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3 Ways to Naturally Dye Yarn Red

Updated: Jan 1

Natural Dyeing With Cochineal

Dyeing with cochineal is one of the most interesting choices for red dye, as it’s actually an insect native to South America and Mexico. Dried cochineal insects can be purchased in bulk and ground to a powder to extract the dye. Beets and hibiscus are two other options that yield beautiful results but be warned, they may not be colorfast or lightfast. 

Any yarn or fabric being dyed with cochineal should be mordanted first to allow for the dye to properly stick to the fibers. Whatever mordant you use will influence the end result of your dyed fiber. Protein fibers like silk and wool can be mordanted with alum to create a shade with red and purple tones, or you can use alum and cream of tartar for shades that are more fuchsia to true red.

When making cochineal dye, your first step will be to measure out your insects depending on how much fiber you’re using and how deep you would like the shade to be. For a light color, use 1 to 2% weight of fiber, or 1 to 2 teaspoons of insects per pound of fiber. For a medium color, use 3 to 5%, or 1 to 2 tablespoons. For a dark color, use 6 to 10%, or 3 to 5 tablespoons. You can grind the insects into a fine powder using a spice mill, a coffee grinder, or by using a mortar and pestle. Add your ground cochineal to a stainless steel or other non-reactive pot and then add a quart of water and bring to a boil. 

Now you can add the cream of tartar. Use up to 5% weight of fiber or 2 tablespoons of cream of tartar per pound of fiber. Doing this helps the dye become a truer, more vivid red rather than a red with purple tones. Add your cream of tartar to your boiling dye pot and allow it to continue boiling for about 10-15 more minutes. 

After boiling, strain your dye liquid into another container or bucket with a non-reactive coating. At this point, your cochineal insects may still be yielding color. You can repeat the extraction process as many times as needed until the bugs are no longer producing color. 

Combine your dye liquid with enough cold water that allows your fibers to flow easily and then stir well. Add your mordanted, wet fibers to the dye pot and then begin heating the water to about 180 degrees Fahrenheit while stirring slowly. When the dye pot reaches 180 degrees, hold the temperature for about 30 to 45 minutes. Be sure to stir the contents of the pot periodically. 

Remove your fibers from the dye pot using tongs, and rinse until the water runs clear. It is also a good idea to wash your fiber with a neutral liquid soap before rinsing and drying. Allow to hang dry away from direct sunlight. 

Natural Dyeing With Beets

Dyeing with beets produces a surprisingly light shade of red, given the vivid color you will see in the dyepot. Mordant your fibers with alum, at around 10% weight of fiber. Your fibers should also be pre-wet and wrung out so they’re damp before dyeing. 

Peel the beets in order to allow for a brighter color, and you can cut them into chunks or grate them for a better result. Place your beet contents into your dye pot and add warm water. 

Add heat to your dye pot until it’s simmering, staying at this heat for at least an hour and stirring frequently. When the liquid in your dye pot is a deep red and it’s looking like all of the color’s been extracted from the beets, you can strain out the solid beet contents and remove them from your dye pot.

Add your mordanted, damp, protein fibers to the dye pot and apply heat once again, making sure they’re completely submerged in the dye bath. Reapply heat to the dye pot and allow it to simmer for an hour to several hours. Be sure to stir your fibers occasionally throughout the process. Then, turn off the heat and let your fibers sit and cool in the dye pot for several more hours or overnight. When done soaking, remove the fibers from the pot and rinse thoroughly to wash out any excess dye. Hang dry away from direct sunlight.

Natural Dyeing With Hibiscus Flowers

Hibiscus flowers are used all over the world for various purposes, including natural dyeing. Dried flower heads are typically used in the extraction process. To extract the hibiscus flower dye, simmer your flower heads in water for about 30 minutes. Be sure not to let the water get too hot or boil as this can cause the dye color to start turning brown.

When your hibiscus dye is finished, just strain out the flowers and you can begin dyeing your pre-mordanted, damp fibers. Add them to the dye pot and make sure they are fully submerged, adding some more water if necessary. Reapply heat to your dye pot and bring it to a gentle simmer for about 30 minutes, gently rotating the fibers occasionally. After 30 minutes or when you are satisfied with the dye color, remove the dye pot from the heat and allow it to cool. Letting your fibers cool in the dye pot allows for more color absorption. When cool, remove your fibers from the pot and rinse them well. Hang to dry away from direct sunlight.

You can also dye your yarn or fabric using hibiscus tea! Please keep in mind that your finished fiber dyed with hibiscus flowers or tea will not be colorfast or lightfast. Always wash by hand in mild soap and keep out of sunlight.

I hope you have fun trying to achieve the most glorious shade of red. Please let me know how your results turn out.


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