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You are here: Home > All About Hand Dyeing > About Dyes > Dyes for Protein Fibers

How to Dye Wool


Books with recipes for dyeing protein fibers

Shibori: Creating Color and Texture on Silk
by Karren Brito

The Dyer's Companion
by Dagmar Klos

Mixing your own colors with Lanaset dyes

Color in Spinning
by Deb Menz

Twisted Sisters Sock Workbook by Lynne Vogel

Dye protein fibers with acid dyes
Acid Dyes hot fuchsia

Jacquard Acid Dyes

Jacquard Acid Dyes are concentrated, powdered, hot water dyes that produce the most vibrant possible results on protein fibers including silk, wool, cashmere, alpaca, feathers, and most nylons. Don't be alarmed by the name--the only acid involved is the vinegar that you add.

Wool is a fiber made from the hair of sheep. Other animal hair fibers, such as angora, mohair, cashmere, and camel's hair, are in most respects dyed the same as wool. All animal fibers are made of a class of chemicals known as protein.

Proteins are made out of different combinations of the twenty essential amino acids. They are more complex than cellulose, which is made out of repeating units of a sugar, glucose, and thus there are more ways in which different dye chemicals can attach to them. There are, therefore, many more different substances which can be used to dye protein fibers.

All animal hair fibers, such as wool, are sensitive to high pHs. You will understand this intuitively if you have ever tried to wash your hair with a high pH bar soap, instead of the special pH-balanced detergents sold as shampoos! To dye wool, you must avoid the high pH of the soda ash recipes used to dye cotton. Most wool-dyeing recipes call for an acid such as acetic acid, white vinegar (which naturally contains acetic acid), or citric acid.

1. Choose a Dyepot

The best recipes for dyeing wool all require heat, either heating the dyebath to a simmer with the wool in it, or applying the dye directly to the wool and then steaming to set the dye. You will need a dyeing pot. Unless you are going to restrict yourself to using only food coloring to dye your wool, you will need a special pot just for dyeing in, because textile dyes are not considered safe to use in the same pots in which you prepare food.

Dyepot material

Since aluminum will react with all of the acids used as auxiliary chemicals in the dyebaths used to dye wool, you must not choose aluminum for your dyepot, though you can use it for a steamer.

The best choice will be stainless steel, because it resists all dyeing chemicals (though even stainless steel can be damaged by failing to stir the salt into the water after you add it, to dissolve it thoroughly).

Another good choice is enamel. Enamel-covered steel canning pots are relatively inexpensive. Enamel chips easily, but it can be repaired. You must not use a chipped enamel pot, because the steel under the enamel will affect your dye colors, but it is safe to use a heat-resistant waterproof enamel paint to repair chips in your dyepot, although this is something you should not do with pots that you use for cooking food.

Dyepot size

You should be careful to use a sufficiently large pot for your dyeing. For smooth, solid-color dyeing, whatever you dye should be free to move freely in the water in your dyeing pot. If the material is cramped, you will get uneven results, with darker and lighter regions. Unless you will be dyeing only very small quantities at a time, try to get a pot that is at least three gallons in size, or larger for larger items. p>

Canning jars

An excellent way to dye small quantities of yarn or fabric in different colors is to use quart-sized canning jars. This can also get around the requirement for a non-aluminum pot; if you do all of your dyeing in glass jars, it doesn't matter what the outer pot is made of. Use a rack to keep the jars off the bottom of the pot, and fill the pot with water to the same level outside the jars as your small dyebaths are within the jars. Cover the pot and heat it until the waterbath surrounding the jars reaches the desired temperature.

Other equipment

A thermometer is handy for making sure your dyebath is at the desired temperature; buy one that is either glass or stainless steel. Don't use your kitchen thermometers for dyeing, or your dyeing thermometers for cooking. You can buy a thermometer from your dye supplier, a local home brewing supplier (for beer- and wine-making), or a chemical supplies company. It should cover the range from freezing (32°F or 0°C) to boiling (212°F or 100°C).

You will also need measuring cups, spoons, pipettes, or graduated cylinders, long-handled plastic or fiberglass spoons to stir with, jar-lifters for handling quart jars, and probably also some tongs for lifting dyed fiber.

2. Choose your dye

Dyes for Wool and other animal fibers

Acid dyes are the most popular dyes used on wool, and comprise a very wide range of different dyes. Some of the many different available acid dyes include food dyes, Metal Complex (or premetallized) Acid Dyes, Washfast Acid dyes, Acid Leveling dyes, and One Shot dyes. For more information on acid dyes, see About Acid dyes. Fiber reactive dyes such as Procion MX, Cibacron F, and Drimarene K can also be used as acid dyes on wool; see Reactive dyes on protein fibers.

