Breaking the Black Dye

The steampunk swap wrapped up last week, the box of goodies is even now wending it’s way through time and space to it’s recipient.  So this is a back-dated adventure from when I was in the thick of it.

Still hard at work on the steampunk swap, I had an inkling that my spoilee might appreciate yarn in a  colorway that resembled crow or raven feathers.  Blue Moon Fiber Arts has some amazing “Raven Clan” colorways that were the catalyst for this idea.  They are beautiful blacks with dashes of color, almost iridescent.  But alas, I’m on a credit-card diet for a while, so I could not indulge my spoilee’s and my desires for this particular yarn.  It’s not that it’s over-priced or anything, it’s just that I knew I would not be able to stop myself from buying several beautiful colorways, and that it would quickly get out of hand.  Sometimes it’s best for me just to not buy anything, rather than let myself get tempted to add just one more thing, and another, and another.

But I felt that I might be able to achieve something inspired by the crow feathers and the Raven Clan yarns with a funky dye technique using Wilton’s cake frosting tints and roving that I have at home.  I had wanted to do this technique for a long time, and my spoilee was giving me just the excuse I needed.

Wilton’s icing colors, like KoolAid, can be used like real yarn dyes to permanently (usually) color mammal-fiber yarns (ie. wool, alpaca).

Dye Day Adventures in KoolAid

You use an acid fixer like vinegar or citric acid, just like any other acid dye that you would use on animal fibers.  The difference is, because you are using kitchen ingredients, you don’t have to use separate pots for food safety (although you may dye your kitchen-ware funny colors).

KnitPicks has some nice, beautifully illustrated tutorials on dye techniques such as KoolAid dyeing, and Food Coloring dyeing (includes frosting tints).  They also have good instructions for dyeing with Jacquard dyes and other fun and popular dye techniques on their main dye page.  They also offer nice big skeins of “bare” yarns ready to take up dyes, if you’re looking for materials to work on.  Past yarn price comparisons have demonstrated to me that KnitPicks give you more bare yarn for the buck than other dye material suppliers, but Dharma Trading is another source of dye materials and they have a wider variety of undyed yarns if you are more interested in selection than price.  Wilton’s icing colors can be found in some larger groceries, and definitely in cake decorating stores or craft stores with a cake decorating section.

Wilton's Icing Colors

For my recent dye experiment, I started from the KnitPicks tutorials, but I wanted to do something that most tutorials warn against:  I wanted to break the black dye.

“Breaking the black dye” sounds like it should be a song title or something, right?  Well, some colors of food or icing coloring are not made of just one color, there can be several components in that color, and the right environment can cause the colors to separate, or “break” apart.  Black Wilton’s icing color, for example, has greens, reds, and purples mixed in.  Exposing the black dye to a highly acidic environment seems to help cause this separation.

From reading various forums, especially info posted by MunchkinMama on Ravelry, I have gathered that the Red #3 component is a key to making dyes “breakable”, so any food color dye with Red #3 should be a good option if you wish to find a dye to break.  From what I’ve read, the red will form small globs in a more acidic environment (ie. more vinegar, specifically to get it below pH6).  In chemistry, this is called “precipitation” when a solid becomes isolated from its solution.  Most dyers wishing their black Wilton frosting tint to dye their yarn black have to adjust the heat and acid levels slowly, and above all, limit the quantity of vinegar used to avoid triggering this precipitation reaction.

So if you want to trigger this reaction, use lots of vinegar!  However, the caveat is that the acidity should be lowered later in the process to make sure that the red doesn’t remain globular and stick to your yarn’s surface in little globs that will smear off later.

Broken black dye seems to separate by weight

Broken black dye seems to separate by weight

So I dyed some roving and dyed some yarns with “broken” black frosting dye.  This involved several kettles of dye processes on my kitchen stove.  I discovered one new fact about breaking a color:  I believe the colors have different “weights” in the solution.  I say this because at first I wasn’t sure that my icing color had broken successfully.  The alpaca roving I had in the first pot wasn’t turning black, but it also wasn’t turning different blues and purples either.  It was all teal.  Confused, I started poking gently at the roving, and discovered that the bottom of the roving spiral had turned a deep maroon/purple.

Repeated experiments would be necessary, but I am guessing that there is some kind of weight difference between the dye that makes the teal (lightweight?) and the dyes that make the darker purples (heavyweight?).  I point that out because I think some neat effects could be generated by being selective about what goes on the bottom of the dyepot vs. the top of the dyepot.

