I have recently become sort of obsessed with dyeing yarn.

It started innocently with a perusal of the “What a Kool Way to Dye” group on Ravelry. The idea was intriguing: use KoolAid (or food coloring, or icing dye gel) to paint your yarn pretty colors. The process is fairly simple, especially if you use KoolAid (or whatever drink packets you choose), since the binding agent (citric acid) is already in the packet. Mix your colors, apply to your yarn (and there are a zillion different ways to do that), heat, cool, rinse, dry, knit, admire. I’d meant to do it someday, to get just the right blend of colors for my Ocean City Shawlette. Then I scored four balls of Red Heart Heart & Sole sock yarn in off-white at Jo-Ann’s clearance earlier this year, and my days were numbered.

Dyeing yarn is really fun! Even if you don’t get exactly what you planned on, you usually end up with something unique and interesting. My first attempt, for example, resulted in five different shades of blue (for the ocean, of course), and while they’ll make an awesome pair of self-striped socks, the changes in color are a little too abrupt for a lacy pattern. Of course, since I used 3 different types of dye (drink mix, food color, and icing dye), it’s not terribly surprising. I finally figured out how to get the subtle gradients of the same color I was looking for, thanks to another incredibly helpful blog post, and that yarn is destined for Ocean City. Along the way, I also dip-dyed a couple skeins of candy-bright colors that I’d like to try and use in a wenat-style planned pooling scarf.

The natural offshoot of that, for someone who loves making socks as much as I do, is to dye your own sock blanks. Sock blanks are a nifty little invention, and they let you hand paint designs onto sock yarn that you might not be able to achieve otherwise. Two strands of yarn are knit together, into a sort of canvas. (They can also be crocheted, depending on the kind of effect you want.)

I made a sock blank recently out of some Cascade 220, and it’s working up really nicely as a pair of slipper socks. A friend of mine loves it and wants socks with a similar effect (in a similar vein to this blog post) but can’t wear wool or alpaca. So my mission yesterday was to find a way to get that kind of dye job onto a pair of socks she could wear.

I’m not really ready to dive headlong into a major dyeing process; I don’t want to buy more dyes or utensils, and I like the simple process of using food-safe dyes (and the fact that it doesn’t require plastic body armor). My first thought was, can I use the wool-free sock yarn I already have (I made her a pair of socks out of it already, and about half of it is left) and bleach it? Sort of “undyeing,” as it were. It’s a blend of cotton, acrylic, and nylon. Cotton takes bleach well, right?

As it turns out, wrong. The bleach you pour into the washer to make your whites whiter, is considerably more dilute. And even then, the chlorine gets into the fabric and tends to degrade it over time (which is why if you’ve had a white t-shirt for a long time, there’s a good chance it’ll have a hole in it somewhere. You can use an anti-chlorinating agent (hydrogen peroxide works) afterward, but by the time I found this out, the process had already become more complicated than I thought was worth it. And anyway, bleach isn’t really suitable for synthetics, so even if I managed to lighten up the cotton portion of the yarn (which was around 40%), the nylon and acrylic could turn yellow or crispy. I wasn’t – and probably never will be – in the mood to go experimenting with bleach.

In my searching, I found something called discharge paste, which is basically a gel that you can paint onto fabric to remove dye. It looked promising (especially the precision application part), until further research revealed that even though it wasn’t bleach, it too was not appropriate for synthetics.

Then I realized that – duh – nylon is one of the few synthetic yarns that take food dyes well. If I could find a sock (or DK) yarn that had a high nylon content and no animal fiber, I could use that for my delicate little flower of a friend. A Ravelry search turned up Berroco Comfort, which comes in a range of weights and is 50/50 acrylic and nylon. After some deeper digging, I found a Raveler who had dyed some with food colors, and her yarn and FO were quite vibrant. So I set out to the LYS in search of some. I was pretty sure I’d seen it there (I don’t go to this shop as frequently because it has a much smaller selection of yarn – the shop’s main focus seems to be needlepoint), but they only had some brightly-colored variegated DK. However, next to that they had Plymouth Dreambaby, a fingering-weight blend of 50% acrylic and 50% nylon.

I bought 2 balls and made a swatch to see how the dye would take. To expedite the process, I made the swatch out of double crochet using an N hook. I mixed up some dye and applied it with a large syringe, instead of my usual uneven method of pour-and-squish, and I thought the dye job turned out pretty well. The yellow did get a bit lost even though I made that stripe pretty wide on purpose, but overall I was pleased with the color.

The color was a bit muted – almost pastels, but unsurprising given that half the fiber in the yarn is not receptive to food coloring.

Currently I’m knitting up the swatch to see how the striping comes out.