Fun With Colour – Dartmoor Dyeing

Fun With Colour – Dartmoor Dyeing

The Albany (on Auckland’s North Shore) Spinners held their annual dye in April that they titled, “Dartmoor dyeing”. Dartmoor dyeing involves splitting your unwashed fleece into 4 equal portions, dyeing the portions red, yellow, blue and green, then dividing each colour 4 times, keeping 1 portion aside and dyeing other 3 portions from each colour in the other colours (so 3 of the 4 blue pieces would be distributed to the red, yellow and green dye vats). From what I have read, you can achieve some lovely variations within each section of fleece due to the lanolin in the fleece inhibiting dye uptake in some areas more than other.

I hadn’t heard of the term Dartmoor Dyeing before (have you?) but I have seen dye courses that describe mixing dyes in cups, I expect with very similar results, does that technique have a name? Sequential dyeing perhaps? This all got me thinking about a colour theory course I took as part of my Diploma in Art and Design and the dyed samples I made after the course.

Anyone who knows me or my work will probably have noticed I have a soft spot for bright colours, particularly complementary or split complementary combinations. If you’re not sure what complementary colours are, this link covers the basics of colour theory in a fun interactive way* (the tool in the top right is great if you are looking for colour inspiration too). I think colour theory, and especially its impact on human psychology, is fascinating.

*Edit – feel free to skip over the sections where they discuss the RGB colour wheel, this is specific to optical colour mixing (what computers and TVs do) and completely at odds with how dyer’s and painters mix colours.

I am always sorely tempted by the dizzying array of colours on the Dharma Trading web site but you really don’t need to buy every colour. The vast majority of colours can be mixed from just the 3 primary colours.

A word of caution before you go shopping: The dyer’s colour wheel differs slightly from the red, blue and yellow primary colours of the traditional / painter’s colour wheel. For most dye brands, the primary colours are magenta, turquoise and yellow. The brands with a wider a range of colours will almost certainly also have a red and a blue but they are invariably made from a mix of the primary dye pigments, this means that when you start mixing them with other colours you will end up with muddy tones to your colours. If your brand offers a choice of yellows and it is not clear which one is the primary yellow, pick the brightest / coolest yellow i.e. a lemon yellow rather than a sunset yellow. Yellows with the warmer tones may have been mixed with a tiny amount of magenta which will make it impossible to achieve a bright green.

My go-to colours for dyeing are magenta, turquoise, yellow, black and silver grey. As you will see below it is fairly easy to make your own black by dyeing with magenta and turquoise to saturation but I find it handy to have black premixed. I find silver grey is a tricky colour to achieve by colour mixing and I like using it for space dyeing so I keep a small pot of it in my stash.

My Dye Set Up

This set up is for acid fast dying of animal fibres (wool, silk, feathers etc) but the colour mixing could easily be adapted for fibre-reactive dyes used on plant-based fibres.

Instead of the traditional vat / large pan full of dye method, I like to use zip lock bags in a steamer so I can dye multiple different colours simultaneously with just one heat source. Because this is a low immersion technique you will get more variation in the depth of colour across the contents of each bag, if you are wanting solid, even colours using the dye vat / pan method is recommended, this allows you to move your fibre through the dye pot so the fibre is more evenly exposed to the dye.

To achieve reproducible results, especially if you are dyeing small amounts (less than 100g) of dry fibre, I recommend premixing your dye powder with water. This also means you don’t need to wear a face-mask for the whole dye session (masks are only needed while the dyes are still in powder form). I keep my liquid dyes at room temperature and they all work well, even after several months on the shelf.

To make a liquid concentrate I mix 1g of dye per 10ml of water and store them in water-tight jars. The dye tends to settle out of solution while stored so the jars will need a shake before each use.

For the dye bath, I prefer to use citric acid crystals rather than vinegar to avoid that residual “fish and chip shop” smell you get with vinegar. I use citric acid at a rate of 15-20g per 5 litre bucket of warm water and add about a teaspoon of dish-soap to that to aid wetting out of the fibres.

