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dyeing disaster

My first attempt at dyeing wool was… interesting to say the least. Keep in mind that I’ve never dyed anything except Easter eggs before, but I assumed it couldn’t be much more difficult. I was so excited to get started because I received the fiber package from Woolgatherings, and it was even more incredible than the photos on their store site! They didn’t do the actual fibers justice. Even the superfine merino felt almost as soft as angora. What a difference 3 microns can make! And this wasn’t even their softest Merino, they had another from Australia that was 3 less microns… at double the price of course. Mae and I also happened to be spending the whole day together, and one of the things I wanted to make with the merino was a pair of thrummed slippers for her for Christmas…  but I couldn’t keep it a surprise, because I couldn’t resist the fun of having her dye it with me, and pick out the colors herself. So we skipped off to the grocery store to purchase some kool-aid. I was expecting to see a wide assortment of flavors, as I remember that aisle holding many as a kid.  Our needs weren’t great, just some purple (grape)… and maybe some red to add a slightly different shade of purple. Alas! Imagine our dismay when we only saw 2 flavors in that aisle! Cherry and wild berry punch… both red. I can hardly believe I live in America right now!!! Maybe it’s because we live in Portland… we are too snobby “weird” for kool-aid. There were many other drink mixes in the aisle, but all of them with some sort of fake sugar added, or some vitamin enhanced nonsense… not gonna work for us. We quickly came up with a backup plan: food coloring. It would be a little more tricky, as it would also require vinegar and more soaking time, but they just happened to have some in purple, so we grabbed that along with the cherry kool-aid.

We decided to dye half of the merino, 4 oz., hoping it would be enough, and also not wanting to do all of it at once in case something went wrong. We were going to do it all purple, but given the unknowns of the differences in the colors, we decided to do half in pink (a lighter shade of the cherry) and maybe use that for the thrums. I had read many blog posts about dyeing with both options, but it was a bit confusing as to which method would work the best. We ended up soaking both in water first, and the food-coloring version in vinegar as well. Then we slowly added the colors until we liked the way they were looking, then microwaved them for 2 minutes each, rested a few minutes and did another 2 minutes. Then we let them sit for almost 2 hours to cool.

dyeing roving

I wasn’t sure the best way to get them from the sink after rinsing them, to the drying rack I set up in the laundry room. I knew that I shouldn’t wring them out completely… but it seemed crazy and messy to go from sopping wet to the rack. I assumed it was a bit like drying wool yarn, to squeeze it gently, then roll it gently but firmly into a towel. But when I did this with the pink fiber, it looked like I had just felted it! Oh no!!! So with the purple I didn’t squeeze it at all, and barely pressed on it with the towel. But I also had to spend more time rinsing it, because it was bleeding a lot of color from the food coloring. The pink from the kool-aid didn’t bleed at all, and it soaked up the color completely. When I hung both up, they definitely looked felted. I must have been too rough with the rinsing, or maybe the water temperature wasn’t cold enough? I didn’t want to shock it, so I tried to match the temperature of the fiber, which seemed lukewarm. Or maybe our problems started earlier when Mae was soaking the fiber. She couldn’t resist swishing it around in the water, she enjoyed the feel of it so much. At the time, I didn’t think of what she might be doing to it, she was having so much fun. Also the colors are not as dark as they looked before rinsing… not enough dye? Here it is, partially dried:


As it was drying, I felt pretty disheartened, do I decided to console myself by spinning up some of the undyed merino we had left. It drafted and spun like a dream! I have hardly ever felt anything so soft… almost as soft as my chickens’ fluffiest feathers. And it spun so smoothly as well, so different from my first merino… and I thought that was incredibly soft at the time!

Here’s what it looked like as a single:

drop spindle single superfine merino

And plied:

2-ply drop spindle superfine merino

Washed and drying:

handspun superfine merino hanging to dry

I really like the way it looks overall, but I’m wondering if I may have plied it a bit too tightly in some places. Thoughts?


I have never felt merino this soft in the stores. I can’t wait to knit with it! Is it partially because it is undyed? Does dyeing change the amount of softness, or the feel of the fiber in general? If so… I’m very hesitant to try it with the rest of the fiber I bought. Believe it or not, the baby alpaca feels even softer… if a bit denser and shinier, and it has a much longer staple length than any of the other fibers. And don’t even get me started on the luxury fiber sample packs. I’m so excited to try spinning all of them! They are an even higher level of heaven to sink my fingers into… especially the cashmere and angora… far beyond what imagined they would feel like!!! I pulled out a tiny bit of each fiber to compare their staple lengths: superfine merino, baby suri alpaca, cashmere, angora, baby camel, yak, cultivated silk, and kid mohair. Then I couldn’t bear to throw them away after, so I twisted them all up into a little ring I can play with on my finger while I dream of spinning it all. I wonder what it would be like to spin all of it together? Or would that even work?


