Color It Up: Dyeing with Food Coloring

As much as I love using hand-dyed and hand-painted yarns, sometimes I want a little more control over how the yarn patterns or stripes. For this project, you dye the already crocheted or knit piece. Food coloring is readily available, nontoxic, and inexpensive. Supplies are common household items, and the dye can be set with steam on a stovetop or in a microwave.

Start Dyeing with Food Coloring


• A squirt of dish soap or wool cleaner

• 8 oz of white vinegar

• Paste food coloring: (5 oz of each color should be enough for 6 headbands):

Blue/Green headband:

Color A: Wilton’s Icing Color Sky Blue

Color B: Wilton’s Icing Color Teal Green

Red/Purple headband:

Color A: Wilton’s Icing Color Red Red

Color B: Wilton’s Icing Color Burgundy

• Water: If your tap water has a high mineral content, you may want to use bottled water.

• Measuring cup and spoon

• Eye droppers or drinking straws: One for each color

• Sportweight mercerized cotton waste yarn (in a light color)

• Cups and bowls: Small cups for dye (shot glasses and teacups work well), a bowl large enough to hold all the finished motifs comfortably for the vinegar soak. Note: Although the dyes are nontoxic, it’s always a good idea to keep your dyeing and cooking equipment separate.

• Plates/baking sheet: For microwaving or steaming to set the dye, heatproof, microwave-safe ceramic plates are easy to use. The dye can be cleaned off, but don’t use your best china if you are concerned about stains. If you will be setting the dye in the oven, a ceramic or Pyrex baking sheet or baking dish large enough to hold all the motifs lying flat works well.

• Cooking pot with steamer basket (if you are steaming to set the dye).

• Plastic wrap and/or newspaper to keep work area clean. Quality counts here—flimsy wrap can melt and stick to your yarn.

• Lightweight protective gloves

• Aprons or old clothing

• Baking soda: A paste of baking soda and water will take the dye off of most dishes and utensils.

• Ball winder and swift: Not required, but will make winding the dyed hanks into skeins easier.

The Yarn

You must use a protein-based yarn for this project. Animal fibers (wool from sheep, alpacas, goats, etc.) and silk are the most common, but you could try milk protein or soy protein yarn. Blends can also be used, with the understanding that the nonprotein fiber will not take the dye as strongly. Different yarns will yield different results—superwash wool, for example, often results in brighter/darker colors. The yarn used for the red/purple headband shown is a regular 100 percent wool from Morehouse Merino, while the green/blue headband is made with a superwash wool. Knit Picks Bare is a good superwash undyed yarn option.

The Colors

For this project, two colors are used for each motif, and the instructions will refer to the colors as A and B, with A being a light shade and B being a darker shade. Each motif will be immersed in one shade (some A, some B), and then handpainted with the opposite shade.

dyeing with food coloring


1. Make motifs; the example shown here uses the Four Corners Headband pattern.

2. Prepare your work area.

3. Wind a hank of yarn for each headband and tie off in at least three places with scrap yarn. Rough estimate: Divide the yarn that remains after crocheting all the motifs for two headbands into two equal skeins.

4. Gently wash the granny squares (and triangles) and hank(s) with cool water and soap. Rinse thoroughly and gently squeeze out water.

5. Set motifs and hank(s) to soak in a bowl with a vinegar solution (1 part vinegar to 4 parts water).

While the yarn is soaking, prepare the dyes:

Now is the time to put on gloves. For each dyebath color (one each for Colors A and B), mix 1⁄2 tsp food coloring and 1⁄4 tsp vinegar with 1 cup water. For each paint-on dye color (one each for Colors A and B), mix 1⁄2 tsp food coloring and 1⁄8 tsp vinegar with 1⁄4 cup water. Place each solution in a separate cup and label them.

dyeing with food coloring

Dye it!

For each headband: Immerse three square motifs in the Color A dyebath. Immerse two square motifs and two triangular motifs in the Color B dyebath. Squeeze out excess dye. The goal is for the motifs to be wet with dye, without a lot of liquid running out of them. Lay out a Color A motif and, with an eyedropper or straw, apply the paint-on strength Color B as desired—along the edges, in the center, etc. The dye will be absorbed and blend with areas outside of where you apply it, so you may want to apply a small amount and then wait to see if you want to apply more. Repeat with all Color A motifs and then with all Color B motifs (using the color A paint-on dye).

When all motifs have been painted, it’s time to paint the hank of yarn. Arrange the damp hank in a dish and, with eyedropper or straw, apply the paint-on strength Color A and Color B dyes. Try to apply the dyes randomly, overlapping them and turning the hank over as needed to get dye all over the hank while still leaving some areas undyed. Pour over enough of dyebath Color B to get about one-third of the hank wet. Pour dyebath Color A over the remaining area. With gloved hand, gently squish the hank around to make sure all of the yarn is wet with dye. It does not need to be sitting in a pool of dye.

Set the Dye

Caution: The motifs and hank will get very hot when steamed or microwaved. They may need several minutes to cool down enough to be handled; use tongs to check progress and run cool water over the motifs and hank in the containers before touching them with your hands.

To set the dye in a steamer: Arrange the motifs in a dish or dishes that will fit in the steamer basket, with the hank in a separate dish. Steam over medium heat for about 30 minutes; check to see if the dye has exhausted by using tongs to lift up a motif or the hank. If clear water runs out of the hank, it’s ready! Depending on how much dye you use, the water may not run completely clear; if after 45 minutes of steaming there is still color in the water, you can assume that it has set. Let the motifs and hank cool until you can handle them easily and rinse with cool water until the water runs clear. Squeeze out gently and lay flat to dry. If you would like to block the motifs, now is a good time to pin them out.

To set the dye in a microwave: In microwave-safe dishes, arrange the motifs and the hank. Cover the dishes with plastic wrap and punch a few small holes in the wrap.

Microwave at low power for about 2 minutes; depending on your microwave, timing will vary. Check to see if the dye has set by lifting a motif or hank with tongs; if clear water runs out, it’s done. Let the motifs and hank cool until you can handle them easily and rinse with cool water until the water runs clear. Squeeze out gently and lay flat to dry. If you would like to block the motifs, now is a good time to pin them out.


Wind the hank into a skein. Use the dyed yarn from this skein to seam the motifs together, following directions in the pattern.

MK Carroll returned to her hometown in Hawaii a few years ago and has been reconciling the words tropical and wool ever since. She blogs at

Learn It, Do It, Make It!


One Comment

  1. Debbie W at 3:01 pm July 18, 2017

    I’m confused the list of items says to use cotton yarn, but the instructions are to use protein based yarn. I don’t think this will work well unless you use a wool yarn.

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