I pre-soak my fibres in the acid / soap solution for a few minutes while I prepare the dye and dye bags.

Let the fun begin!

For this project I was working with 10 x 10 cm (4″) squares of merino prefelt and tiny skeins of super-wash merino yarn, so diluted 2 ml of dye concentrate in 10 ml of water (this made my working solutions 0.2g of dye in 12ml water).

I chose to work with just the 3 primary colours but you could add any of the secondary colours if you wish, but note you will get a range of browns and grey tones in some of your samples.

I ended up with 16 different colours from the 3 primary colours:

Turquoise Yellow Magenta

With so many different colour combinations it is easy to lose track, so I pre-labelled all my bags:

Tip: I stand each bag in a 1 litre jug before pouring some acid water (about 150ml – just enough to cover the fibre) from the bucket the fibre is soaking in. You can add extra water after adding the fibre if you find there isn’t enough to cover it.

Then I added 1.5 – 2 ml of my diluted dye. For example the MMY bag received 1 ml of Magenta and 0.5 ml of Yellow. The TMMY bag received 0.5 ml Turquoise, 1 ml Magenta and 0.5 ml Yellow.

The bag was jiggled to mix / disperse the dye before dropping in a piece of pre-soaked felt. Excess air was squeezed out of the bag, the bag sealed and stacked in the steamer with the “zip” uppermost (just in case it pops open as any trapped air inside expands) .

I steam my bags for an hour (the dye only needs about 30 min at around 80 degC to fix but they also need some time to get up to temperature). I leave the bags in the steamer to cool overnight before rinsing the next morning.

Tip: The water in the bag should be clear when you come to rinse the fibre, if it isn’t you have used more dye than you needed to but you can still use the remaining dye to dye some more fibre a paler colour – just drop in your pre-soaked fibre and steam as you did before.

After rinsing, I left the samples on their bags to dry so I could figure out which was which!

Here are some of the samples arranged in the primary, secondary and tertiary colour wheel that most people will be familiar with:

Similar to mixing paint, I have noticed the yellow dye is not as intense as the magenta and turquoise, this is most obvious in the MY (equal quantities of yellow and magenta) square, which should give an orange colour but is closer to a scarlet red and the YYM square that should be a yellowy-orange but is orange.

The same samples as above but with the complementary colour mixes (for example mixing red and green or yellow and purple) added to the centre, by including all 3 primary colours in different quantities you can get different shades of browns and greys:

I suspect I forgot to jiggle the TMY bag before dropping the sample into it, oops!

I also dyed some super-wash yarn to saturation (approx. 0.1g dye per mini-skein) – all of these bags had a tinge of colour in the water after dyeing. The samples at the violet end of the range (bottom of the photo) are very nearly black.

I had a few mini skeins left over after the saturation dyeing so dropped those in with the felt samples, just to see how they would compare to the “saturated” skeins. The blocks in the photo with 2 skeins on them are the extra skeins. Most are predictably very similar in colour to the felt block they were dyed with but the TTM skein is definitely more blue than its felt block.

If you don’t have time to dye lots of wool samples but want a record of which colours you can achieve by mixing the dyes you already have, you can use the same technique but brush the mixed dyes onto heavy weight cartridge or water colour paper. This is an example from one of my sketchbooks where I have mixed slowly increasing amounts of one dye colour into the other:

The 3 columns on the right are what you can expect to achieve it you mix complementary colours (green with magenta, violet with yellow, turquoise with orange).