Natural dyes. Many natural dyes work very well on protein fibers, such as wool. Most will require a mordant, such as alum, copper, tin, or iron, so they are not necessarily more on-toxic than synthetic dyes. See the page, About Natural Dyes.

Lanaset dyes. The longest lasting, most wash-resistant, richest of hand dyes available for dyeing wool in the US are the Lanaset dyes. The Lanaset dyes comprise a selection of both acid dyes and fiber reactive dyes that are designed for wool. Unlike other dyes for wool, Lanaset dyes can be washed in hot water without fading badly. They are often difficult to obtain other countries in quantities small enough for hand dyeing.

Vinyl sulfone dyes (vinyl sulphone, if you are British), also known as Remazol dyes, are a type of fiber reacfive dye that is often used in silk painting. Unlike Procion MX dyes, they can be applied to wool under acid conditions as true fiber reactive dyes, rather than as acid dyes; see Vinyl Sulfone Fiber Reactive Dyes. Note that ProChem sells these under the name "Liquid Reactive Dyes", Dharma Trading Company as "Vinyl Sulphon", and other suppliers as "Remazol" dyes.

Vat Dyes, such as indigo, can also be used to dye wool and other protein fibers, but the recipe must be modified to avoid pHs high enough to damage the wool. See About Vat dyes

All purpose dyes can be used to dye protein fibers, because they include an acid dye in their mixture. See All Purpose Dyes. The color might be slightly different than expected, and the expense is higher than with other dyes.

3. Find the Right Instructions

The different types of dyes used on wool are not interchangeable. All require a mild acid, such as vinegar, citric acid, ammonium sulfate, or sodium acetate, but not necessarily in the same quantities, and some require additional chemicals such as salt, Albegal SET, or sodium sulfate (Glauber's salt). Some dyes require a significantly lower (more acidic) pH than others; using a pH that is too low or too high for your specific dye will reduce your success in dyeing. After you choose your dye, find a wool-dyeing recipe that specifies that particular sort of dye.


Your dye supplier should be able to give you good recipes for applying whichever dyes you purchase from them:


A good book will go beyond the instructions offer by the dye manufacturer, including in some cases specific info on color mixing or dye application.

Lanaset Dyes

WashFast Acid Dyes

Strong Acid dyes (Kiton or Cushing)

Multiple types of dye for wool

Shrinkage and Felting

As everyone knows, wool is subject to shrinkage. The only exception to this is chemically-treated wool, such as Superwash or Smartwool. However, the wool fibers do not themselves shrink in length. Instead, when subjected to heat and agitation in the presence of water, the fibers become more and more closely interlocked, with the scales on the fibers acting like the teeth in a ratchet. If you want to prevent felting and shrinkage, you must be careful to avoid agitating your wool while it's in the hot dyebath. With cellulose fibers, you must stir your dyebath frequently to avoid uneven dyeing, but wool dyes and their auxiliary chemicals are chosen to allow level dyeing without stirring the fiber.

Be careful to avoid sudden temperature changes. Raise and lower the temperature of your wool only gradually. You don't want to shock your wool.

When dyeing wool that will be used later for intentional felting, use a washfast dye such as the Lanaset dyes. Less washfast dyes may bleed when felted.

Dyeing other types of wool and animal hairs

All animal hair fibers can be dyed with the same types of dyes. This includes angora, alpaca, cashmere, mohair, and any other mammalian hair or fur that you can think of. Some will not take the color as intensely as others.

Superwash Wool dyes very well. The fibers take up dye better than natural wool does, because the chlorination process damages the outside layer of each fiber, so that dye can more easily access the inside. The remaining scales are stuck down to the fiber with a resin (plastic) coating to prevent felting and shrinkage. Smartwool undergoes a similar treatment, with another chemical substituted for the chlorination step; I have not yet heard whether it is as easily dyed as Superwash wool.

Mohair, the hair of the Angora goat, can be dyed with the same dyes that work on wool. It takes dyes beautifully. It should not be boiled, but must be heated to a high temperature that is below boiling for the dye to take; this temperature should be maintained for at least half an hour or an hour to give the dye plenty of time to bond to the fiber. A good temperature range for dyeing mohair is 145°F to 180°F (63°C to 82°C). Mohair is not prone to felting the way wool is.

Angora is the hair of the angora rabbit. It tends to produce paler colors, for a given quantity of dye, than wool does.

Cashmere takes acid dyes intensely.

Further Reading

For textile students and those interested in the advanced chemistry of dyeing, I recommend Wool Dyeing, by D.M. Lewis, which contains a vast amount of highly technical information. This book is sometimes available in the US at very high prices through used book dealers, but it can be mail-ordered directly from the Society of Dyers and Colourists, in the UK, for £35 plus shipping.

Wilfred Ingamells's Colour for Textiles, a User's Handbook is another technical manual which includes information about acid dyes.


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