Meanwhile, the dyed roving had been drying away… for 2 days, and this is the final result. I tried fluffing it out a bit, and I was able to finally tear it open to get to the insides:


I may be able to salvage a tiny bit of it, but this might be about it… not really enough to make slippers:


So, dear expertly dyeing friends… where did we go wrong? Was it just too much agitation? Any tips before I give up on dyeing completely? And what shall we do with all of this felted merino roving? Is there any way to salvage it, or maybe a felted project we could use it for? It actually looks like they could almost be scarves… just like this:



17 thoughts on “dyeing disaster

  1. I’m sorry about your disaster, Melissa. Be thinking “Thomas Edison… Lightbulbs”! What a fun day for you and Mae, however. Priceless! (As the TV ad says…)

  2. When you rinsed it, did you run it under the tap? That might have helped cause felting, and sorry to say, swishing it round in the sink. 😛 It is soooo tempting to do that though, I have to stop myself every single time! I love the colours of them anyway. I find kool-aid really takes the colours in well.
    Umm… ever tried needle felting? You could use the roving for that. Ooor you could put the roving back into the water and felt it up to make some scarves. I think they would look nice. That way, if you did that, and felted them enough, you could embroider on them and stitch things, etc.
    I think it just takes practice. Now you have seen what could have gone wrong, you can try something a bit different next time. I put the wool in warm water for half an hour, then put it into the bowl I’m using for the dyeing. If I am dyeing it one full colour I will have already put the dye in some water, and then immerse the wool in that. If you are using it for random colours, try putting the wool on cling film and using a teaspoon, slowly pour the dyes onto it. Your microwave time sounds a little bit long. I usually do two minutes, then 30 seconds. You don’t want the wool to dry out or boil. If you have any questions just ask, I would love to help. I did some dyeing a few blog posts ago if that helps.
    Your white wool is lovely! Thick and smooshy! I think the plying looks great. Great blog post, I enjoyed seeing what you have done so far. x

    • Thank you, that’s all great advice. I actually like how the colors turned out too, so I think I will probably give it another go… this time with a much smaller amount. I remember your dyeing post, but I guess I didn’t read it carefully enough, so I will go back and study that more also. 🙂 I have wanted to try needle-felting… but I’m not a huge fan of sharp needles. I like the idea of felting the roving a bit more for scarves and embroidering it, that sounds like it could look pretty cool. Thanks for the encouragement on the plying also! I’m loving spinning even more all of the time!

    • I went back and studied your dyeing post, and it sounds like you rinse your dyed roving by dunking it in a bowl of hot water? (I did rinse mine under the tap :-() Also, do you break it up into smaller pieces before dyeing? And spread it out a bit? Maybe ours were to long/thick?

      • Yes, I simply filled the tub with hot/warm water and just gently dunked it under and gave it a slow squeeze. I then wrung it out by squeezing again, and then hung it over a clothes horse. Hmm, I simply split my roving into 50g pieces, which were perhaps a metre long. I don’t think the length or thickness of it would make any difference, except how much dye penetrated into it. For more fibre, more dye, etc. The way you dyed it was absolutely fine, that’s how I’ve dyed too, so there is nothing wrong with that. Perhaps just a little less touching of the wool may felt it less? It’s hard to know just when to stop though, but it’s all practice! 🙂

  3. Laughing here! There’s nothing like a really good experiment to help with the learning process, is there!? The first photo with the bowls made me think of innards or bits of brain… I’m still laughing (sorry!)

    • No worries… I will probably laugh about it eventually myself. 😉 You are right, it was a VERY good learning experience. I think you are also right about the brains… gross! But fitting with Halloween next week I guess. 😉

  4. I wish I knew more, but I have a friend who died wool in kool-aid and she told me she put water in a plastic zip-lock baggie and then added the kool-aid and then the damp wool roving. Zipped it up and layed it in the sun for a couple of days, and then gently rinsed it out. It was a beautiful color. I’m wondering if it was the heat that felted it?

    Your merino yarn looks gorgeous to me. 🙂 Love that you are sharing all of this…the good and the bad. What a great learning experience!

    • Thanks! A plastic bag sounds like a good idea… and less messy and tempting to dip our fingers in it. I think it needs some sort of heat to set the color, but maybe I did microwave it too long. The sun would probably be safer, but I’m not sure if I’m that patient, or how much longer our sun here is going to last. 😦 Thanks for the compliment on the yarn. I’m glad you are enjoying reading about my “adventures”. It has definitely been a great learning experience… all around!