I also did something similar with my watercolour paints, this is just one page of 4 charts – I find these charts really useful reference when I am trying to mix a specific colour:

19 thoughts on “Fun With Colour – Dartmoor Dyeing

  1. Wow Teri. What a lot of information – it’s going to take several readings to get my head round all this.
    Have you thought of “cooking” your dye bags in a microwave? Much quicker and saves a steamer boiling dry (I’ve done that). I suppose I’m a bit lucky in that I do have a (craft use only) microwave. (I bought a basic one some years ago and then realised that a combination type was what I really needed for cooking.)
    I got rid of all my acid dyes to a friend a year ago when I was sorting my workshop out. Some of them were very old – I bought them from Roy Russel many many years ago, but they still seemed to work. Now I have found a quantity of mohair curls in my stash that I want to dye. Isn’t it always the way, no sooner do you dispose of something than you find that you need it?
    I had attended one of Roy’s workshops about 35 years ago when we each had to dye a batch of woollen and/or silk yarns in whatever colours we fancied, but we had to keep exact details of what quantity of dyes we used. We each then were required to attach a few strands from each dye bath to cards with the recipes on and pass to each of the others at the course. I now have a box full of cards of dye samples with recipes for future use (but no acid dyes!)
    Oh and thanks for that Canva link Teri – I very nearly got lost down that rabbit hole. I hadn’t realised that there were 2 colour wheels. The RGB one turned my colour knowledge on its head so it’s back to “school” for me.

    1. Thank you Ann 🙂 I haven’t really considered microwave dyeing, as you say you need a dedicated crafting microwave, not the one you use for food in the kitchen. I bought a 50L tea urn that works really well for me and has a safety cut off so it won’t burn the house down if it boils dry (it never has – I usually set a timer so I don’t forget).

      I am a bit of a hoarder for exactly the reason you are finding with your mohair locks, as soon as you give something away or dispose of it you need it for something you hadn’t anticipated!

    2. May I butt in? I’ve done a bit of microwave dyeing in my day, and noticed the dye doesn’t end up as vibrant as with a steamer or other slower method. Maybe it has to do with speed and how the molecules adhere to the fibre? 🙂

    3. Ah thanks Leonor. To be honest I hadn’t really noticed as so much time elapsed between my using the two processes – when I attended the Roy Russel workshop I think microwaves were in their infancy! I do know that you have to be very careful not to overheat/dry out/burn what you are dyeing. I’ve recently seen someone on YouTube placing a beaker of water in the dying container in the microwave to make sure that there is plenty of steam in there too. That might help if it is drying out/overheating that causes the colour to “sadden”.

  2. Like Ann, my first thought was “Wow”! Thanks for such a detailed explanation of how you achieved those wonderful results. I hadn’t hear the term “Dartmoor Dyeing” either.
    Dyeing fibre can seem quite daunting for anyone who’s not done it before but having premixed concentrates on hand certainly makes it less faff. Also I find that the cheap Tesco Value distilled vinegar works well and doesn’t smell anything like as bad as malt vinegar.
    You’re colour charts make a great reference point for future projects. I’m off to explore the difference between the two colour wheels now….thanks for that tip too!

    1. Thanks Karen, great tip about the distilled vinegar – how much vinegar do you use?

    2. I’m afraid I’m not very exact so I’m the last person to ask about this. I’ve only dyed small items so far and not bothered to weigh or measure quantities. It’s just been a good squirt of vinegar in enough water to submerge the felt. After 30 mins soaking I’ve put it in the dye pot with another good squirt of vinegar and so far it’s worked fine.

    3. I think most dyers are a bit flexible in their measuring – I usually fill a bucket with 5L of warm water, I have already calculated that 2 heaped teaspoons of citric acid will give me 3.5g per L but I always throw in half a teaspoon more for luck! 🙂

  3. Great post Teri! I find that you can always learn something new about color and dyeing. The more you try, the more you see the subtleties that can be developed. I have several color notebooks with pages of various colors mixed together, both in paint and in dye. Leafing through these definitely inspires trying new color combinations or remembering how to get the ‘exact’ color you might want. I have never heard of Dartmoor Dyeing either but it sounds like a great way to dye a fleece and I love to get color variations in wool. Those variations always make a much more interesting felt than solid colors of wool in my opinion. I prefer the neutralized colors instead of the brighter colors but it’s always fun to see what results from dyeing experiments.