Here are the weights and measures versions, since a good experiment should be repeatable:

Alpaca roving

It turns out that I didn’t take any pictures of the roving before I dyed it nor just the plain broken Wilton Black after it dried (bad blogger! bad!).  Instead I give you the final presentation, the broken black braided together with a separate batch of alpaca roving dyed with just (unbroken) Jacquard black.  But I think you can see the overall effect.  Mostly teal, with some purple, grey, and other colors.  The original undyed roving was a pale heathered creamy beige.

5 oz alpaca roving

Presoak:  8 C water and 1/2 C vinegar

Dyebath:  9 C water and 3 C vinegar

Adding dye:  mixed 1/2 tsp Wilton gel with 1/2 C hot water

After the dyebath exhausted, I added 2 C water to reduce the pH a bit in hopes that the red would not stay in suspension

I don’t remember this part, but my notes say that then I added 1 1/2 C water mixed with 1/2 tsp Wilton gel.  I think I was trying to get some of the roving to turn more blackish but it didn’t work.  Thus, after all that was exhausted, I did a completely separate batch of 4.9 oz alpaca roving with Jacquard black.

Braided broken black with jaquard black

After: Braided broken black with jaquard black

I also overdyed a few skeins of pastel yarns for myself, since at the time I was out of bare yarn to dye and once you get all the dye gear out you might as well do a bunch of batches!

Unknown loose-spun pastel yarn from my stash

Random pastel yarn from stash before dyeing

Before: Random pastel yarn from stash before dyeing (wetted)

5 oz of single ply random yarn from stash

Presoak:  4 C water and 1/4 C vinegar

Dyebath:  9 C water and 3 C vinegar

Adding dye:  mixed 1/2 tsp Wilton gel with 1/2 C hot water

After the dyebath exhausted, I added 4 C water to reduce the pH a bit in hopes that the red would not stay in suspension

Mystery yarn from stash overdyed with broken Wilton's black

After: Mystery yarn from stash overdyed with broken Wilton's black

Colonial/merino pastel handspun

Apparently, I didn’t take pictures of this before dyeing it either… argh!  I gotta get better at this photo-documenting stuff!  Anyway, I do have pictures of the stuff before I plied it, to give you a sense of the colors.  I liked the colors well enough as a single ply, but when I plied it, it got all muddy looking, and I fear it would be pretty muddy when knitted even as a single ply.  So to the dyebath it went!  And at some point when I spin up the rest of the roving, it will probably also get dyed.

Spinning Pastels

(Way) before: Handspun Pastels (plied before dyeing)

I liked the previous unknown-yarn overdyed with broken Wilton black, but it was a little lighter and brighter than I really wanted.  That’s the funny thing about breaking the black, sometimes there’s no black left!  So for the second round, as I brewed up a batch of Jaquard black for a batch of roving, I poured a little of the Jacquard black over the skeins of handspun in the Wilton black dyebath.

4.8 oz in two skeins of handspun 2 ply yarn spun from 2/3 merino 1/3 colonial

Presoak:  12 C water and 3/4 C vinegar (soaked along with the 4.9 oz alpaca for the Jacquard black dyebath)

Dyebath:  9 C water and 3 C vinegar

Adding dye:  mixed 1/2 tsp Wilton gel with 1/2 C hot water

Before the dyebath exhausted, I added 1/4 tsp of the Jacquard black mixed up with water in little puddles along the top

Handspun dyed with broken Wilton black and Jacquard black

After: Handspun dyed with broken Wilton black and Jacquard black

Using the Wilton’s icing colors and “breaking” the black (I feel somehow punk rock when I say that) was a lot of fun.  I love how the colors turned out!  Although we’ll have to see how my spoilee spins up the roving to know if our efforts evoke crow feathers or not, I don’t think the overdyed yarns really made it there.  But I think they are very pretty, and I could see the colorway representing a “clockwork crow”, a shiny anodized-metal vision of a bird.  I also look forward to scoping out additional “breakable” icing colors in the future, the unexpected aspect of the dye really appealed to me.

Until next time, keep those needles clicking, and those dyepots bubbling…

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4 thoughts on “Breaking the Black Dye

  1. Pingback: Free dyer’s log « Unravelling Argyle

  2. Thanks so much for writing this up! I did a search for something like “wilton dye yarn true black” in the hopes of finding more info on how and why the black dye breaks, so that I could use it to first, dye my wool a dark gray, and second, get it even darker with those pretty teal/purple/burgundy highlights, like the lovely Raven Clan colors. Best search result ever! I’ll let you know how my experiments turn out!

  3. Pingback: Two Dyepots at Once – LoopTangle

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