Adventures in Dyeing Long Gradients


After learning about Fair Isle knitting techniques, I stumbled upon a type of yarn I’d only heard about and never really seen in stores: long gradient yarn or ombre. This yarn gradually changes from one color to another throughout an entire skein or project. If it’s just one color, it’s probably easier to just dye the final project in a gradient using some manner of dip-dyeing, but some of the really cool projects I was seeing had two gradients intermingling in super beautiful ways.

Gradient with non-gradient background.

Skeins of this style of yarn go $18-25-30+ on Etsy depending on the length, how many colors are included, fiber content, etc. and that is way more than I wanted to spend. Plus, the challenge fascinated me. Doing speckled or short-gradients were interesting, but easy enough. They had a clear approach. Keep yarn in skein it comes in, dip it in the vat bouncing it up and down, slowly drop it in, lay it out and splash different colors in different sections, simple and quick. Too easily replicatable with other commercial yarns that didn’t seem worth the effort of dying it myself. What could I really ONLY do on my own? That seemed to really have room for a bit of style and customized approach? The more I researched options for long gradient yarns, the more I wanted to try it. All of it.


With my academic background, I tend to thoroughly research a topic before I go anywhere. I usually keep a shopping list of the materials needed either explicitly or implicitly, and the case here was no different.

Overview: Yarn/Dye Properties

I looked into dyeing yarn as my next step after tie dyeing clothing — why not use up all these materials? Well, it turns out the MX Fiber Reactive dyes don’t work so well on wool or wool blend yarns, nor other animal fibers. Ugh. Well, okay, what WOULD work? Acid dyes, including, as it turns out, food coloring and Kool Aid. Kool Aid?! Turns out the stuff is so acidic, it doesn’t need a fixative like regular food coloring or other acid dyes either. >.> Really? We eat this stuff?

Well anyway, the basic formula is [acid dye] + [acid fixative] + heat (~180 F or 80 C) = color fast dyed wool or woolen blends. Yes, even acrylic or cotton BLENDS would work so long as there was wool in it (how much I’m not sure). Options for [acid dye] include food coloring, Kool Aid, or commercial acid dyes similar to the fiber reactive dyes. Options for the [acid fixative] is either (white) vinegar or citric acid powder dissolved in water (1/3 cup citric acid + 1 gallon of water makes a pre-made mixture. How much of that mixture do you add in the bath? Well, that depends…). Heat could be applied via stove top immersion, steam, sun (theoretically), or microwave. Everything except the commercial acid dyes are food safe. However, reactions can happen with anything other than a plain stainless steel or UNCHIPPED ceramic/enamel cooking container, so be aware.

Jacquard dyes, on their bottle state the instructions:

  • Add cool/warm water. Turn on the stove.
  • Add dye (depends on color/amount of yarn), mix.
  • Wet yarn/fabric separately, then add to the dyed water.
  • Raise temperature to 180-200F, just below boiling, stirring often.
  • Add 1/4 c vinegar or 1 TBS citric acid powder per lb. of fabric, avoiding the fabric when adding. (Many tutorials suggest separating out hot water, mixing, then adding back in)
  • Maintain temperature for ~30 minutes.
  • Let cool until cold, then rinse.

This general strategy is roughly the same no matter the method. It gives us a ball park for our [acid fixative] amounts per fabric, as well as our dye. Colors that contain mostly yellow require less dye than greens and lighter reds, which require less than blues, which require less than the deepest blacks and reds. In a video I saw on Craftsy, they used…

  1. 1/8 tsp x3 (of blue) for 200g yarn, with 1/2 c citric acid mixture  (see citric acid gallon mix mentioned above)
  2. 1/2 tsp x3 (of deep purples/reds or blacks) for 200g ,with 1-1/2 c citric acid mixture
  3. 1/16 tsp x2 (of yellows) + 1/8 tsp x1 (of pink) for 200g, with 1 c citric acid mixture
  4. 1/2 tsp (of yellow) + 1/4 tsp (of grey (so, black?)) for 200g, with 1 c citric acid mixture
  5. 3/16 tsp (of yellow) + 1/16 (of dark magenta) for 200g, with 1/2 c citric acid mixture

