The Magic of Breaking Black

Note: These breaking black technique require the original formula of Wilton black. The jar should have: blue1, red3 and yellow5 and yellow6.

Wilton's new formula has replaced the red3 with red40. This formula will not produce the same effects.

The Holy Grail of food color dyeing is breaking black.

Perhaps it was one of our cave dwelling icing making ancestors who discovered that, if she added vinegar, the pretty black split into a nasty green and red puddle.

Disgusting on a Birthday Cake.... but really cool on yarn.

Thus the years passed and Medieval folk passed on the magic of breaking black.
Alas, sometimes the black went brown, or left a red crust on the yarn, or the green wouldn't bond.

And never could the dyer be sure what the finished product would turn out like. It was just drop the yarn in the pot and hope for the best.

Then, with the advent of modern technology, I discovered the first way to make stripey broken black.

OK... technology had nothing to do with it.... testing a dozen slightly different techniques of breaking black on half a hank of Lion Brand Fishermen's wool was really what happened.

Some techniques were too hard, some made muddy colors, some were "yah, so what". So I tossed those ideas.

And now I'd like to share the first of three techniques that are easy and reliably reproducible.

breaking black Wilton


The video is a quick overview of the process. Step-by-step directions are just below it. (For best viewing results - Crank the Volume!)





Breaking Black Method 1
Start with Dry Yarn. Heat in Microwave.

Result: almost stripes with areas of the base-yarn showing through.

In a nutshell.
Starting with a dry wool hank, add a few dots of original formula Wilton Black in the gel form. Pour tiny amounts of vinegar on the dots and allow the colors to break and wick.

  1. Spread the dry hank in a microwave-safe bowl.
    I'm using .2 oz of Lion Fishermen's Wool. The hank has been tied in two places to prevent tangles.
  2. Dab a few dots of black gel on the yarn.
    You can use a toothpick for small dots. If you use a Q-tip, remember a bit of gel goes a long way. You don't need to reload the Q-tip for each dot.

    My hank laid on a ruler is 20 inches around and I made just 4 dots. The color can wick up to 4 inches, so if you put too much gel on the yarn, none of the base yarn color will show.
  3. Dribble a small amount of vinegar directly on the black gel.
    I use 1/8 teaspoon straight vinegar per dot to start with. You want enough to wick the colors without saturating the hank and making the colors muddy.
  4. Set the hank aside, to allow the breaking black to wick along the hank. Depending on the kind of yarn this may take a while. Try leaving the hank for half an hour.
    You may have to add more vinegar and press the yarn into it.

    When you are pleased with the pattern, it is time to set the dye.
    All of the yarn should be damp. If not add a tiny bit of water on the dry spots right before microwaving.
  5. Cover the bowl with clear wrap, a lid or plate.
    Don't heat small hanks for long or your yarn will dry or scorch.
  6. Turn the microwave on for 30 seconds.
    Check the liquid around the yarn to see if it's still colored or if it has turned clear. If it's clear, your food color has set and you can rinse the hank and allow it to dry.
  7. If the liquid is still colored put the yarn aside for 5 minutes and see if it has cleared while cooling.
  8. Repeat heating for 30 seconds and cooling for 5 minutes until the liquid is clear. (adding a tiny bit of water if needed).
  9. Rinse the hank and dry it.

Why is black food color so hard to work with?

Because, there is no "black" food color.

Every brand is a blend of colors that appears black.

And each of the colors behaves differently when you dye with it.

They bond to the yarn at different rates.
They need different amounts of acid (vinegar) to set.
They need a different amount of exposure to heat to set.
They need a different amount of time to respond to the acid and heat.

Oh, and it makes a difference how much water you use.

Besides that, it's no problem.

Original formula Wilton Black is blue1, red3 and yellow5 and yellow6.
These colors will split during the dyeing process into a purple-red and a teal green.

When a dyer manipulates the amount of vinegar or when the vinegar is used to maximize the black splitting, this is called "breaking".

A dyer can also alter the amount of water in the dyebath.

A small amount of water will keep the red and green localized.

An immersion bath will cause the green to overdye much of the red to make more of a wine color.


A bit about blue1 and red3.

Both are called food dyes but the chemical molecules are so unalike that we are in "apples to oranges" territory.

They need a different amount of acid to bond.

They need a different amount of time to bond.

Red bonds with less acid than blue.

On hanks soaked in a vinegar/water, you can sometimes see the red breaking out of the black and starting to stick on the wool before the hanks are even heated.

As the color wicks along the yarn, you can see the green (which is mostly blue food color) continue to move on.

To make the blue stick more acid is needed.

Here is the dilemma.
The more acid you add, the greater chance of "crocking".

Crocking is when the red becomes a solid (which is bad).
The solid red isn't really bonded. It's just siting on the surface of the yarn, waiting to come off on your hands and needles.

Another sign that you are adding too much acid is if the red is sticking to the pan rather than to the yarn.

The other difference between red and blue food color is how long it takes to bond.

As an example, red can bond in two minutes.

The blue may take hours.

Breaking black isn't as easy as Kool-Aid dyeing (because Kool-Aid doesn't need additional acid). And it isn't as fast as dyeing with Wilton's yellows... but it's entertaining and worth the extra effort.

See The Gallery of Dyers' Yarn Photos Go from Breaking Black to Dye Your Yarn home page.

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