Last Fiber Focus I introduced organic cotton yarn, history, and manufacturing. But before I get into the particulars of knitting with organic cotton, one more important aspect needs examination: the dying process.
Since I’m a dyeing novice, I decided to go to the experts. Heidi Braacx from Vegan Yarns and Quo Vadis Handspun graciously agreed share some dyeing knowledge with us.
Part 1: Dying Organic Cotton
Q1: Are there any differences in dyeing regular cotton verses organic cotton fibers? If so, what are they? What specifics would a seasoned, but new to organic cotton dyer need to know?
There’s not too much of a difference except that typically conventional cotton has been scoured more heavily, so, that means conventional cotton is usually ready to dye, as is, and organic cotton often needs to soak in a warm bath with some soda ash overnight to clean it, and strip off some of the protective wax so the dye can penetrate. You don’t need lots of soda ash, just a spoonful in a full tub or a pinch of it in the sink. Too much will burn the yarn and make it dry and crunchy. (Ask me how I know that! Haha!)
Q2: What makes vegan dyes better than synthetic dyes?
Plant-based dyes is a whole different thing compared to synthetic dyes. Plant dyeing is a process of extracting the naturally occurring pigments contained in the plant, and transferring them to your yarn. There’s a common method for most dye plants, but there are many variations, and a few exceptions. Natural dyeing is so much more satisfying than working with chemical dyes. The colours are always pleasing to the eye, and the process is often so mysterious and unique. Through learning how to use natural dyes, I’ve also learned a good deal of chemistry, botany, gardening, and history. Each plant has a different method and recipe, and often subtle changes can yield vastly different results. It’s always fun to see what the final result is.
Q3: In addition to the above, is there any noticeable difference in the color hold over time between the two?
There’s not much of a difference in colour-fastness between chemical and natural dyes with most colours, as long as the yarn has been cleaned and mordanted properly.
For the novice dyer (just like me), I wondered where to start. Heidi provided great insight into the whole dyeing process, I was excited to try. So grab your mordant, yarn, and coffee and let’s dunk this yarn!
Q1: Will any undyed organic cotton take dye? Or do you have purchase a special sort of organic cotton?
Any organic cotton can be dyed, however some will work better than others. Check the label before you start to see if what you have is a blend or is 100% cotton. For acrylic/cotton blends, you’ll find that the acrylic will dye differently (or hardly at all), if it’s a linen/cotton blend, you’ll notice that they’ll take differently and you’ll likely get a marled texture to it. The best thing to do as a beginner is to start with no specific expectations of what you’ll arrive at, and you’ll be more likely to be happy with the results. You’ll often be surprised at what you get!
Q2: If the yarn is already dyed, can you dye it again?
Absolutely! The richest, most interesting colours come from overdyeing. This is a great way to get a handle on colour theory as well.
Q3: If the yarn is white, can you dye it again?
Yes! The brighter the white the brighter your colour will be. Alternatively, if you have a creamy, natural white, the result will be a softer, more natural colour.
Q4: Do you have a quick recipe to share that is made up of kitchen ready ingredients?
There are lots of dyeing projects that can be done with spices, coffee, and tea or things you’ll find in the garden. You’ll need to start by scouring (cleaning) your yarn. Most powdered laundry detergent is soda ash based, especially the eco-friendly brands, so that will do nicely for scouring. Next is mordanting. Anything with tannic acid in it will do the trick. Tannin is in tea, coffee, red wine, pomegranate skins, nut shells, and wood resin. Coffee and tea act as both a mordant and a dye, so you can get good results in a single dye bath. Others, you’ll need to do one or two mordant baths first. The ideal mordanting process for most colours is to do a tannic acid bath by simmering your yarn with whatever you’re using for tannin, rinse, and then another bath with alum (potassium alum) I’m pretty sure you can get this by breaking a chunk off of some crystal deodorant. I get my alum in powdered form from a natural dye supplier. If you don’t have it you can skip it, but alum will help improve the light and wash fastness. Next you can put in your dyestuff. The more you use the darker colour you’ll get. Depending on how concentrated the pigment is in what you’re using, you’ll want to use roughly 25% to 50% weight of fibre for dry dyestuffs like curry powder or turmeric, and 200% weight of fibre of the fresh plant. You can use dandelions (the whole plant), red cabbage, avocado (skins and pits), pomegranate skins, blueberries, dahlias, coreopsis, sunflowers, marigolds, and many other garden standards. Some people like to just throw their chopped up garden trimmings in a big pot with water and yarn and see what happens. Throwing in some copper pennies and/or a few tums tablets into the dye bath will usually brighten your colours as well. If you’re going for a greyer or greener colour, try using a cast iron pot, or putting in a few items made of iron.
Part 2: What would an interview be without background knowledge on the interviewee!
Q1: Your colors are vibrant and breathtaking, where do you get your inspiration?
My inspiration comes from all sorts of things, mainly my favourite activities. I enjoy anime, stargazing, and yoga quite a bit, so I’m often inspired by characters from my favourite films, or stars from my favourite constellations, or yoga poses I like best.
Q2: From spinning fiber to finished dyed yarn, how long does each batch take?
For handspun yarn in my Etsy shop, it can take anywhere from a single day, to several weeks depending on how much time I have to finish a skein. For hand dyed yarn that you’ll see in the Vegan Yarn shop, hand dyeing takes, about three to four days per batch, most of that time is letting the colour develop. Natural dyeing takes from two days start to finish, up to a week and a half.
Q3: Why do you focus on organic cotton and other natural/ sustainable fibers?
I’m vegan, so I tend to gravitate toward things that are healthy, sustainable and natural. Since I own my own business, it was a great opportunity to hand-pick what materials I use so that what I’m using is in alignment with my ideals. Compassion and nonviolence are a pretty big deal for me, so thats what guides my choices most often.
Q4: HELP! I order some of your hand-dyed yarn and LOVE it, but I ran out with one sleeve to go. How as a hand dyer are you able to help this distraught customer?
Of course the most common response is, before you start, make sure you have all that you need for your project, but if you’re already at the point of no return, then you’d probably not want that answer! : ) I think the best thing to do in this situation is to embrace the mistake, and make it a feature. Colour matching on a garment is typically next to impossible, so it’s best to consider other alternatives. Try a contrasting colour that will make the project more interesting, and just act like it was intentional. After all, its handmade, so its automatically awesome anyways. Adding a flash of another colour just ramps up the awesomeness.
Heidi provides a variety of natural fiber yarns in her shop in addition to organic cotton. Since this article is focused on organic cotton, you’ll have to check out her sites to see her entire catalog of yarn eye candy. You can find Heidi online in the following places:
Ravelry Group: http://www.ravelry.com/groups/vegan-yarn-fan-club
Plus BONUS – Heidi is running a summer sale 20% off May 16-30, 2014 – so be sure to order your vegan yarn today!