  5. One day I’ll get up the courage to get my hands on wool and spin some myself – unless you have too many more disasters and put me off 🙂

    I like the idea of using these as scarves – they’re pretty enough. 2 years ago my mother-in-law gave me felting yarn for Christmas. I had no idea what to do with felting yarn but ended up making a great hat, some warm and comfy slippers and I got into felting so much I dug through my old bits of yarn (real wool only) and knitted up a bunch of coasters. I love my coasters, they absorb water so are good on hot days when moisture condenses on my glass and they are great heat insulators. Felt is a pretty useful medium so don’t bemoan you accident, think of all the amazing things you can do with felt!

    • Oh! You should definitely try spinning, I think you would LOVE it! It took me a year to get up the courage myself, and now I can’t imagine why… it’s so enjoyable, and not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be… I mean, if my 6 year old daughter can make usable yarn on her first attempt? And you have so much lovely wool in Australia! Spinning itself hasn’t been “disastrous”, just dyeing the wool, and you don’t have to do that part, you can buy it already dyed if you want it colored. But you are right, that’s not even really a disaster, felting can be amazing too, there won’t be any waste in the long run. Coasters sound fun, and very useful! I may still turn the purple one into a scarf, but actually, the pink was not as felted as I thought. I started pulling it apart last night, and was able to salvage most of the fiber for spinning. And the pink is the one that we rinsed and touched the least, so I guess that really confirms where we went wrong! I’m hopeful that my next attempt will work out much better. 🙂

  6. First of all, your spinning is awesome 🙂 Second of all, don’t get disheartened with the dyeing – when I first dyed merino I couldn’t understand why it was felting – I was doing everything ‘they’ (the people on the internet haha) said and for the life of me, merino was one of the hardest ones I tried to dye cos of the felting problem (I did manage to separate mine and spin it but I had a bit of trouble! I still remember that velcro-ey sound. Sheesh.) I’m going to be writing a post on dyeing soon, but unfortunately I haven’t gotten round to it yet. Wish I had cos then maybe you could get some help from it! But until then, I shall try to help from this little comment box 🙂 I haven’t used kool-aid before, (I use acid dyes) but I would think the process would be the same.. So, if you want to dye merino with your kids, you can get a treated version of it called ‘superwash’ – which is supposed to be able to go through the washing machine (but I haven’t done that so I don’t know how that would work out) but yeah, this could possibly make it harder to felt. They sell it at World of Wool (UK) and last time I checked they deliver world wide. Hurray (but I haven’t bought from there yet so I don’t know what they’re like as a company). But if you want to dye rovings etc that you already have in your stash then you won’t want to be buying more.. sooo.. the things that I try to watch out for are; basically, once it’s wet – don’t touch it! when it’s dry it’s fine but it doesn’t like to be handled at all really when wet. This also means you are not ‘allowed’ to pull it apart ‘just to see’ when it’s drying (ask me how I know hehe). Try not to compress it – either when trying to smoosh the colours in, and when drying in the towel. When rinsing the dye off, don’t run it under water, or swish it in the bowl. Submerge in same temperature water and let it sit for a bit, then change the water if necessary until water is clear (or as clear as you can get it). Don’t shock the fibers – not only do you have to have same temperature water but keep away from drafts and don’t put on a cold surface. Dyeing fiber is more difficult to get right first time than dyeing yarn (in my experience) because if the yarn felts a little then it actually helps to hold it together a little (as long as you don’t like properly properly felt it!). Have you got anything with a higher micron count i.e not as fine as merino? I had some alpaca roving and it was a bit more forgiving than the merino with regards to the felting. But like people here have said, practice makes perfect! It’s just one of things. I know how you feel though – it’s so disheartening when you’ve spent effort on something and it doesn’t turn out the way you’d hoped. But I’m sure you’ll get the result you want in time! Also, I found that every time I do purple, it always comes out lighter than all the other colours. It’s never a ‘deep’ or ‘bright’ purple, but then again I mix all my colours from primary colours. But with kool-aid I can’t speak from personal experience. Sorry! Sorry this comment is so long – hope I could help in some way!

    • Thank you SO very much for the advice and the encouragement! It’s good to know that merino is easier to felt, but I love it so much, and I wanted to use the ‘feltable’ kind for these slippers. I tried another batch last night, doing most of the techniques you mentioned, and I think it’s going to turn out much better when it’s dry… we will see. If not, I think I will try dyeing it as yarn instead, that’s a great idea. 🙂

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