Mini-aside, I’m trying to find a pattern in the ratio of citric acid to dye. If we ignore the colors, we get…

  1. 3/8 tsp + 1/2 c acid mix
  2. 1 1/2 tsp + 1 1/2 c acid mix
  3. 1/4 tsp + 1 c acid mix
  4. 3/4 tsp + 1 c acid mix
  5. 1/4 tsp + 1/2 c acid mix

It’s clear that the amount of acid mix is not proportional alone to just the amount of dye. The highest amount of acid was used when going for the deepest color (and also the highest amount of dye). In the 1 cup range, more dye was added for the deeper color (grey) vs. the full lighter mix of yellows and pinks (which still is a red, and thus needs more help?). In the 1/2 cup range, we see pretty much ONLY pure colors — cyan, yellow, and magenta. I wonder if that’s a fact or coincidence.

Well anyway, the dye here was added at different stages during a full immersion style dye bath, with the acid added in between portions of color. Having too little dye will give you a lighter shade that you could potentially dye again (overdye). Using too much means that the dye will not “exhaust” — that is, after the whole pot has cooled off, the water should be clear or nearly clear. The darker the water is at the end, the more dye is wasted (ie couldn’t be absorbed by the fiber at that temperature/acid/length of time).

Those students paying attention know that wool + heat + AGITATION = felt, so if we’re not using superwash wool (which is usually more expensive than merino or most general purpose wools), BE VERY GENTLE with your wool. Shocking it from hot -> cold or cold -> hot and/or mixing it too vigorously while hot would mean a big fat waste of yarn and time. In these experiments, I was not using superwash wool and did not have trouble with felting, but every guide out there will/should mention this.


Our goal is to apply strong dye to one end of the yarn and weak dye to the other end. There are a few approaches to do this:

  1. The Ball (+ food coloring). You wrap a loose ball of yarn (no a hank, cake, skein… we want an old fashioned sphere) and soak it a long time before-hand to make sure the ball is as wet on the inside as possible. Unlike tie-dye, where water acts as a resist, water is necessary to help mix with the fixative and dye. You then add the yarn as you would in the Jacquard method above. The idea is that the dye has a harder and harder time penetrating into the ball, so it necessarily gets less dye the further in the ball you go.
    2016-06-12 13.08.22
  2. Small Skeins. Instead of leaving the yarn wrapped in one large skein, I aimed to separate it into a lot of tiny ones with each still connected to each other. I had seen this method tried as ~5-10 skeins in cups side-by-side, but I worried that wouldn’t be good enough. I aimed to drop each one into the pot after the water had heated, and basically shut off the water after I added the last one. I had not seen this method attempted anywhere, and I worried there would be too much tangling, or that there was something else fundamentally wrong with it. The idea was two-fold: yarn inserted first would soak up more dye AND give more time/temperature to set the color. Yarn added at the end would have nothing left but a little dye (in near-clear water) and very little heat (although still a shock at 180 F).
    2016-06-13 21.27.46
  3. Painterly. I got the idea from Dharma’s tutorial on a painted gradient. You pre-soak the yarn in the vinegar/citric acid solution quite thoroughly, then squeeze it out and lay it out on plastic wrap on a table. You approach this method similar to tie-dye, where the fixative is present on the material, and you apply the dye very surgically using squeeze bottles. You manually mix the dye — full strength to super weak — and squirt each step of weaker color until you reach the desired effect. You then wrap the dye-soaked yarn in the plastic wrap and heat it — the tutorial shows doing it in a steamer, but other kool aid tutorials show it being done in a very similar method in the microwave. On the steamer, you steam it for 45 min – 1 hour (again, making sure the whole thing is heated up to the hot temperature for ~30 minutes like the standard tutorial to set the dye), then let it cool down without touching it until cold. Microwave tutorials, which I did not experiment with, describe zapping it for short bursts over and over.
    2016-06-10 22.59.362016-06-14 17.21.15 2016-06-14 17.32.24

My Experiments

After some research on what dyers enjoy dying, I picked up 8 skeins of <100g worsted alpaca and wool> (to get the 20% discount). It’s super soft and nice!

