About ten years ago, my love for brightly-colored, handpainted yarn led me on a massive web search for how to paint my own. The standard messy plastic-wrap-and-steam method never sat well with me; in addition to the unavoidable dye stains on my kitchen floor, stove, counters (even when I covered everything in sheets of plastic), and the burns from trying to gently lift steaming packets of plastic wrapped fiber out of the expensive stock pot setup I bought specifically for dyeing fiber, there was also a limit on the amount of yarn/fiber I could dye at once. About 8oz was the maximum amount I could fit in my stock pot steamer; so, unless I wanted to buy another $40 pot for dyeing, it would take me all day to dye a few pounds of yarn.
I discovered the “sun tea” method of dyeing yarn a year or two later. After obtaining a couple of gallon-sized glass jars and an embarrassingly large collection of drink mixes, I began churning out pounds of fruity-smelling beauty. Plus, being able to mix and dye everything outside meant no more mess in my kitchen! But, there had to be a way to harness all that solar energy for variegated yarns, as well. I experimented with a homemade solar cooker and my stock pot, but quickly realized I still had the same limitations as with the stovetop: to dye more, I’d have to buy additional expensive stock pots, and possibly a couple of solar cookers. That’s when I stumbled onto the secret: clear plastic “under bed” boxes.
So, want to try your hand at handpainting, but don’t want to invest a lot of money in the equipment? Or maybe, like me, you have a treeless backyard that gets full sun for most of the day and would like to take advantage of the free energy. Whatever your reasons, I am going to walk you through the basics of solar handpainting.
- Clear plastic “under bed” box with clear lid, big enough to lay your yarn out
- measuring spoons (I recommend buying a set at the dollar store, you don’t really want to use the same set you use for food!)
- wide-mouth glass quart Mason jars (or any container you can use to mix dye stock)
- turkey basters or squeeze bottles to apply dye
- Undyed yarn (see note)
- Dye powder of your choice (I use Jacquard acid dyes, can get from Dharma Trading Co)
- Citric Acid or Vinegar (Not needed if using drink mix powder, it has citric acid in the mix!)
A note about yarn choice: Yarn should be wool, alpaca, silk, or some type of protein-based fiber; cotton or bamboo will not dye with Jacquard dyes or drink mix powders. Yarn should also be in hanks for ease of dyeing/rinsing.
To begin, you’ll want to soak the yarn in a sink of water and citric acid for at least 20 minutes. I use about 1/2tsp citric acid powder per 4oz of dry yarn. I get citric acid from my local cake supply store, or you can also use a couple of glugs of vinegar instead. Fill the sink with water and mix in the citric acid/vinegar, then gently push the yarn into the water until it is thoroughly saturated.
While the yarn is soaking, it’s time to mix your dye stock per the package directions. I highly recommend you do all measuring, mixing, etc. over a sink (or better yet, an outside water source if you have one); the powder can get everywhere very easily if you’re not careful and it’s just easier to clean if it’s in the sink. You may also want to wear a mask to keep any stray powder from getting into your nose. I use Jacquard acid dyes and mix them in wide-mouth quart Mason jars. The glass won’t stain from the powder like plastic containers will, and if you have any dye stock left over you can easily store it for use later. I use about 1/2tsp of dye powder per 24oz of water; measure the powder, place in jar and fill to top line with water. Close lid tightly and shake over sink to mix thoroughly; open lid immediately to vent (if you don’t, the lid may pop off and spray dye all over when you open it later!).
Place the box in a location that will be in full sun for at least a few hours, gently squeeze out the yarn and lay out in the bottom of the box.
Apply dye as desired with turkey baster, making sure dye soaks all the way through and rinsing the baster between colors.
I tend to “draw” a line at the top and bottom of the area I will be dyeing, then fill the area in with the remainder of dye.
The amount of dye you use will depend on how much yarn you are dyeing and how many colors you are using, but for the example yarn I dyed four 100g skeins using 24oz of three colors of dye stock. You will also want to make sure the dye is soaked all the way through: using gloves or a plastic sandwich bag, gently press down on the yarn to evenly distribute the dye, making sure it gets all the way to the yarn at the bottom of the box.
The more careful you are at this step, the less muddying of colors you will have where the different colors meet.
Place lid on box and let sit in the sun for 3-8 hours, depending on the amount of full sun (box lid should develop condensation). It’s best to let the yarn cool before rinsing, so letting it sit all day and rinsing at night or early the next morning would be perfect!
Rinse yarn by creating a “dam” with the yarn and letting the water from the faucet run down the side of the sink and through the “yarn dam”, gently squeezing the water through the yarn until the water runs clear out of the yarn.
Gently squeeze any extra water out of the yarn, hang to dry. That’s it!