Dyeing Roving in the Microwave

John and I drove and hour and a half to a yard sale this weekend to buy canning jars. That may sound crazy, but including the cost of gas, we got nearly 30 glass-top, wire-closure antique jars for less than a buck a piece. We’ve been looking for them for a specific project, so it was a good find. Even better: I found about eight ounces of wool roving for two dollars. How often do you find roving so cheap that you feel comfortable trying new things that might utterly trash it?!?

I had three burning questions in mind when I pulled out my dyes yesterday:

  1. Was the roving actually wool? It smelled and felt like it, but it was stored in a box with a bunch of acrylic “mock top,” so I wasn’t entirely sure.
  2. Can I dye roving without killing its spinability? The answer is yes. You get a lot of loose fibers all over your hands in the process, but it’s probably with it because you can blend the splotchy bits as you spin to even out the color.
  3. How well does microwave dyeing work? Not too badly.

To make sure I was working with wool that would take dye and felt, I did a test run on a tiny sample using my least favorite color.  Aside from an impressive explosion of colored water in my microwave, it worked. And now my cats have a tiny orange flower to bat around the floor.

In golden yellow, with teal center
In golden yellow, with teal center

I didn’t answer the spinability question with the little test run, but that was more out of curiosity than anything. This roving is destined for a felting project, so if the answer was “no, it’s more difficult than my skill level to keep it spinable,” nothing would be lost.

The microwave dye process is pretty simple.

  1. Presoak your fiber in warm water and vinegar.
  2. Mix your dye with water and vinegar in a microwave-safe container.
  3. Add the wet wool to the dye bath and nuke for 2 minutes.
  4. Allow to cool to room temp, then check to see if the dye has been exhausted (i.e., the water runs clear because the wool has soaked up all the color).
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 until you get the look you want.
Wilton colors, from left to right: no-taste red, pink, kelly green, sunshine yellow, teal, violet, burgundy, and copper
Wilton colors, from left to right: no-taste red, pink, kelly green, sunshine yellow, teal, violet, burgundy, and copper

What I like about microwave dyeing:

  • It’s faster than slow cooker dyeing by HOURS.
  • It’s easier to mess around with multiple colors at the same time.
  • It left the roving spinable.

What I would change:

  • I’d try a casserole dish instead of jars to give the roving more breathing room so they could take the color more evenly, esp. complex colors like purple.
  • I would dissolve the coloring all the way in boiling water and let it cool down.
From left to right: burgundy, no-taste red, pink, copper, sunshine yellow, kelly green, teal, violet. Only the yellow did not require a second run of dye.
From left to right: burgundy, no-taste red, pink, copper, sunshine yellow, kelly green, teal, violet. Only the yellow did not require a second run of dye. The red probably could have used more.

All in all, I’d call the experiment a resounding success. Bonus? I discovered I’m married to a rainbow whisperer. John rearranged the roving into rainbow order (I had them on the rack in the order I pulled them out of the post-dye rinse) and two minutes later, this happened:

Double rainbow across the sky!
Double rainbow across the sky!

Dye Another Day

Can I get a drumroll, please? (Ba da Ba da Ba da Ba da Ba da…Shiing!) I have finally finished spinning all of the roving John gave me with my first spindle! Which means…it’s time to dye again.

I was so excited to start dying that I forgot to take a picture of the skeins before starting the process.
I was so excited to start dying that I forgot to take a picture of the skeins before starting the process.

It’s been a while since I did my first dye job, and I’m finding the online tutorials to be a bit murky for my purposes. I’m going to try to break the process down for you according to what seems to be the common threads between them all.

N.B. This process is for animal fibers only and is aimed towards using food-safe dyes like Kool-Aid and icing tints.

Step 1: Skein Up!

Wrap your yarn  into a skein using a niddy noddy (or the backs of a chair). Tie your skein. I’d recommend a cotton thread that won’t take the dye so you can see the ties easily later. More ties = fewer tangles.

Step 2: Pre-Soak

Soak your yarn in water overnight. White vinegar in the water will make the yarn take up the color more quickly, which might be not so helpful in dip-dyeing but can lead to some seriously vibrant color.

Step 3: Heat

Swapping your yarn too quickly between temperatures can cause it to felt, so find a method to apply heat to your yarn and water gradually, such as a slow cooker or microwave.

Using the slow cooker to set the dye.
Using the slow cooker to set the dye.

Step 4: Acid

White vinegar is a cheap, food-safe acid that will open the yarn up to accept the color without ruining your cookware. It also softens the yarn quite a bit, which might not be a great thing if your yarn is fragile. Use your best judgment.

Step 5: Dye

I’ve used Kool-Aid once, McCormick’s food colorings get mentioned a lot, and this time I’m going to play with Wilton’s icing colorings (for which this color chart might be useful). Mix the color in water the same temp as your dye bath in a separate container and test the color on a paper towel before adding it to the yarn!

The counter is covered in plastic to protect the tiles from the dye as I pull it out in batches to get varied colors.
The counter is covered in plastic to protect the tiles from the dye as I pull it out in batches to get varied colors.

Step 6: Time

The longer the yarn sits, the more concentrated the color. If the water runs clear before the yarn has reached the color you want, add more dye. Take notes on your dye proportions if you’re doing a mixed color.

Step 7: Cool Down

Letting the yarn cool its heels until it gets close to room temp will make it easier to handle and easier to not shock the yarn when you wash it. “Shocking” yarn is apparently somewhere in between “fulling” and “felting” and is probably best avoided.

After the yarn cooled, I soaked it gentle in a water and vinegar bath to set the color.
After the yarn cooled, I soaked it gentle in a water and vinegar bath to set the color.

Step 8: Hang & Dry

Wash the yarn with wool wash in water that is not colder than the yarn. Wring it out very gently. Hang it to dry. If it’s curling back on itself, you might want to weight it down lightly by hanging a towel over the bottom loop of the skein. Be careful not to overstretch the yarn if you do this, though, or it will lose its spring.

My clothes drying rack works nicely for hanging the yarn.
My clothes drying rack works nicely for hanging the yarn.

Step 9: Hank & Store

Wind your skein into a hank and store in a place where the moths can’t get to your lovely work. I like to store my yarns in freezer bags in a big plastic bin, but you can repel moths with cedar as well.

Raspberry Sorbet Yarn, ready to be knitted up into a shawl.
Raspberry Sorbet Yarn, ready to be knitted up into a shawl.