Method 1: Ball

I followed <this> tutorial as the one that had a proper gradient and was fairly thorough in how it handled the whole process (ball fit in the pot, it wasn’t done on a knitted blank or in multiple pieces, etc). I tried this tutorial with 3 balls, 1 with Kool Aid (and some food coloring because I didn’t buy enough packages nor in the colors I thought), the other with different food coloring colors/companies/mixes. In all cases:

  1. I wrapped the balls LOOSELY the first time. I’ve had years of experience wrapping balls to make sure they held their shape while being very loose. I’d say I used minimal force without the loops just falling off the ball as I wound it.
  2. I pre-soaked the balls in a vinegar mixture (3 parts water to 1 part vinegar, found on some website I can’t find) rather than in plain water (it works for method #3, right? Why not here?).
  3. I mixed the dye right into the cold pot in one ball (the fuchsia color) which was a mistake. Mix the dye in a small amount of hot tap water (from the faucet is fine) with a wisk before mixing it into the pot. I was using a semi-solid gel (Americolor for most of these) and it needed help dissolving.
  4. I squeezed the ball gently so it wasn’t dripping, then added it to the pot
  5. I added ~1 cup – 3TBS of vinegar (I wasn’t measuring, my bad) to the pot — NOT hitting the yarn with it. I stirred everything around.
  6. I put the heat on LOW, as low as my stove could, and let it sit, stirring occasionally.
  7. I let it soak at least 30 min after it hit max temperature, sometimes longer. I sometimes added a bit more vinegar. The water was a lot more translucent.
  8. After being satisfied it had soaked up enough (sometimes leaving it there for a few hours), I turned off the heat.
  9. Keep stirring as it cools to cold.
  10. Rinse the ball…
  11. For TWO-way gradient, I wrapped the ball again in reverse and repeated steps 2-10 before doing a proper wash/rinse/dry

I tried it with 3 balls:
1. Wrap 1: Americolor Fuchsia, surprisingly dark! I may have added a drop or two of pink too. Wrap 2: Americolor Violet. BEAUTIFUL color!
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!!!! BAD !!!!
Something with this skein went wrong, particularly the pink. I’m not sure if it not mixing the dye well enough, or I didn’t have enough vinegar, or I did something else wrong with the bath (temperature?)… It was my first ball bath and my least documented. But as you can see in the following pictures, especially the first, the sun (while drying the yarn) bleached off the pink color where it was exposed directly. That is, the yarn was NOT colorfast! I was super bummed to find this out, because this ball had the most gorgeous colors… like roses and cotton candy and galaxies. *sigh* On more looks, it’s pretty clear that the red in the violet also washed out completely (and left a beautiful dark blue). Buh?
~~ After more research, I am betting what happened is the red (pink, fuchsia, etc.) crocked. If you add too much acid to red dyes, they sometimes fail to bond. Either that, or this particular food dye color is just not very colorfast.

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2. Wrap 1: Americolor Jet Black. Split beautifully into pinks and blues. Wrap 2: Lorann Yellow (looked potentially darker than Americolor lemon yellow, that’s why I tried it). Note, color testing websites have said that Americolor black is the blackest black of all food coloring approaches. I’m glad I dyed it first to see its full splitting potential.
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3. Wrap 1: 2 packets Cherry Kool Aid. Too light, added a squirt of RED McCormick. That red was beautifully pure and penetrated all the way down to the other end. Wrap 2: 3 packets Fruit Punch Kool Aid. FUCK, TOO RED! I thought it’d be blue! Add Americolor sky blue, trying for a purple? FUCK! Red != fuchsia, so it turned into a dirt reddish brown. Come on, April, you know your color wheel! Added squirts of Americolor pink to turn it more toward a wine burgundy color.
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Pros: Minimal planning/dishes/prep. Can get a variety of outcomes with tightness of ball wrapping, including a whole gradient across the 100g balls I was doing.
Cons: To avoid speckling on the second wrap, you *have* to let the yarn dry. Also wrapping balls sucks. The dye potentially takes a long time to set because you want to let it penetrate the ball as far as it can.
What I would change/try next: Drying before the second wrap to see if I can get speckling on command. Sugar-free Kool Aid (also make sure to check its color and buy enough).
My color names don’t match up all that great, but DyeYourYarn does a whole lot of color tests and mixes for nearly every brand of food color.

