After a weekend of boiling and toiling, here's my very first dyed fiber, pictured with undyed fiber for comparison, for the first part of the Twisted Knitters D-S-K-along.
I wanted a variety of effects, including watercolor, ombré, and saturated colorwheel, so I tried several techniques. From left to right, top to bottom: undyed Finn top, undyed blended roving, roving dyed with purple cauliflower water; two coils of Kool-Aid dyed Finn top using modified hot pour technique; Kool-Aid dyed roving, two coils using spot dye and one coil using cold pour techniques. It's cool and windy today, so I stuck flower-headed pins into the fiber coils to keep them well-behaved during the outdoor photo session.
For fiber preparation and Kool-Aid dyeing, I followed the excellent directions in The Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook by Lynne Vogel. For dyeing with plant stuff, I followed hints given in a Peterson Field Guide, Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson. My apparatus was fairly simple: 3-quart (2.8 l) microwaveable containers, one gallon (3.8 l) zip bags, cups, drinking straws for spot dyeing, various containers leftover from takeout, white soup spoons, plastic wrap, mister, electric wok with steamer rack, and microwave oven.
In the photo are (clockwise from the left): mister containing vinegar, dyed and undyed fiber, extra water for steaming, wok, fiber packet waiting its turn in the wok, Kool-Aid dye solutions, bag of fiber steeping in cauliflower water, fiber packet that was microwaved rather than steamed (won't be doing that again). Newspaper under alles, of course.
The biggest suprise to this newbie fiber dyer was the magic of dye exhaustion. The dye solution may start out highly colored and even turbid, but when the fiber has absorbed its pigment, the liquid turns quite clear. I used white plastic soup spoons to monitor the process, but that was hard to photograph, so used saucers for this illustration of the remarkable difference. There really is exhausted Berry Blue Kool-Aid in the upper saucer.
Despite the somewhat violent and abrupt-sounding technical terms bandied about – mordant (= biting), dye strike, etc – I found the process actually takes some time and seems to happen primarily during the slow cool down phase. It's very important to let things sit undisturbed until they are room temperature. Patience, or perhaps a capacity for benign neglect, is a virtue.
It's also important to separate roving or top into manageable pieces and to soak them until thoroughly wet, which takes at least an hour. When immersing the fiber, I could feel the trapped air streaming past my palms, an odd sensation that I haven't noticed when soaking yarn or garments. After a minute or so, there was a thermal reaction, very pronounced with the Finn top – the water became noticeably warmer. A 3-quart (2.8 l) microwave container is a perfect size for a one-yard (0.91 m) piece of fiber.
I handled wet fiber very like a jelly roll (kept it supported, rolled it in towels, unrolled it, wrapped it in plastic). Spreading the fiber into a thin layer worked better than leaving it as a thick layer – one can see what's happening more easily, the dye penetrates more evenly, and the fiber packet is easier to rinse and dry. Drying (flat, on towels) was quick and easy. The fiber fluffed up as it dried, although it remained a bit more compressed (not f-f-f-felted) than the undyed samples.
All of the dyes I used – Kool-Aid in Cherry, Pink Lemonade, Mango, Lemon-Lime, and Berry Blue flavors and purple cauliflower water – have distinct odors that I don't particularly like and don't associate with fiber arts. The cauliflower water even started fermenting! The Cherry Kool-Aid had a tendency to migrate and run. All of these infelicities were greatly reduced by careful rinsing. I used the microwave containers to rinse the fiber, tipping the water out. This allowed the fiber to be completely supported while draining.
A week of eating purple cauliflower yielded about two cups (actually more like 500 cc) of inky violet cooking water. When preparing dye from plant material, it's typical to boil the dyestuff for hours to derive maximum pigment; as I wanted edible food, I didn't. Roving placed in the cooking water turned color immediately, but the mass steeped in a zip bag for two days before the liquid began to look exhausted. Because of the acid-base indicator property of the liquid, I didn't want to add a mordant, which is often acidic, to hurry things along. Inevitably fermentation started, at which point I rinsed the roving and discarded the gassy and very whiffy liquid.
This is what the zip bag looked like Saturday evening – the cooking water is still strongly colored, the roving is still pale. (The bag had accidentally leaned against something hot and was damaged; I changed it later.)
According to my gardening references, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi are all domesticated varieties of wild cabbage, Brassica oleracea. Presumably it's possible to produce more of the purple cauliflower dye at lower cost by boiling red cabbage. I don't think I'll try that – Julia Child in Julia Child & Company has some observations about the "dismal reek, familiar from bad old days and bad old hotels" that occurs when any member of the Brassica tribe is overcooked.
Incidentally, the cauliflower water-dyed roving retains the acid-base indicator property of the cauliflower water and changes color with changes in pH. Here's three poufs of the roving that were dipped in liquid and dried: on the right, a pouf dipped in vinegar; in the middle, one dipped in water as a control; on the left, a pouf dipped in baking soda water. As usual, the acid reaction happened quickly, the base reaction was slower.
I assume the spun yarn and the knit item will also retain the acid-base indicator property. It would seem this is a true acid-base reaction, so it should be almost endlessly reversible. Hm... maybe I'll make a hat that can gauge the pH of rain. It will be pink in very acid rain, purple in somewhat acid rain, pale violet gray in pH neutral conditions, and green in alkaline conditions such as being washed in soap.
Overall, I'm pretty happy with the results of all the boiling and toiling. The next step will be to spin up these samples, consider the results, then dye production quantities, probably in November.