Fabric + Food Dye

The artificial food dyes one can buy in supermarkets etc, will easily and cheaply dye protein fibres. So this is a technique for wool, silk etc. Not cotton, linen* or synthetics. I’ve been playing with this since mid last year. I’ve been having great fun with it and quite a bit of utility too. I keep saying I’ll write up the basic technique, and I’ve just done another couple of pieces today, so here goes….

I had seen lots of references to dyeing wool fibre and yarn with food dyes, but I wanted to have a go on woven fabrics. This website has lots of information and recipes. I felt I had to read a lot of it to get any sort of summary though.

Materials needed:
food dye
protein fibre fabric (or yarn, or fleece, or finished garment)
gloves, because your skin is made of protein too

How much of each depends on what you are dyeing and how deep you want the colour and whether even colour coverage is desired.

Water: Use enough volume to allow your item to move freely in the water. Using too little volume will result in tie dye type effects (alternatively, you can do this deliberately)

Acid: I use vinegar. The cheap cleaning vinegar. I’ve never measured it, just slosh some in. It’s one of the things you can add a bit more of if the dye isn’t taking too well.

Food dye: I use Queens mostly because it’s stocked by my local supermarkets. I’ve also used the little drop bottles from McCormick. They work the same but the McCormick seems more concentrated. Again, use as much as you think you need. For 1.5m of wool suiting I used a whole bottle of Queens. Well half a bottle of red, followed by half a bottle of pink because it wasn’t dark enough and I’d run out of red. For smaller items, measure in drops (more useful for the McCormick stronger dyes), teaspoons or sloshes. The outcomes are always a bit random but with practice one gets better at predicting what will happen.


Heat: The website linked above says one needs to get the solution to 82degrees celcius for the dyeing to work. I’ve found the dyes are not all equal in this. Green and red are taken up more quickly and will start to be taken up at lower temperatures. Blue and yellow need the heat and more time to work. That variable speed of dyeing can be problematic if you are not planning for it but can give some interesting effects and can be used deliberately for ombre dyeing etc.

Tips to help get an even colour: -use plenty of water so your item can move in the dyepot and not be crushed up. Squashed fabric will resist the dye.
-pre wash your item. Dirt can either take the dye better than clean fabric, or prevent the dye from taking. Fabric finishings can change dye uptake too.
-have your item well wetted with vinegared water before putting it in the dyepot (put a little vinegar in the rinse of the prewash, or use the dyepot before the dye goes in. If the latter, take it out again before you put the dye in). The vinegar works as a mordant, makes the dye stick better to the fibres.
-try to ensure your item doesn’t have fuzzy bits, they will take the dye faster than tightly spun/woven/knitted sections
-mix the dye and vinegar in the cool to warmish water, then add your item, stir gently, then heat while gently stirring.
-then I let the item cool at least so it is comfy to handle, rinse in water of a similar temp to the item**, squeeze or spin, then hang to dry.

Small items I do in a stainless steel cooking pot on the stove top.

Larger items I do in a big plastic trug. Hottest tap water to start, then pour of part of the solution and heat on the stove if you feel the need, then return the heated liquid to the trug. Don’t pour really hot liquid into an empty plastic vessel though, make sure you have some cooler liquid in the trug. The trug technique works better for green and red than yellow or blue, the latter tend to need more heat. That pair of retro wooden laundry tongs below is marvellous. It belonged to my grandfather and I use it all the time. Amongst other things it helps me avoid sticking cooking spoons into dye pots.


It’s better not to put dye down the drain, so if my item doesn’t exhaust the dye fully***, I put a length of silk (I have ridiculous amounts of white silk I’ve bought cheaply) or a ball of knitting wool in the pot to take up the last of the dye. Or if you don’t have any spare bits and pieces to take up residual dye, be more careful not to use too much. Start with only a little and add more if you need. Take your item out of the dye pot before you add more dye though. Remember the colour will be paler when dry.

There are lots more variations one can try, or experiment with. Many are documented in the link above. Feel free to play with it. I’ve still got a few ideas for strange things to try.

Here are some examples of pieces of beige wool I have overdyed, starting with the newly dry pink from the dyebath above:


And some of the silk I have used to fully exhaust the dye. These were both white to start.


Of course one can over dye coloured items too. This is blue dye over a purple silk twill base.


*an exception found with a friend is that Queen red dye will turn linen a nice coral pink. None of the other colours take on linen. I haven’t done experiments with cotton, but I doubt that would be much different.

** to avoid thermally shocking the fibre. I usually don’t want to shrink the wool. Silk doesn’t shrink like wool, but also prefers to be treated delicately. Both like to have just a little vinegar in the final rinse.

***for example if I’m impatient, or can’t get enough heat, or don’t want the first item any darker. It’s pretty amazing to watch the dye be scavenged away to leave clear water.



5 thoughts on “Fabric + Food Dye

  1. Thank you for writing this up! I’ve been wanting the details for a while, really hoping that you might have something for cottons. Maybe with a cream of Tartar mordant phase? I might have to experiment. I have a red shirt that I simply hate the colour and is begging to be over dyed. 😀


    1. Glad you like it. I too really wish it worked on cotton. If I find anything on that I’ll share. For cellulose fibres I use commercial dyes, which sort of work but are expensive and don’t tend to be very colour fast

      Liked by 1 person

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