Method 2: Small Skeins

I was flying a little blind here, but I was confident that I could make a really smooth gradient.

  1. I tied small mini-skeins, 24 of them in fact!
  2. Pre-soaked the skeins because everything else was soaked too. Can’t… hurt?
  3. Heated a pot of water to near-boiling (180+ F) and mixed in 1/2 TSP of Jacquard Turqoise, first in a small cup (with the hot water), then into the big pot.
  4. Added 3 healthy splashes of vinegar (3 TBSP at least) and mixed it in
  5. Squeeze out 1 mini-skein at a time and toss it in the pot, starting at one end. Set a timer for 2 minutes.
  6. While waiting during the 2 minutes, fish out the next skein and line it up. At the end of 2 minutes, put in the next skein in line and reset the timer.
  7. Repeat step 6 until putting in the last skein. Turn off the heat.
  8. Leave to cool completely.
  9. Rinse, squeeze, skein up, wash, rinse, dry.

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Pros: GREAT solid gradient with pretty good contrast (other than the con splotches, operator error).  Not too much start-up (faster than a ball? to tie the mini skeins).
Cons: Too-tight/thick skeins got inconsistent bald spots. Because the commercial dye is so solid/consistent, these splotches make the ball unfit for selling, really. A bit of tangling in between skeins if you’re not careful.
What I would change/try next: LOOSE ties on the skeins! A little less dye. More waiting between skeins (3 minutes?) for a deeper gradient. Try food coloring instead of commercial dye — hide splotches? Intentional splotching? Red dyes would probably work better, as they strike fast and bond quickly — this means less active dye for the later mini skeins.

Method 3: Painterly

Like I said, I was roughly following  Dharma’s tutorial on a painted gradient. I didn’t have the tutorial open, though, so I made some mistakes. o.<

  1. Wrap a short-diameter skein and section off with the figure-8 tie method. (See the following first picture)
  2. Soak in the vinegar/acid solution. You MUST soak this like you would tie-dye because the die won’t necessarily have any vinegar mixed in, nor will it be swimming in a vat of the stuff. Most people suggest soaking overnight, but not much longer (silk can apparently rot… ew.)
  3. Set up a dyeing area with easy access to water, vinegar solution (if you’re paranoid the soaking was not enough), dye solution, all the measuring instruments and such that you need, as well as gloves (we are working with non-exhausted dye!) and a squirt bottle. I also had a little plastic syringe to gather up small quantities of fluid easily.
  4. Lay out a layer of plastic wrap with plenty of wiggle room. I did 3 overlapping sheets
  5. Lay out the gently squeezed, pre-soaked yarn roughly in wrap order. (I didn’t do as good on the wraps as I hoped, so this part was not as aligned as I intended.)
  6. Mix about 1.5-2 cups of dye. I only used 1 cup on the first pass, but having left over dye helped me get the gradient just how I wanted it. You want 1/2 tsp of the powder, maybe less, same as the last approach
  7. Apply straight dye to one end of the yarn, about an inch wide, in a vertical strip along the direction is was wound (follow the pictures if that’s confusing)
  8. Add a bit more dye, then a bit more clear fluid (either vinegar solution or water. I used vinegar solution for the darker half and water for the lighter half to purposefully try to bond less dye to the lighter side. I don’t know if it helped… continue reading).
  9. Keep adding dye and water to the squeeze bottle, always more water in comparison. Theoretically at the end you’ll have no dye.
    I had all these fancy cup -> mL measurements and ratios for how much dye I mixed up… then I found my syringes had no measurement markers on them. So I did it very roughly. My first pass was much darker than I intended (my lightest blue was still quite dark), so I added more higher-strength dye to the dark side. I think I did a really nice job! (see pictures). Use your fingers to press down on the yarn and make sure any layers are fully soaked.
  10. Once your gradient is as you like it, fold in the sides of the plastic, then fold along the gradient into a flat, manageable cake.
    Here, I made two big mistakes. One, I ROLLED the design, which squished and flowed all the excess dye down my gradient and ruined the vertical partitions I had along the loops. In the tutorial, the images clearly show FOLDING. Two, I did it DARK-> LIGHT which did irreversible mixing. More dye to the dark side wouldn’t have mattered, but I noticed as I rolled the roll, the excess dark dye flooded into the lighter side and merged, making the gradient indistinguishable.
  11. Get a pot with boiling water ready for steaming, put in your plastic-wrapped yarn, and steam for 45-60 minutes. We want that 30 minutes of hot temperature all throughout. Don’t worry, the plastic will get sticky and stiff, but it’s harmless.
  12. Unwrap, wash, rinse, and dry as usual