    1. Thanks Ruth, I totally agree, the variegated dye effects are always much more interesting to work with than solid colours and most of us can buy fibre in commercially dyed, solid colours pretty easily and cheaply, making low immersion dyeing a no-brainer 🙂

  4. Fabulous post Teri! Can’t really add any more than the other comments 🙂 Love the bright colours you achieved and the charts you made. We’d never heard of Dartmoor Dyeing either so that was very enlightening.

    Like Karen, we too use the cheapo white distilled vinegar in felting.

  5. Great post. You are very detailed. When I did my dye workshop we used 6 primaries. 3 painters’ colours that give you the colours you are more likely to find in nature and 3 printers’ colours that are all bright and pop out. I like to do low water immersion dyeing with MX/fibre reactive dye on silk fabric.

    1. Thanks Ann, The detail was deliberate, I wanted those want to, to be able to have a go and create their own sample swatches or scale up for more of a project.

      I have a bit of a love hate-relationship with the fibre reactive dyes. In some ways they are easier because you don’t need a heat source but I find they are a pain to rinse thoroughly. Even after I have spent 20 min rinsing I still see some colour bleeding while felting (probably because I use hot water), I only ever use the fibre reactive dyes for plant-based materials these days.

  6. Wow Terri, a very informative post that I will keep on file for the day I eventually start to do my own dyeing – but that is a rabbit hole I’m avoiding at the mo! When I do come to it, I will adopt the idea of steaming and/or microwaving in individual bags.
    No, I have not heard of the name Dartmoor Dyeing either, although the principle is familiar.

    As with Karen, Lyn & Annie, I too use the cheap distilled vinegar in various crafting activities to avoid the f & c smell….it works a treat.

    Now to colour….Oh boy….I managed to comprehend the dyers palette (due in part to limitations of chemicals etc) but your Canva link has turned all my colour knowledge on its head.
    I used to love teaching colour theory (painters palette) and getting the students to do fun things including with tints & tones etc before creating their colour charts, but, to go to the RGB palette (for television & online use) & learn….that BRIGHT YELLOW is created by combining RED and GREEN at equal intensity….whoa….for my old noddle (red + green (opposites) = shades of muddy brown) that is almost a step toooo far. I think I will simply content myself by learning more about the history of different colours.

    So your post has both pleased 🙂 & totally confused 🫤😩 me….Xx

    1. Thank you Antje, I have just re-read the Canva page and see why everyone is so confused, I must have glossed over the sections were it talks about the RGB colour mixing when I first read it. The sections about complementaries, harmonies etc all apply to the RBY wheel and dyeing and are worth a read if these terms aren’t familiar.

  7. Lovely post, Teri! I really enjoyed reading about your methods. Like you, I’ve stopped using vinegar and much prefer citric acid, but I’ve stopped adding them to the dyestock directly – I add it to the liquid the fibre will be submerged in, or take some dye and add the acid separately. I find my colours split or go gloopy if they’re left for longer periods of time with the acid added!

    One of the reasons I love some of the premixed colours is that, when you use it to speckle yarn with, all the colours break and you get very interesting variations. I’ve a couple of speckled colourways that appear to have lots of dyes added, when in fact it’s just a couple pre-mixed ones 🙂

    1. Great point about using the blends for creating speckles, I hadn’t considered that. I wonder if you could achieve a similar effect by mixing the primary powders before sprinkling on? I’m now wondering what would happen if you used all 3 primaries (would normally give brown) as dry powders, sparingly sprinkled on a piece of pre-/felt? Would you still see the individual colours?

      I’ve never been tempted to premix my dye concentrates with acid, I’ve always suspected the acid would degrade the dye in some way / make it less available to bind with the fibre but I recently saw a brand of dye where the dye powder is premixed with citric acid crystals, you just add water.

  8. Thank you, Teri, your post is an education on dyes even for a beginner like me. I truly enjoyed it and it is all so easy to follow and clear that it makes me want to try it.

  9. Excited looking at Dartmoor method using magenta, turquoise and yellow . I am a random mixer of dyes — and have had fun and surprise! results .
    I belong to AFF , but not been attending . Anticipate return to an encompassing group .

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