Old Wives' Tales about Dyeing


I just returned from Green Mountain.  Although I had a wonderful experience meeting and visiting with fellow rug hookers, I heard quite a bit of advice about dyeing wool that was inaccurate if not harmful.  This dyeing advice has a long oral history among rug hookers going back to the 1950s when hookers wanted to reproduce the color they saw in expensive rugs sold in stores.  Many of the techniques they developed came from their own experience, with little to no knowledge about how chemical dyes actually work or the health precautions that must be followed to keep us and our families safe. 

So I am sharing this information with the hope that it will be shared widely among rug hookers and that the old wives' tales about dyeing will be put to rest.  Most of us have heard these tales and have been responsible for transmitting them ourselves when we didn't know better.  But no more!

Old Wives' Tale 1.  It is safe to dye in our kitchens. 

Truth: These dyes are poison if ingested.  It is dangerous for us to assume that when we are dyeing in our kitchens that dye powders are not floating around our counters and stove tops and settling on our bananas, that we might not spill dye solution on a dish by accident, that we might confuse a wooden spoon we are using in the dye pot with the spaghetti spoon we use to make dinner.  We shouldn't assume that the fumes coming from the cooking dye pots is something we want to continually expose ourselves and our families too.

Solution: Dye in your garage or on your porch using separate spoons, containers, jars, electric appliances, etc. that are stored in the garage and clearly marked for your dyes.  Never ever use these items to cook with or eat off of.  If you use them to dye with, they should never see food.  You don't need a kitchen in your garage.  All you need is a hot plate or better yet the biggest turkey roaster you can find and plug into the wall.

Old Wives' Tale 2. If dyes are safe enough to dye wool in our kitchens, we don't have to worry about taking precautions like wearing masks and gloves. 

Truth: Acid dyes are chemical dyes which work through a chemical reaction that involves dyes, acid, and heat.  Exposing these chemicals to our lungs is dangerous. 

Solution: Follow all safety instructions on the dye labels, including wearing a mask, apron, and gloves.   Closed toed shoes are a good idea too, since accidents with glass jars and boiling hot dye solution and water is known to occur.

Old Wives' Tale 3. It is necessary to pre-wash and then pre-soak your wool overnight before dyeing it.

Truth: Pre-washing your wool will only shrink it more.  Pre-soaking your wool does nothing but make a total mess on your floor.  Neither of these things has anything whatsoever to do with the chemical dye process. 

Solution: In order to ensure even coloring and dye penetration, put two tinny squirts of synthrapol detergent into your jars or pot.  Synthrapol (available at art stores or on Amazon) is a high concentrated fabric detergent that is used in the dye process as the wetting agent and pre-wash agent.  It helps the dye penetrate the wool fibers and also helps even out the colors during the dye process. It also removes any starch or stiffening that might be on new wool.  I never dye without it.

Old Wives' Tale 4. It is best to boil your water, dyes, and wool. 

Truth: Not only is this a very good way to get burned, but boiling wool will ensure that you end up with thick wool that is felted.  If you want dyed felt, then this is a good process.  Otherwise, read on.

Solution: All dyes have a different heat for their individual reactions.  Those with lower heat requirements take up into the wool sooner than those with higher heat requirements.  I find working in a water bath in a turkey roaster to be most convenient because I can control the temperature (there is a dial on the side of the roaster).  Once you have your dye, water, and wool in the jar or enamel insert, cover and turn the roaster on 400 degrees F.  Let it go for 45 minutes before adding the acid.

Old Wives' Tale 5. Vinegar will give you brighter colors.

Truth: There is nothing special about vinegar. It has no special qualities to impart to your color. It is used as the acid necessary to bring about the chemical reaction in the dye process.  Without acid, no dyeing will occur.  But vinegar is bulky to store, heavy to lug around, and splashes when poured into the hot dyes. 

Solution: Use citric acid (derived from citric fruit).  It is a white powder and a teaspoon goes a long way.  It is available on Amazon.  To use, take the wool out from the jar, add the citric acid and put the wool back in.  Make sure to stir it around since this is the moment that most of the dye will penetrate the wool (almost instantly).  Cover the pot again and let it simmer on 400 degrees F for another 45 minutes.  Stir twice during this time.

Old Wives' Tale 6. Take hot wool and rinse it immediately.

Truth: You can do this, but you run the risk of getting burned and felting the wool even more.

Solution: It makes more sense to turn the heat off, and leave the wool covered in the dye solution overnight.  In the morning, when the wool has thoroughly cooled down to room temperature, remove it from the dye solution, run it through a rinse cycle with low spin, and then dry it in the dryer on delicate with a Bounce sheet.