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!!!! BAD !!!!
I apparently didn’t set the dye well enough with 45 minutes. I would aim for 60 minutes, especially if you’re doing ROLL rather than a FOLD. The problem may have been caused by steaming time, the dark being in the middle, using non-vinegar solution with the dye/gradient at all was bad… but there was slight bleaching of color again where sun hit the most directly on the clothesline where I’ve been drying the yarn. Ugh!

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Pros: High level of control in dye placement, if you set up everything well and don’t bleed colors like I did. Gradients of many colors would be much easier. A lot less wrapping and re-wrapping: setup for the yarn itself was really quick and I didn’t have to re-skein prior to washing/drying.
Cons: Hard to measure the internal temperature of the wrap for sure dye setting. A LOT of extra dishes/time setting up the dye station, cleaning all the tools, and the extra steamer pieces on non-food-safe dye. Can only really do one skein at a time on the table/per wrap.
What I would change/try next: Fold/wrap with plastic properly, siphoning extra dye away with towels if you have to prior to wrapping and steaming. Start with a clear solution and gradually add the dye instead of trying to dilute the dye towards lightness; it’s easier to make it darker rather than take dye away. Use acid fixative solution to mix the dye, dilute the dye, and for pre-soaking to make sure colors really stick. Maybe use the mini-skein approach from the last version instead of trying to eyeball the figure-8 wrap (which ended up unwrapping, I think I’m tying it wrong >.> <.<).

Conclusions & General Lessons

  • The ball method adds interesting resists, letting mixed colors bleed out beautifully. It really lends itself to two dyes, especially if you dry the yarn in between. I’m not sure how you would consistently reproduce those kinds of resists in any other way other than maybe purposefully tight mini-skeins.
  • The mini-skein method offers the cleanest, purest gradient with minimal chances for mistakes other than tying the mini-skeins too tightly.
  • The painterly approach has a lot of potential, especially for handling many gradients at once or doing other interesting effects, but also has many potential pitfalls that I fell into.
  • The primary colors, in general, need less acid. The less pure, the more acid (deep purples/blacks need the most).  Don’t use too much acid for reds.
  • Red color hits hard and fast, while blue needs time (and often lower temperatures). Do not skip the cool-down or heat-up phases, especially for blues. One website suggested letting yarn sit for a long time in non-vinegar dye with blue in it, to let it soak in, before adding vinegar/heat.
  • Long gradients should use less dye than pure-color counterparts — something I failed to account for in the last two methods, and thus I had a lot more unused dye.

If you have any questions, approaches you’d like me to try, or commissions for particular colors/styles/weights/fiber content, please let me know! I have been doing a lot of research on sources for various types of yarn as well for further experiments.


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