll have to rinse the excess by putting the skein in a large pot of cold water and letting it soak. You can add a few drops of dish soap, shampoo, or wool wash. Change the water as needed until it runs clear.
My dye ran, and my skein is muddy
Overdyeing may help. Navy can save just about anything. Next time, try for less dye and/or less water. Also give dyes time to strike. Let colors take up fully before adding new ones.
My dye ran, and my skein is all one color.
You can overdye with another color. Add resists by twisting, banding, or knotting your yarn. Pick the water level based on what you want dyed. More water = more dye movement.