Yet Another Addictive Aspect of Rug Hooking

My first wools, a selection of solid primitive colors, finished and stacked..
As Jen and I have made perfectly clear, we are newer to this art form than many of our readers, and as such we have only just dipped in to (pun intended!) hand dyeing our own hooking wools. But now that we have, we're hooked! Ok, more puns this post, I promise.

I thought for those of you who have not yet tried this, I would use this post to explain the basic process, but more importantly, to allay any and all fear or anxiety you may have about trying it. I was very nervous - I thought there had to be some magic involved or some skill I could not possibly possess, but just as my hooking teacher had promised, it really IS easy!

I began by going to a local wool supplier we are fortunate to have in my area of Maine, the Oxford Mill End Store, and choosing three different yards of a neutral solid wool. I thought that if I began with a light neutral solid, it would give me an idea of how the wool takes the dye and I could move on to colored and textured wool from there. Actually, I bought six yards and sent three down to Jen, so we could simultaneously experiment. I owed her money for setting up our web hosting and domain name, so it worked out great. Our business accounting is so precise...

The next thing we did was order dyes from W. Cushing Company in Kennebunkport, Maine. This company has been making fabric dyes since 1879 and I would encourage you to surf around their site - it's most enjoyable and informative. I also purchased a dye recipe book to get started with, although I am now chafing at the bit to try some recipes of my own. Additionally I ordered a set of tiny measuring spoons from Amazon with which to measure the powdered dyes.

Perhaps the needed item that most eluded us was the white enamel dyeing pot. W. Cushing does carry them, but they are understandably expensive. Jen's husband was able to find an old one at a vintage shop, and I had one that was, at the time, serving as a drain pot for one of my mother-in-law's plants. In both of our cases, our husbands sprayed the interior of the chipped old pots with a white enamel paint and - yay! - both worked just fine. The reason the white interiors are so helpful is that white allows you to see how much of the dye is being absorbed, the color of your wool as it develops, and when the water has cleared at the end of the process. Still, I know people do use stainless pots and I do believe that would work fine as well. I had my wool, my dyes, and my equipment. What I didn't have was any excuses not to try the process. Step one is soaking the wool in a bath of warm water with just a little bit of dish soap. I used Palmolive, but my instruction book called for Ivory. It made no difference. Here is my wool happily luxuriating in the tub. All it needs is a glass of wine and a good book.

I cut the wool in to quarters and soaked it overnight, per the directions in my book. Jen found instructions requiring only a two hour soak.

When the wool was finished soaking, I rinsed it thoroughly in room temperature water and took it downstairs to the kitchen. I put the white enamel pot full of water and one added tablespoon of NON-iodized salt on to the stove to heat while I prepared the dye mixes. Here is my color chart/recipe book and my assortment of Cushing dyes:

You'll notice that the instruction book is highlighted. It's a simple process but I have a simple mind, so I found the highlighting helpful. The dyes are easily measured according to recipe combinations and dissolved in boiling water, in the case of these recipes, one cup of boiling water (in a glass measuring cup). My instruction book suggested using rubber gloves when handling the dyes; I think this is a good idea but would prefer surgical type gloves to dish washing gloves because the little packages do require a good sense of touch to handle. My book also suggests heavier rubber gloves to handle the hot wool when you remove it from the dye pot, but I did not find this necessary. I'll explain why when we get there.

Once you have your dye mixed with the boiling water, add the amount in your color recipe to your dye pot. You do not, by the way, have to measure the clear water in the dye pot. This confused me at first but I went on faith and sure enough, however much water I had in the dye pot was fine. You do, though, have to have enough to cover the wool. I opted to dye a half a yard at a time, or two quarters. This was the recommended amount of wool per recipe in my book. You may find instructions that vary. In some cases the recipe called for adding the entire cup of liquid dye to the pot. In other cases it was only 1/2 or 1/4 cup. In those instances, I saved the excess dye in jars for another time and just labeled the lids with the recipe numbers:

(Those cool bottles with the small lids, by the way, are from the Pennsylvania Amish country. We bought home made root beer in them on a vacation a few years ago from an Amish family. It was pleasantly fermented.) where am I? I've got the dye in the white pot with the simmering water and the tablespoon of non-iodized salt. Time to add the wool! This is where I took a deep breath and hoped for the best.

I needn't have worried. My instruction book called for simmering the wool in the dye bath from 20 to 35 minutes, but you can experiment and judge your own times. Additionally, if you stagger the times that different pieces are in the dye, you will get various shades of the same color. Jen did this with her wools and here is one of her lovely results:

I wasn't as brave. I kept it simple and dyed all of the batches the same amount of time. When you are ready for the dyeing to stop, you add some white vinegar to the pot. (For those of you who did your own photo developing back in the day, this is akin to "stop bath." Remember that? It was essentially acetic acid after all.) The amount you add is really not set in stone. I've seen it as 1/2 cup. I've seen it as "three glugs from the bottle." You'll know when it's enough because the water will literally clear and the dye will be fixed in the wool; dyed in the wool, so to speak. Simmer the wool for about 20 minutes after adding the vinegar and then it will be time to remove it from the pot.

Here's where I improvised - successfully. I took tongs and pulled my wool pieces out of the pot and on to a stainless cookie sheet to cool to room temperature:

The water that drips from the wool at this point is perfectly clear. Do not rinse the wool in cool water at this point! If you were to do that the wool could very well "felt" and become too thick and dense for hooking. I allowed it to cool to room temp on the cookie sheet and then rinsed it with room temperature water. After that, I just threw it in the dryer on medium heat with a towel and when it dried, it looked like this:

Notice the blue & grayish wools in the top row. They were actually done in the very same dye bath, but as I said, I had three different wools I was working with and they took the dye completely differently in that recipe. I was actually quite happy to have such a varied result - that was a good learning experience.

So this weekend I'm going to try a textured wool. I went over and got this piece:

This is a single yard. I am going to overdye 1/4 of it black for use as a backing on some 8"x8" trivets I am hooking. The other quarters I am going to use for color overdye experiments. This wool is a-soaking as we speak.

Here are Jen's other shaded wool results:

All of our finished hand dyed wools are available for purchase on our web site. We will be adding more as time goes by, plus it occurred to me to haunt the used clothing shops for old wool items no longer suitable for wear. One studio I visited in Nova Scotia last summer was offering old Pendleton shirts and skirts for cutting in to hooking wool.

Please share your wool dyeing methods and experiences with us! We'd love to see your results and find out how your methods may differ from ours. Jen's method was different from mine. There seem to be - within certain solid guidelines - several ways to approach hand dyeing. So, if you haven't done it before, give it a try!

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